Eight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

Eight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

4.6 8
by George Vecsey

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On the eve of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey gives us a personal view of the last eight World Cups

As Americans increasingly embrace soccer, one of the country’s most respected sports columnists has been covering the world’s signature tournament for three decades. In Eight World Cups

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On the eve of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey gives us a personal view of the last eight World Cups

As Americans increasingly embrace soccer, one of the country’s most respected sports columnists has been covering the world’s signature tournament for three decades. In Eight World Cups George Vecsey of The New York Times pulls back the curtain on the beautiful game.

Blending witty travelogue with action on the field—and shady dealings in the back rooms—Vecsey offers an eye-opening, globetrotting account of the last eight World Cups, chronicling the United States team’s slow, episodic rise while evidence of corruption grows in the sport’s executive suites. Vecsey immerses himself in the great national leagues, historic clubs, devoted fans, and passionate rivalries and gives us his up-close impressions of charismatic stars like Sócrates, Maradona, Baggio, Zidane, and Klinsmann—plus Mia Hamm and the American champions of 1999.

From his first exposure to the all-night street parties in Barcelona during the 1982 World Cup, Vecsey describes proud nations during their turns as hosts, right up to the roar of vuvuzelas in South Africa in 2010. He discovers that the game in the stadium is backed up by the game in the street, but the joy is sometimes undermined by those who style themselves its protectors, many of them eventually disgraced.

With his characteristic sharp reporting and eye for detail, Vecsey brings this global event to vivid life, a perfect companion for fans in time for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
One man's perspective on more than three decades of international soccer. New York Times columnist Vecsey (Stan Musial: An American Life, 2011, etc.) was among the earliest major sports journalists in the United States to embrace wholeheartedly the world's most beloved game. "Maybe because I discovered soccer relatively late in life, I saw it with fresh eyes, a fresh heart," he writes. "I loved the difficulty of it, the kaleidoscopic surprises, with a growing appreciation for the history and the strategy." He experienced his first World Cup in Spain in 1982 and has attended the global showcase every four years ever since, as well as witnessing the emergence of the women's World Cup as a significant sporting event. Here, the author serves as an idiosyncratic tour guide through the recent history of the beautiful game and the politics surrounding it. His periodization, if solipsistic and occasionally self-indulgent, is also apt, as it begins when the United States was a true backwater in the sport and ends as the Americans have established a presence as a solid second-tier power (this is not an insult) on the world's stage. Vecsey's tone is conversational, which usually works but may at times prove grating for some readers. His intended audience is the increasingly sophisticated and educated American soccer supporter and may well not resonate outside of the U.S. The author also admirably engages with the rise of the women's game, though by the end of the book, he seems to have forgotten about the distaff side. Vecsey also confronts some of the seamier aspects of the politics of soccer's global governing bodies and some of its more corrupt leaders. Timed to appear before the 2014 tournament in Brazil, the book provides a readable personal story and a history of America's coming-of-age on the pitch.
The New York Times

George Vecsey … writes eloquently and passionately about the sport on a journey from Spain in 1982 to South Africa in 2010.
The Boston Globe

Full of humor and insight about sport and culture… Vecsey had me on page 202 of his new book when he characterized Cristiano Ronaldo as 'the most annoying great player in captivity.' Nah, he had me well before that… The pomp, glory, and great entertainment all get their due in Eight World Cups.
Florida Times-Union

No one has ever described sports better than Vecsey and he describes soccer...better than any other sport. Every run to the goal, every great defensive stop, is discussed in this book by details that will remind readers of such descriptive writers as Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and John Updike… You don't find writing like this these days in novels and poetry, much less sportswriting. Vecsey's book is a masterpiece.
The Christian Science Monitor

Vecsey proves himself a comfortable Cup companion…A few days reading Vecsey and life on the pitch becomes a beautiful (and understandable) game.
The Daily Herald (Chicago)

A witty, inviting companion/introduction to the joys of soccer on the world stage…Throughout, Vecsey's narrative is full of fun and gentle wisdom. There are few things greater than great sports writing, as Vecsey proves in these fine pages.

George Vecsey's stories on the eight World Cups that he has covered is perhaps the best book written on the subject by an American author. Vecsey's stories of the various actors in the game, from the players on the field to the faceless bureaucrats of FIFA, comes with a certain freshness.

I can't think of a better gateway to the World Cup for non-fans, as well as for obsessives, than George Vecsey's Eight World Cups.… Vecsey's always had just the right touch when it comes to writing about anything, soccer in particular, and this is a treat for all.

Action-packed reportage…one of soccer's earliest advocates in this country, Vecsey writes with expertise and flair about the otherworldly plays, volatile personalities and sticky politics that make the game so fascinating.… Vecsey's delight in soccer culture is palpable, and he makes his audience--even the reader who isn't smitten with the sport--care, too.
The Soccer Translator

Five Stars … Vescey has written a book that provides detailed World Cup history with an American flavor. It will make a great addition to your sports library and the perfect reference for the upcoming World Cup … Brilliant.
The International Soccer Network

George Vecsey gets it … [He] provides a freshness that many other titles are lacking, something that both casual and hardcore fans would enjoy … Consumers will certainly have a lot to choose from this summer when it comes to titles related to the World Cup, but Eight World Cups …has to be #1 on everyone's list. Everyone will get something out of this one.

An exceedingly enjoyable blend of travelogue, sports writing, and social analysis…with infectious enthusiasm that makes clear the game's appeal…. Eight World Cups makes a wonderful background to the World Cup kicking off this June in Brazil.
author of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro Joe McGinniss

Spectators at an event as extraordinary as the World Cup deserve a tour guide equal to the task. During his remarkable career as a New York Times sportswriter and columnist, George Vecsey has opened his heart and mind to eight of these quadrennial spectacles, and here he takes us with him on his journey, enhancing our own every step of the way.
author of Cinderella Man and Triumph Jeremy Schaap

Long before half the kids in the U.S. were decked out in Lionel Messi and Manchester United jerseys, one of our most gifted sportswriters was writing intelligently about soccer. In Eight World Cups, George Vecsey gives us much more than the story of one man's journey from novice to aficionado. This is also an elegant, absorbing primer on the world's game. No one but Vecsey could have given us so much insight, so much humor, such a smart take on soccer and the World Cup.
NBC Sports Bob Costas

In Eight World Cups, George Vecsey writes with his usual elegance, humanity, and insight. As ever, his view goes beyond the field, and in this case well beyond our shores.
Tom Werner

Baseball is America's game but soccer is the world's game, and no American writer knows more about the world's game than George Vecsey. All of that knowledge is reflected in his terrific and timely book, which is a wonderful guide to a game whose inscrutability I have only now come to appreciate.
Julie Foudy

What fun to weave through these World Cups as the book reads part diary, part travel guide, part voyeuristic glimpse into how the best teams and players operate at the highest level. The cultural musings, mixed with a love of the game that is endearingly pure, makes me want to travel to the next eight World Cups right alongside George Vecsey.
ESPN Bob Ley

With the eye of a reporter and the soul of a fan, George Vecsey has perfectly captured the magic and allure of the World Cup. Eight of them, in fact. This sporting event captivates and unites the globe as no other, and George's personal journal - from the stadiums and stars, to the many people encountered on his global journeys - is a remarkable history by a gifted writer.
Men's Fitness

For anyone with even the most pedestrian knowledge of soccer, [Eight World Cups] is an entertaining read, a terrific primer on the sport's modern history, and a profound take on America's own soccer renaissance occurring right now.
Library Journal
★ 05/15/2014
As World Cup 2014 nears, author and New York Times columnist Vecsey reflects on covering the men, women, and places involved in the greatest world sporting event. From his personal beginning reporting on soccer from Spain in 1982 through the circus that was South Africa in 2010, Vecsey's insights offer a unique look at the grace of the game as well as the underside of world soccer. Perhaps most interesting of all are his views of the world's great and not-so-great players, coaches, and insiders of soccer, such as France's Zinedine Zidane, FIFA official Sepp Blatter, and American Brandi Chastain, two-time gold medal Olympian and star of the 1999 women's World Cup. Vecsey details the many colorful South American stars in riotous and poignant terms. At times the title reads like a travelog through the great cities of Europe and other soccer venues. His chapter on Germany (2006) is an expose on the host site selection and the bizarre ending to the cup. VERDICT Of the many recent excellent books on soccer, Vecsey's work stands out.—Boyd Childress, formerly with Auburn Univ. Libs., AL

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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•••• 1 ••••

The Goal That Changes Everything

Pretoria, South Africa, 2010

The Americans were minutes from humiliation.

The long plastic horns of South Africa were blaring like klaxons of doom.

Landon Donovan and his teammates had been working for four years toward this day, but now they chased the ball around the field in a scoreless draw, needing a victory to stay alive. A good bit of the world was rooting for gallant Algeria to eliminate the United States.

Many World Cup matches end this way, with one team trying to kill the final seconds in a distant corner, with the other side as desperate as its fans back home.

In Italy in 1966, angry fans flocked to the Rome airport and threw eggs and tomatoes when the Azzurri landed after being eliminated—by North Korea. Che peccato. What a sin. In 2010, Americans were not yet at the stage of heaving produce at their lads but, still, expectations had been raised all over the States as a younger generation had become consumers—experts, in their own minds, about the world’s sport.

Soccer was having something of a boom in the United States, helped by networks like ESPN, Fox, and Univision. In New York and many other places around the country, signboards were popping up in front of pubs and restaurants, proclaiming: REAL v. BARÇA, 2 PM. American players were going to Europe for the money and the experience. Rich Americans were buying European clubs.

People back home cared now—maybe not to the point of shooting out the TV or jumping off a bridge (which can happen) but enough to post cranky messages in social media, criticizing the starting lineup or the tactics. In summery time zones across the United States, anxious fans were convinced the Yanks really should be able to beat Algeria. They were begging for a goal, as the vuvuzelas blared. At the southern end of Africa, it was June 23, early winter. Getting late.

Keep an eye on the ball. The adage applies to soccer writers as well as athletes. At my first World Cup in Spain in 1982, I could not follow the ball because the skill of the players, the things they could do with their insteps and knees and foreheads, was beyond my comprehension. Over the years, in eight World Cups all over the globe, I learned to continuously take mental note of who touched the ball, and how, and where it went—creating an endless sixty-second loop of memory that could be erased when those touches led nowhere.

Goals are always precious, always unique, and often come out of nowhere because of a nifty steal and a laser pass at the far end. You cannot afford to let your mind wander between plays, as I do at American football games, when I read a few paragraphs of a newspaper between plays that Coach sends in. In soccer, you must watch the ball every second because you just don’t know.

Was I rooting for the Yanks? Not exactly. American soccer writers are pretty independent; they criticize and report, but they also spend time around the players, and generally admire them for their pursuit of the game. The men’s national team and the highly successful women’s team are the sons and daughters of the hybrid nation—never more so than on the epic all-American romp that was about to happen in distant Pretoria.

Reporters and fans had watched the squad change kaleidoscopically from match to match, from year to year. The eleven players on the field were survivors of a long march, and some who had helped win qualifying matches did not make it to South Africa. "Good friends we had, good friends we lost along the way," as Bob Marley put it.

Now, as the vuvuzelas yowled like hounds of hell, I spotted Tim Howard, the latest in a pipeline of supple American goalkeepers, prowling the goal line, anxiety on his face.

A few weeks earlier, when the United States played a tune-up in Connecticut, team officials brought in Bill Russell, perhaps the most successful American athlete in history, who had won eleven professional basketball championships as the center for the Boston Celtics and who had previously led his team to two college championships and one Olympic gold medal. A rebounder-poet named Tom Meschery once described Russell as "an eagle with a beard." Now the eagle’s beard was white, and he stooped a bit as he strode across the field, but he still looked like the man who could swat the ball out of Wilt Chamberlain’s hands—fierce, purposeful, distant.

A few steps behind Russell was Tim Howard, part African American, part Hungarian, the nicest of people, who always talked civilly with reporters who covered the U.S. team.

Any fool can be a straight man. I knew Howard had been a star basketball player in high school back in New Jersey. I also knew he could handle my break-the-ice question.

"Did you tell Russell you could dunk on him?"

Howard looked at me quizzically, as if to ask, Are you crazy? Then he smiled and told us how Russell had talked about focus and intensity and pride. The main thing was, Howard had studied the aging eagle, up close.

Every four years, the World Cup moves to a different corner of the earth, becoming part of the history and politics of the host country. The spectators get a quick rush from watching the best-known athletes in the world march onto the field holding the hands of appropriately diverse and always appealing children. Giant yellow Fair Play cards are flashed, the pageantry so blatant yet somehow effective, making people around the world temporarily overlook the demonstrated venality and opacity of FIFA (Féderation Internationale de Football Association), the governing body of soccer.

Late in 1994, I wrote the script for a Brazilian documentary about the World Cup in the United States, just concluded. The title was Two Billion Hearts. I have encountered those thumping hearts in subways in Mexico City, at wurst stands in Germany. In 2010, I was feeling the pride of the African continent; I could sense two billion hearts, all pounding, including my own.

The whole world plays soccer. Two hundred seven nations were registered and ranked as of May 2010, with Brazil ranked first, possibly out of habit, and surging Spain right behind. Six nations were tied for last—San Marino, Anguilla, Montserrat, American Samoa, Central African Republic, and Papua New Guinea.

The United States was ranked fourteenth going into that World Cup while Algeria was ranked thirtieth, which made for a delicious first world–third world matchup. Algeria, although at the opposite end of a vast continent, was representing Africa.

Organized soccer had talked for decades about Africa being the future of the sport. Now FIFA had belatedly honored that commitment, making South Africa the host—a mixed blessing of worldwide exposure and crushing cost. Either way, the world was watching a World Cup in Africa, and the event seemed normal in just about every way, except that the season was winter instead of summer, and fans had to bundle up.

This match was being played in Pretoria, the executive capital of South Africa, in Loftus Versfeld Stadium, built for rugby, named for an early player and administrator of that white man’s sport.

During the terrible struggle over apartheid, officers on horseback had stormed through downtown Pretoria, lashing out at demonstrators. Films of that violence are shown at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. In 1995, this stadium was used for several matches as South Africa improbably won the Rugby World Cup and Nelson Mandela donned rugby gear, setting a tone of unity and accommodation. Fifteen years later, a soccer team from North Africa was giving fits to the United States of America.

It was getting dark, and cold, and very late. The sideline official designated four minutes of supplemental injury time, every second a bonus to the desperate Americans. The red-clad American fans hooted, but many more fans cheered as an Algerian defender played the ball backward to his own keeper, a common stalling tactic.

The Algerian players worked the ball down the right side. Normally, one of the strongest players would dribble into the corner and kill some seconds by grappling with the defenders. However, one player saw an opening, set up a parabolic pass across the goalmouth, where a teammate met it with his forehead. Cristiano Ronaldo or one of the German strikers might have hammered the ball into the far corner to finish off the Americans, but the Algerian lofted it directly toward Tim Howard’s chest.

Howard has a trace of Tourette’s syndrome and normally displays no visible symptoms except perhaps facial twitches now and then. As the ball approached, the condition did not affect his dunker hands. He got the feel of the ball and danced a few steps forward, glancing downfield. In another time and place, the eagle with a beard would have spotted Sam Jones or John Havlicek streaking downcourt. Tim Howard spotted Landon Donovan going in motion.

There was no time for a buildup, only desperation. Howard dished the ball with an overhand motion, bouncing it up the middle, where Donovan, with his sprinter’s stride, caught up with it, forty yards downfield.

Root for the story. That’s the rule for any reporter. The obvious story of this day would be Algeria knocking out the Americans. Then I would write a column asking why Our Lads, with all that money, all those youth programs, were actually deteriorating as a world soccer power since their high point in 2002, when the U.S. team reached the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea.

In our own provincial little World Series of baseball, back in 1986, I had the vague sense the Boston Red Sox were still haunted by some dank vapor, cursed for sending Babe Ruth to the Yankees. I would have enjoyed writing about their first championship after sixty-eight years of failure; instead, I wrote about the fluke ground ball that squiggled through some poor soul’s legs. In baseball, there is no ticking clock, but in this sport of surprises the stopwatch was in the hand of the lone official on the field. Wracked by jet lag, I had no journalistic premonitions as I sat in Loftus Versfeld Stadium. The match was moving in real time, as Landon Donovan picked up the pace.

He was the most beautiful of athletes, with the grace of an 880-yard racer rather than the churning legs of a sprinter. In a sport of ethnics, among sons of immigrants and holders of dual passports, Donovan was a beach boy, happiest when he could smell the Pacific. He had tried the challenge of soccer in Europe but declared himself a homebody, a Californian. He was intense, private, but it was a mistake to underestimate his drive, his toughness. Donovan had learned the second language of California, Spanish, from growing up around Mexican kids, and he was not afraid of sandlot roughness or bilingual jibes from hostile crowds in arenas like Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. He almost seemed to like it.

Donovan was the most potent attacking force the United States had ever sent onto a field. He could take corner kicks or find an open seam on the field or fight off an elbow to capture a loose ball—or just outrun everybody. In a nation that has produced great athletes in many other sports, he was the closest approximation to a star. In World Cup terms, he was America’s Maradona, America’s Baggio, America’s Zidane. Tim Howard made sure the right man had the ball.

Donovan caught up with the ball at full speed, opening up the field. In the past fifteen minutes, the United States had seemed to gain the edge in cardio fitness. Donovan raced past the Algerian defenders. All over the world, four billion eyes began to widen, the quick rush of this sport.

The temptation for Donovan, for any footballer, was to try too much. A basketball player knows he has enough energy and skill to race down the court and dunk, which is why scores often exceed one hundred points, from repetitive brilliance. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a soccer player might overreach, but Donovan found the incredible presence to lay the ball off to his right, where Jozy Altidore was racing.

A big striker of Haitian background, born in New Jersey, Altidore had traveled around the soccer diaspora, looking to be a star. Not known for speed or finesse, Altidore caught up with Donovan’s ball, controlled it with a touch far beyond his norm, and took a swerve toward the goal, past defenders, making the run of his life.

Again, there was the danger of doing too much. Instead of getting fancy, Altidore drilled the ball toward the goal, putting pressure on the keeper, who had other distractions: Clint Dempsey, an intense kid from East Texas, who grew up playing with Mexican friends and had gone overseas to eventually become the all-time leading American scorer in England. He had had a goal taken away earlier by an offside call that looked spurious on the replay; now the Yanks were running out of seconds.

"When the ball got played out to Jozy, I tried to make a run," Dempsey would later recall. Altidore drilled the ball into the scrum in front of the goal and Dempsey got his foot on it, but as he tumbled forward he saw the keeper deflecting the ball and he thought, "Oh, no, this is not my day." The momentum carried Dempsey into the goalmouth, like a human cannonball, making contact with the Algerian keeper before tumbling into the back of the net.

Any Algerian player might have blasted the ball out of danger—as Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain had done so acrobatically in the Women’s World Cup final of 1999—and back in the States those viewers not yet enchanted with soccer might have said, "But nothing happened!"

In this case, something did happen. That’s why we hold our breath and watch. After passing the ball to Altidore, Donovan had kept running with his beautiful 880-yard gait. He put his foot on the ball from seven yards out and flicked it into the net. Then he dashed to the corner of the field and slid on his stomach like a very happy baby otter, with American players landing on top of him, followed by reserves and staff members and goodness knows who else, a whole nation, in a sense. Redemption in the ninety-first minute.

"I was one of the last people to make it to the dog pile," Dempsey recalled.

That goal, by young American players of vastly diverse backgrounds, immediately became the greatest single play the United States has ever made in the World Cup—considering the lateness of the hour, the distance traveled, the stakes involved, and the higher profile of the American program by 2010, its sixth straight World Cup appearance.

When I watched the video of the Donovan goal recently, I felt a surge of respect, all over again, for the sheer degree of difficulty. If Howard had distributed the ball in another direction, if Donovan had gotten giddy on his dash upfield, if Altidore had bungled his possession, if Dempsey had overdone his slide near the keeper and prompted a foul call, if Donovan had blasted the ball into the upper deck—all potential failures, an intrinsic part of this sport.

Instead, the American players killed off the last three minutes and celebrated on the field, still alive, at the center of their sport, at the center of the world.

Copyright © 2014 by George Vecsey

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