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Eleven Writers and Intellectuals on the World Cup's Most Compelling Characters


by Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland

I'm a Holland fan, so I'll nominate the Dutchman, even though everything about him is irritating, starting with his displeasing appearance: Aged 30, he is a ringer for Patrick Stewart, who is 73. Like Stewart, Robben is chronically histrionic, only his is a limited villainous repertoire of dives, false grimaces, and mock seizures. Even his brilliance gets under the skin. Lacking the elegance of Keizer or Rensenbrink, the dash of Rep or Overmars, the erratic virtuosity of Tahamata or La Ling, Robben fits uneasily into the great tradition of orange-shirted wingers. Left-footed, his one move is to zig infield from the right, zig again, and zig one more time; he never zags. Then either he shoots at the far post (never the near) or, if breathed on by a defender, falls down in great pain. Somehow this appalling modus operandi makes him one of the most terrifyingly effective attackers in world football and (van Persie aside) Holland's best hope for success.


by David Winner, author of Those Feet

"Think, think, think," said the greatest midfielder of the age. "Quickly!"

About what? About the game's essential commodity, of course.

"Look for spaces," Spain's Xavi Hernandez once told the academic and journalist Sid Lowe. "Space, space, space ... I see the space and pass."

No one in the history of the game has ever passed the ball so often, or with such precision. Xavi is metronomic, mesmerizing. He'll demand the ball from a colleague then immediately give it back, then move, receive again, move, give, receive, move, release, go, give ...

Xavi creates the rhythms and patterns of a match. He has been called the "heartbeat" of his team. He helped his country win—unprecedentedly—three major tournaments in a row (two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup) and has been at the core of a Barcelona side considered perhaps the finest team ever. But he is 34 now and looking tired. Barca is already past its best. Is Spain about to follow?

Whatever happens, we should savor Xavi in this, his last World Cup. As the pulse of his passing weakens, one fears the tiki-taka style itself may begin to die. 


By Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book Of My Lives

Miralem Pjanić, the 24-year-old midfielder for A.S. Roma and the national team of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has at least three goals in the running for the best of the 2013 to 2014 season. There was the one from Roma versus Milan, when he slalomed through the entire Milanese defense, earning a comparison with Maradona's 1986 masterpiece. And the perfect free kick against Napoli. And then the lob from 25 yards out over Hellas Verona's dazed back line, featuring the insouciance common among the Maradona ilk.

Maradona had it rough as a boy, but he was never a refugee, unlike Pjanić, who, with his family, left Bosnia on the war's eve and ended up in Luxembourg. Long story short: At 14, he crossed into France and joined FC Metz where, at 17, he made his professional debut; at 18, he was at Olympique Lyonnais; at 21, Roma, which paid $15 million for him.

Last summer, Rudi Garcia, then Roma's new coach, bet his fortunes on Pjanić, who has been central to the team's resurgence. (The player Pjanić effectively displaced, the Argentine Erik Lamela, vanished into the void called Tottenham.) Pjanić was also central to Bosnia and Herzegovina's qualification for the 2014 World Cup, the country's first ever. The common refugee experience on the team has created a spirit that could carry the Bosnians in Brazil. However far they go, Pjanić will have to take them there. It's a new challenge: At Lyon and Roma, he has been the brilliant understudy; on his national team, he must be the mature conductor.

I saw Pjanić in Sarajevo a couple of years ago. He had stopped by a popular nightclub with his teammates. Everyone present revolved like sunflowers to stare at our boys. Džeko, the striker who plays for Manchester City, was in his element, beaming in the limelight. Pjanić smiled nervously and wrung his hands. You could tell he was uncomfortable. You could tell he burns to play. 


by Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle

The first time I saw Ángel Di María play soccer, I thought, That's my man. One reason was the name, so loaded with culture and history and yet so otherworldly that it's like a novel in itself. Another reason was his country, Argentina, which ever since I watched the World Cup on television in 1978 when I was nine has represented for me the land of myth, the republic of dreams, which naturally only intensified when Borges entered my life, and Maradona, of course, the greatest magician of them all. A third reason I took note of Di María, who plays professionally for Real Madrid, was his striking resemblance to Franz Kafka. It is fantastic, isn't it, Kafka out there on the wing in La Liga?

But if this tall, thin-limbed player had been ordinary in his play, the fascination would obviously have worn off. He isn't. He is not a complete soccer player, like Cristiano Ronaldo, but he has something that Ronaldo lacks, and which is the very reason we watch soccer at all, I think, namely, unpredictability. His feints are fantastic; I once watched him shake off three opponents without even touching the ball. The ball was rolling forward at great speed, he followed right behind, and spirited away the defenders one after the other with little jerks of his body. They should have read his feints, they were so simple, but they didn't—why? Because Di María read the defenders, he saw what they expected, and then he did something different, three times in a row, in the course of maybe two or three seconds. While his teammate Ronaldo so obviously has practiced and practiced and practiced, and has a repertoire of tricks that he employs, Di María's talent is precisely that which can't be rehearsed. He will give the ball a little shove past a towering and fully prepared goalkeeper, a shot that a child could have saved but that is completely beyond the goalkeeper's reach, because the goalkeeper's expectation of what is about to happen is so different. It gives me goosebumps to see it, and I shout, "THIS IS SO GREAT!"

Di María is a classic winger, a dribbler with speed—but lately he has been used as a midfielder for Real Madrid, just behind Benzema, and there he has demonstrated another of his gifts, namely, the defense-splitting pass, where a single kick of the ball lays the goal open to one of his onrushing teammates. At the very moment it happens, we realize that it is the only possibility, it is so obvious, so simple—but it was not a second before. That is why I root for Di María, because that possibility wasn't there without him.

Soccer is the antithesis of literature, because the magic spell it casts has no consequences; when the match is over, it is forgotten, and the unexpected that opens up reveals nothing other than itself. In this way soccer is closer to life, which literature is always seeking to give depth to, to imbue with meaning, but which presumably only has depth and meaning there, in literature. This was Kafka's insight, and that his own double should appear on the wing for Argentina during the World Cup would probably have made him laugh out loud, and presumably would not have been entirely alien to him.

Translated from Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.


by Alex Bellos, author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life

The nicknames worn by Brazilian soccer players—"Garrincha," "Kaká," "Ronaldinho"—are footballing noms de guerre, implying special powers. With Givanildo Vieira de Souza, the process has been streamlined: He is named after a superhero.

Hulk's parents gave him his nickname as a three-year-old, according to one version of the story, because he liked watching the cartoon. As he grew up, he developed a powerful physique befitting his avatar. Brazilian attacking forwards are often slight and nimble-footed; Hulk is the least Brazilian Brazilian striker you have ever seen, a brute rather than a ballet dancer.

His story is also remarkable. From the northeastern state of Paraíba, whose inhabitants are derided by the rest of Brazil for being poor and badly educated, Hulk played only two appearances for a provincial Brazilian team before, aged 18, transferring to a team in Japan. Today, his professional side is Zenit Saint Petersburg. He is an outsider at home, because of where he comes from and how he plays. He is an outsider in world football, having never played for a major team in a top league. And yet he is likely to play a crucial role in Brazil's forward line—the glamour positions in any team, but this is Brazil!—as the hosts seek to keep the World Cup trophy for themselves. 


by Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins

My hero, Kurt Vonnegut, used to encourage writers to "put a villain in it," by which I think he meant someone like the Portuguese center back Pepe. Pepe will step on your heel. He will sweep your feet. If you rise for a header, he will concuss you with his shaved bullet head. For 90 minutes, Pepe will run at you, into you, and through you, and every once in a while, as he did to Spanish midfielder Javier Casquero in 2009, Pepe will literally kick your ass while you writhe on the ground. Twice.

When Portugal plays, all eyes are on the dreamy Cristiano Ronaldo (this includes the eyes of Cristiano Ronaldo), but the real action takes place on the back line, where Pepe uses his rangy six-foot-two frame to harass anyone who comes near him; he has been known to even foul his own teammates. It is such bad behavior that always provides the World Cup's most enduring moments: Diego Maradona and his "Hand of God," Zinedine Zidane being sent off in head-butt red-card disgrace 20 years later. With Pepe headed back to his home country of Brazil—which he shunned to play for Portugal—I vote the Portuguese pest as "Most Likely to Live in Infamy." 


by Rabih Alemeddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman

In the Beirut of my youth, every day before dinner, before homework, every boy living in the enclave that was our neighborhood would play street football. We started as soon as we had a quorum of two against two, although the game didn't really get going till the Collège Protestant bus dropped off its six boys—two sets of three brothers. Eventually we'd have 20 players or more in a 20-by-10 rectangle, a game of quickness not speed, of instinct not strategy, avoiding potholes, faking out the ubiquitous jerk who parked his butt and two feet in front of the two-foot-wide goal we'd made with our school bags. More than 40 years later, I still fondly remember a move one of the boys made, where he received the ball, shielded it—pinning two defenders against the bumper of a blue Peugeot 504—and pirouetted away. That boy was a god, at least until another finally outdid him.

The player I adore, you ask. There can be no other. There might be better footballers out there than Andres Iniesta—he might not even be the best player on the Spanish team—but no one polishes the dust off my heart the way he does. It's not the goals he scores, the incredible long passes that open up defenses—no, no, I love him because of what he's capable of doing with the ball at his feet in restricted space. The jukes, the megs, the now-you-see-the-ball-now-who-be-the-fool, the I'll-squeeze-myself-and-the-ball-through-that-tiny-space-between-the-four-of-you-and-you-can't-stop-me. Now, Iniesta happens to be a consummate team player, and I deeply appreciate that, but damn, the way he ties that ball to his shoelaces, oh my.

There was this move he made, where he received the ball, shielded it, pinning two defenders ... 


by Tom Rachman, author of The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers

Among the pleasures of a World Cup is parsing a nation's character via team strategy, goal celebrations, and appalling haircuts. This isn't sophisticated cultural analysis, but can offer insights into how countries are evolving.

Immigration transformed Germany, France, and England, and their rosters reflect this. But another European powerhouse, Italy, lagged: The national team remained blue in uniform, white in skin. That has changed in the guise of Mario Balotelli, an Italian-born striker of West African origin who combines immense talent and immense controversy.

Attitude is his tragic flaw, according to Italian soccer pundits, who routinely castigate the 23-year-old, saying he coasts on ability. But is that fair? Italy is a country with mixed feelings about those beyond the white Catholic norm. While some Italians display great charity to outsiders, others voice startlingly retrograde views.

Born in Palermo, Balotelli is the son of a Ghanaian couple but was raised from age two by a Jewish-Italian family near Brescia, in northern Italy. As a teen, he played for Inter Milan, facing vicious racist abuse from opposing fans. He went on to a mixed spell at Manchester City, where his manager declared Balotelli potentially the best player alive—and also in need of a punch in the head. Now, he's with A.C. Milan, again subjected to racist chants.

In 2012, Balotelli became the first black Italian player at a major soccer tournament, the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine. Italy reached the final, largely because of his goals. This time, he could win the Cup for Italy. For that, he will be harangued, upbraided, badgered. Yet if he delivers, Balotelli becomes a national hero. Not only could "Super Mario" update the image of Italians as held abroad—he'd update the image some Italians hold of themselves. 


by Supriya Nair, an editor at The Caravan New Delhi

A conductor of the game who doesn't win the ball, a passer who doesn't run, a free-kick specialist whose leg never seems to rise above 45 degrees off the ground. Even in the summer of 2006, when he recorded the most assists in a World Cup that Italy—not coincidentally—won, Andrea Pirlo seemed to forecast autumn. In a team of hustlers, he drifted, marking the margins of some game he was never quite in the middle of. Then the ball would fall to his feet, and, like the man in the H. G. Wells story who commands the Earth to stop spinning, the world would go tumbling past as Pirlo took the interminable blink of an eye, first to decide where to place the ball, then to flick the clock back on. (Thus are miracles witnessed in a rational world.) By 2010, the shouts of celebration fading, Pirlo seemed diminished, lost in the reconstructive bustle of Milan, Italy, and perhaps that of soccer itself. But here he is, at his last World Cup, still keeping time at an angular, almost-invisible canter, holding out, improbably, the promise of renewal.


by Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire

The 22-year-old Saphir Sliti Taïder—a quick, observant defensive midfielder—will be one of the most exciting young French players in this World Cup. Born in the Pyrenées town of Castres, he came up through French football academies and made his professional debut in Grenoble in 2010 before winding up with Inter Milan. He was named to the French U-18, U-19, and U-20 squads, scoring several goals in international play.

In Brazil, however, you won't see Taïder standing at attention for the Marseillaise. Instead, he'll be singing the anthem of his mother's native Algeria. And he won't be alone. Two-thirds of the players on the Algerian team were born, raised, and trained in France, and most of them played on French national youth teams. In a sense, they are reviving a tradition. The country's first national team was created in 1958, when Algerian professional footballers in France—including two who were slated to play for France in that summer's World Cup—defected to Tunis and declared that they would take up Algeria's war against its French colonizers on the pitch.

A generation ago, Zinedine Zidane could have opted to play for his parents' Algeria, too. He chose France, explaining it was the natural decision. But the rules were different then: Players had to pick a national team and stay put, whereas FIFA will now permit one switch of allegiance anytime during a career. As that door opened, another has closed, or seemed to. In 2010, a whistle-blower at the French Football Federation recorded a conversation among high-level administrators (including then-coach Laurent Blanc) in which they mused that it might be useful to have a quota system to decrease the number of "black and Arab" players in the French developmental system. And so off Taïder and his teammates go to Brazil, wearing uniforms of green.


by Geoff Dyer, author of Another Great Day At Sea

There was a time when the World Cup was practically the only chance to see great players from other continents, but that has changed now that the top footballers of every country roam the world in search of increasingly profitable employment. So, not entirely perversely, instead of the players from this year's Cup (whom I've already seen on television numerous times with their club teams), my attention is fixed on one I won't get to watch.

There is a sad and noble tradition of players missing a World Cup through injury, but spare a thought for the ones who never made it because of their nationality—because everyone else from their country was so useless that they couldn't be single-handedly dragged to the tournament. The stand-out here is George Best who, on the one hand, remains a relatively local legend because he happened to be born in Northern Ireland and, on the other, has been elevated to the mythic realm reserved for untested greatness. (Whereas if he had played, he might have been part of yet another tradition: great players who failed to deliver on the biggest stage of all.) Ryan Giggs is a more interesting case. He might have been eligible to play for England, but elected to be Welsh. And now, in his famously fast footsteps comes—in the sense of not coming—soccer's man of the moment, Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid star with the explosive pace and even more explosive shot.

I was about to begin the next sentence with the words "If Wales had qualified ..." Forgive that sentimental absurdity. Since Wales was never going to qualify, we are being denied the possibility of Bale taking the tournament by storm, as Paul Gascoigne did in Italy in 1990. Even surui top attached block header by mega-stars on his club side, Bale has been outstanding—as when he eased the ball past Barcelona's Bartra at the halfway line, chased round him (despite being shoved way off the pitch), then ran the ball into the Barcelona goal. Even in games when he is entirely marginalized, he threatens to suddenly wallop the ball home from 30 yards. Depend on it: Many if not most of the games in the World Cup will be deadly dull. Bale would have kept you believing that the 90 minutes you could have spent doing so many other interesting things were not wasted. As it is, this World Cup will be shaped around his absence; he will dominate it as Dylan dominated Woodstock.