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.