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.