A version of this essay appeared as part of The Literary Eleven: Writers and Intellectuals on the World Cup's Most Compelling Characters, which ran in the June 9, 2014 issue of The New Republic.
The first time I saw Angel Di Maria 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 Maria, 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; once, he shook 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 Maria 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 patently has practiced and practiced and practiced, and has a repertoire of tricks that he employs, Di Maria'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 which a child could have saved, but which 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 Maria is a classic winger, a dribbler with speed—but at the end of the past club season, he was used as a midfielder for Real Madrid, just behind Benzema, and there he 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 on-rushing 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 Maria, 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 which 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.
Karl Ove Knausgaard is the author of My Struggle.
Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.