BY STEVE KAY – @SteveK1889

Never judge a book by its cover: this is nothing to do with Pele or Maradona, nor is it really about idols or underdogs. This is probably just a quirk of modern publishing – the original Spanish title is Por Amor a la Pelota (For Love of the Ball) – but the thinking is, you have to assume, that a picture of Pele and Maradona will make you more likely to buy it.

idols

I blog about football fiction and have wondered in the past why there was not more of it originating from South America – I had found very little. It turns out I was looking in the wrong place. Instead it seems that, particularly in recent years, quite a lot of football short stories have been written in South America, but very few translated into English.

I hadn’t spotted this new anthology – it was one of the compilers, Shawn Stein, who contacted me bringing it to my attention. In his foreword to the book, Shawn describes a stigma, a prejudice, that any fan of football writing will recognise – that it is supposedly lowbrow and therefore cannot cross over with literature. This snobbery is universal, but in South America it originated with the likes of Jorge Luis Borges who apparently said “football is popular because stupidity is popular” and “football is a game of imbeciles.” (Should I be rude to one of South America’s finest writers or let it pass… no, rise above it.)

It is puzzling why people feel the need to place any fiction that even mentions football as some kind of inferior sub-genre. With my own novel, The Evergreen in red and white, I say it is no more a football book than The Mayor of Casterbridge is a “farming book.” People think: “I don’t like football so I won’t read that kind of thing.” Do they say: “I don’t like war so I won’t read Birdsong” or “I get sea sick so I would never read anything about pirates” or, “I’ve never been fishing so I won’t read Moby Dick”? And yet we single out a facet of life, a sport that holds up a mirror to what it means to be human, and dismiss it.

These stories hold up that mirror to human existence. The collection is like a Copa America of fiction – with stories from each competing nation: eleven in total. As you’d expect from that, they are very varied – covering all aspects of the game from street football to professional football. I don’t suppose everyone will like all eleven.

I can’t review every story, but a few merit a mention in my view. I particularly like the story by Carlos Abin (Uruguay) – a story which takes me to the other side of the world and sits me down in a bar to observe and listen. I was told about two old men sitting opposite, hardly speaking, hardly touching their drinks. They come every Friday and share a mutual respect. It all goes back to a particular game – and leaves you with a question of whether an “unnecessary victory is not in some way a crime.” It does everything a short story should do. For me if it is it is the standout story.

Others are good too: the story by Roberto Fuentes (Chile) almost has it all – reflections on friendship, things to make you think, but it wasn’t quite rounded off – possibly just me not quite “getting it.”

The story by Sérgio Sant’Anna (Brazil) is excellent – written in 1982 it is in many ways a traditional football story, reminiscent of the writing of Brian Glanville. It tells the story of a coach at the end of his career (it seems). It follows his final game – a heavy defeat – interspersed with his reflections on the game, his life, successes and failure.

Some of the stories are challenging: the one by Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivia) is really good, but it takes you a few pages to realise that it keeps switching point of view – quite disturbingly. I would have preferred something to signal this change to me in the text – be it an extra line break or a change in font.

More alarmingly one story (Javier Viveros) even starts off with mixed points of view in a single block of text – I struggled with that story for several reasons.

The story by José Hidalgo Pallares is worth a mention for its ending – one for all the boo-boys who like to release the pent-up frustrations of their own lives on a Saturday and single out their own team’s players for that special treatment.

This anthology has made me rethink Latin American football writing. I’ll now have to hunt for other things that have been hiding – not sure my 1980s O’ level Spanish is quite up to reading them without translation. But then again… where’s that old English-Spanish dictionary?

Idols and Underdogs by Shawn Stein and Nicolas Campisi is available from Amazon HERE

 

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