Yet another story about the World Cup

Hans Bolling
PhD in History, Independent scholar

Clemente A. Lisi
The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event
414 pages, hardcover, ill
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2022
ISBN 978-1-5381-5643-8

It is not particularly controversial to claim that there is no sports competition on earth that command attention quite like the football World Cup. Some people might want to take up the cudgels for the Olympics, but they seem to have lost some of their lustre in recent decades. The World Cup is the ultimate expression of the world’s most popular game and captivates people of all nations – even though not all of them nations in which football is the most popular sport. The attention surrounding the event has meant that it attracts notice even from people that you would not think of as football’s interested parties – players whose agendas are more than questionable have wanted to participate in the dance around the golden calf. That the football World Cup is more than a sporting event became irrefutable when the 22nd edition of the World Cup was awarded to and then played in Qatar in 2022.

An example of how the World Cup attracts attention in nations in which association football is not the most popular sport is the US journalist Clemente A. Lisi’s book The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event. In the introduction we are told: “The goal of this book is to recount the history of the World Cup – with a mix of research and interviews I have conducted over the years – to younger audiences aware of Lionel Messi but not around to have seen Diego Maradona. For older readers, this book will help revive memories or fill the gaps left by the passing of time.” This somewhat modest objective is a little bit disappointing, as the puff pieces on the dust jacket promise more. There we are told that Lisi’s book is “the first truly complete history of the Fifa World Cup, chronicling the tournament from 1930 to today”. But one should not judge a book by its cover.

The limitation of historians is thus generally not that they know too little, rather that they know too much and thus are unable to share the ignorance of the phenomenon they are writing about with the historical actors.

So how does Lisi succeed in his intention to write a book about the history of the World Cup? The first thing one has to keep in mind when reading a book about global sporting phenomena is that almost all truly classic sports moments are local or national even when it comes to global competitions. Therein lays a problem for authors who write for or are read by an audience other than their peers. The selection made by whoever writes a history of the World Cup will therefore be fraught with flaws for some readers, and with this in mind it becomes difficult, perhaps even presumptuous, for a reviewer to express strong opinions about what the writer chooses to include and ignore. Since The FIFA World Cup is written by a US journalist the target ought to be a North-American and not a Swedish sports historian with a keen interest in football.

As Lisi makes clear in his introduction, The FIFA World Cup should be seen more as a chronicle of the World Cup than a history, if we by history mean the academic discipline. This does not pose a problem in itself, but rather is what most people who read books about football’s premier tournament are interested in. The book has a traditional disposition where the various World Cup tournaments are treated chronologically with two or three tournaments per chapter depending on how many were played in a specific decade. This means nine chapters as the tournament in Qatar that had not yet been played at the time of the book’s publication gets attention at the end.

The chapters have a similar structure. First one and a half to two pages that are supposed to set the tone for the decade, then the World Cup tournaments are presented. Each section, one World Cup, starts with some background information, then the matches, from the opening round to the final are accounted for. With the explosion in the number of matches played that have followed the expansion of the World Cup the attention given each match decreases as time goes by, meaning that the writer’s preferences gets increasingly more important when it comes to what is included in his chronicle.

Estadio Centenario, the location of the first World Cup final in 1930 in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo: Marcelo Campi, supplied by Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0)

The titles of the chapters do not tell the reader much about the football played during the decade. Listing them is pointless, but to call the chapter about the 1960s ‘Swinging Sixties’ is a little bit unimaginative. With regard to the violent football played in Chile 1962 and England 1966 something that alludes to grave digging would be more appropriate. Each chapter also contains a ‘fact box/page’ where an innovation or person that defined the decade is presented: 1930s: Balls, 1940s and 1950s: Sambas (football shoes by adidas), 1960s: Yellow and Red Cards, 1970s: Pelé. 1980s: VHS tapes, 1990s: Diego Maradona, 2000s: Fan Zones, 2010s: Lionel Messi, 2020s: Stadium Air-Conditioning. A selection which, of course, can be challenged regarding individual details, but which as a whole reflects the development of the World Cup since 1930 in a really good way.

There is no doubt that one learns a lot when reading The FIFA World Cup. A few examples will have to do: Egypt was scheduled to take part in the first World Cup in 1930, but their boat was delayed by a storm on the Mediterranean which made the team miss the cruise liner to South America in Marseille. The Romanian king Carol II was an avid football fan and travelled to Uruguay with his team and took part in daily training session during the crossing of the Atlantic. Mexico lost their qualifying game for the 1934 World Cup in Rome against the United States, thus had taken the journey to Europe just to return home without playing in the tournament. Shin guards became compulsory in 1988 driven by fears of AIDS. But what the reader really gets to learn more about are World Cup matches, the course of the games, winners, goal scorers, refereeing and more.

As with more than one book about history written by someone who is not an historian by trade, The FIFA World Cup sometimes gets problematic. The author forgets that, unlike those he writes about, he knows what will happen not only next but in ten, twenty or even fifty years time. The limitation of historians is thus generally not that they know too little, rather that they know too much and thus are unable to share the ignorance of the phenomenon they are writing about with the historical actors. And thus, in the words of Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson, there is a risk that they write history backwards. Mr Lisi falls into this trap on more than one occasion, for example when he writes about the German annexation of Austria in the 1934 section instead of the 1938 where it had happened and had real consequences, and gave Sweden a pass in the first round.

Despite my belief that truly classic sports moments are local or national and that it is presumptuous for a reviewer to express opinions about what writers include and ignore, it must be said that it is bordering on malfeasance to write about the 1958 Brazil team without mentioning Valdir Pereira, the great Didi, especially since he is later mentioned as the coach of Peru’s national team in 1970. It almost makes me doubt the writer’s suitability to write a book about football. But if truth be told, The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event is a book that people with a general interest in football can and should read before future World Cup tournaments.

Finally, I can’t help but write something negative about the publisher. When I received the book, I discovered to my great joy that it contained an index; however, it is a very incomplete index and thus contributes more in making people invisible rather than drawing attention to them. Any index, even an incomplete index may seem better than no index at all, but with flaws as large as those found in The FIFA World Cup, it only adds to the irritation. The book would also have benefited from better proofreading so that mistakes like for example: ’Borges put Uruguay ahead after just five minutes with Borges.’, ’January 1948, when AC Milan signed […] Gunnar Nordahl’, ‘the goal for the then-defending Olympic champions Argentina in a 1924 friendly against Uruguay’, and ‘Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva. The Barca trio’ would be avoided.

Copyright © Hans Bolling 2024

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