Football, unlike cricket, has for the most part been ill served by its writers. For every Brian Glanville and Ian Hamilton (the latter having employed his critical authority to become a first-rate reader of the game), the purveyors of hackneyed analysis are legion. In recent years there has been a propensity to celebrate tactics and formation (i.e. pedantry) over poetry. Latin Americans, however, have always fared slightly better with their writers — as they do with their players — who tend not to make the distinction between literature and sports writing. Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, both Nobel laureates, took to writing about the game early on in their careers.
Juan Villoro is one of Mexico’s foremost men of letters. A renowned novelist, short-story writer and translator into Spanish of authors as diverse as Graham Greene, Goethe and Truman Capote, Villoro has shown — in his excellent book of literary essays, De eso se trata (That’s the Point) — his Borgesian range of being as at home with D.H. Lawrence and W.B. Yeats as he is with the Hispanic canon. Unlike Borges, who loathed the game, Villoro is also one of the best writers on football in the world.
Early on in this remarkable collection of essays, Villoro sets out his stall as a writer of sport:
Writing about football means recreating, in another form, that which supporters already know. If it’s possible to be present at the stadium, who wants a match recounted? This isn’t what the words are for. The essence of Pelé or Chicharito ‘Little Pea’ Hernández won’t be revealed in any book. It’s already there in the minds of the supporters. The rare mystery of words is to put a value and an emotion on what we already knew.
Villoro is as adept on the vagaries of the game as he is in his psychoanalysis of its players. His essay on Diego Armando Maradona — with the Tolstoyan title ‘Life, Death, Resurrection and a Little More Besides’ — is a masterful portrait of the game’s greatest player. (Anglo-Saxon attitudes to ‘fair play’ always miss the point of the greatest of mavericks.) For Villoro, Maradona remains the only ‘slave-cum-liberator’ in sporting history: a player
as fuelled by insults as he was by the misery of his beginnings. In what is a team game, his individual qualities reached a higher limit: that magic moment when the ten men playing alongside him believed they were also exceptional.
In taking a Janus-like stance in relation to Maradona, Villoro allows his essay to twist and turn like ‘El Diego’ in his pomp.
Other players, however, do not get off lightly, no matter how skilful. Ronaldo, according to the late Catalan novelist Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, ‘will pass through life and through history without having understood a thing about what was, and is, going on’. Such was the Brazilian striker’s obtuseness that he turned out for arch rivals not only in Spain but also in Italy: Barcelona and Real Madrid; AC Milan and Inter. (Something for which Sol Campbell —an equally aloof figure — was never forgiven when he left Spurs for Arsenal.) Another Ronaldo equally ‘loyal to his desires’, the Portuguese Cristiano, despite a remarkable ability to score goals at will, is condemned for his vanity: his ‘physical perfection is a mirror for his solitude in the pitch’. The final assessment is withering: ‘In this game, which allows for so much magic and wonder, Cristiano Ronaldo merely plays a sport.’
God is Round may not cohere as a single narrative — the essays range from abstention from sex before a match to violence on the terraces (the two are unrelated) but it’s the better for it. Football writing has always worked well in short form. Moreover, Villoro’s prose reflects the football he both admires and desires; it is skilful and unexpected. He has been well served by Thomas Bunstead’s assured and faithful translation.
God is Round will of course draw comparison with Eduardo Galeano’s paean to the game, Football in Sun and Shadow. Where Galeano hitched the lyrical to hyperbole, Villoro is a far more honest writer and thinker. He also avoids the political expediency which marred the late Uruguayan’s work. And yet it is another Uruguayan — the pessimistic novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, who at one time sold tickets at the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo — to whom Villoro says he owes his writing career. In successfully marrying his love of literature and football, Villoro has demonstrated the first principle of sports writing, or any good writing for that matter: ‘Reality gets better in the writing of it.’