I catch little snippets of it, sure. The homepage of my computer is the BBC site, which seems to have transformed overnight into an oasis for football/futbol/soccer fans. I have some friends who are following favorite teams casually, and a few who are doing little else. Somebody near my house is apparently supporting Germany, or so I have gathered from the giant flags they have hung off their balcony.
But the thing is that I'm not that much of a sports fan.
It's not like I didn't try. I played pee-wee soccer at the YMCA (I think I managed to score a goal in my own team's net). I dutifully attended high school basketball games as a member of the pep band. I even went out for track and field one time, at about age fourteen (finishing a respectable dead last in all of the two events in which I actually participated).
Of course, by explaining all this, I have tailored myself rather nicely to a popular but ultimately misguided stereotype – that of the bookish, tweed-clad English major who listens to jazz and is really serious about how his coffee was roasted and prefers a nice Merlot to a Rolling Rock tallboy and eschews sporting events in general because they're “not sophisticated,” or something ridiculous like that.
That stereotype is pretty common, but, like most of them, it's wrong a lot of the time.
For every one English major who avoids watching sports, I'll give you two who are devoted fans. Many of us have been known to enjoy a Rolling Rock now and then. And, while everyone occasionally forgets it, the world of sports can be one of great cultural weight.
I was reminded of this recently, as I plowed through David Peace's massive, exactingly rendered Red Or Dead. Weighing in at almost eight hundred pages, Red Or Dead is not a novel for the faint of heart, especially when you consider that the book follows the career of just one man – legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly.
Never heard of him? Neither had I. But in the late fifties and early sixties, Shankly led Liverpool football club from the bottom of the heap to all sorts of glory, and reignited the flame at the heart of the gritty, working-class city.
Peace, whose previous novels have been published only in Britain, could have told a quick, snappy tale about Shankly and the players he trained and believed in – something with a plot line akin to films like Miracle or The Bad News Bears. This could have been a novel wherein a fictionalized Shankley takes a losing team, whips them into shape in a series of inspiring montages, gets them to win, then faces a crushing obstacle which nearly destroys everything he's worked for, and finally triumphs like we always knew he would.
What I've just described is another common stereotype, one that is reinforced time and again by every sports story we read or hear or see. But, yet again, it's inaccurate, and Peace's Bill Shankly is a hero who does not triumph easily, or in one fell swoop.
Red Or Dead is told entirely in short, repetitive sentences, but far from being tedious, this stylistic choice makes the novel feel epic and ancient. It's a modern tale of a team and its fans, but it's steeped in bardic tradition, which illustrates perfectly the struggles, the trials and the years of hard work which Shankly and his players put in. They don't win all at once. They don't rise to the top in a straight, clean arc. Red Or Dead is a novel about sheer human endurance, a story of how an inspiring figure changes players, and of how the players change the people around them.
Shankly, much like Beowulf or Odysseus, gives his people something to believe in. The struggle is hard, and it isn't always pretty. Really, Red Or Dead is a roller coaster of triumph and failure from beginning to end. It's not just a novel about a soccer team. It's layered – sophisticated, if you will – in the same way the world of sports so often is.
I doubt anyone could suggest that Jessie Owens' 1936 Gold Medal was culturally insignificant. How about Jackie Robinson, or the Harlem Globetrotters or Billie Jean King or those French and German soldiers who crawled out of their trenches on Christmas Eve in 1914 to play a soccer match?
It's interesting, with all that in mind, to look at the political and social tensions surrounding this year's World Cup. Sports, as David Peace lays out for us again and again, aren't unsophisticated or suffering from any lack of “culture.” These games are about far more than running on a field or fighting over a ball. In many cases, sporting events are the culture.
Early in Red Or Dead, Peace notes that “even The Beatles left Liverpool,” abandoning the cold streets and factory towers of their city for the world outside. Bill Shankly and Liverpool FC stayed, and as I read the novel it struck me how, time and again, Shankly's goal is to bring that outside world back to the people who root for his team. He stops the team bus to pick up kids who have walked, in the snow, to an away game. He campaigns for television coverage of the matches, so those who cannot get tickets can still be part of the action. While it's easy to characterize sporting events as superficial, visceral entertainment, Red Or Dead is a reminder of how incredibly significant they can be.
I'm still not that much of a sports fan, I'm afraid. I doubt I'll start following the World Cup now. But even an athletic layman like me can appreciate the impact of sports on the culture they spring from, and the importance of a novel like Red Or Dead.