You don't need to know anything about soccer to delight in George Vecsey's "Eight World Cups" any more than you need to know about fishing to enjoy Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Heaven knows, I don't.
Vescey, for several decades a poetic pontificator in his New York Times sports columns, has always been about the language, with a social conscience to boot, a kind of Pablo Neruda of athletics. Vecsey has championed women in sports, minorities in sports, and has not hesitated to question the authorities in charge of baseball, football, tennis, and in the case of soccer, called football in most of the world, Sepp Blatter, the autocratic strong man of the Federation Internationale de Football Association, commonly known as FIFA.
Vecsey devotes several chapters to the success of the American women's team and its super star, Mia Hamm.
No one has ever described sports better than Vecsey and he describes soccer, which he played in high school in Queens, New York, better than any other sport. Every run to the goal, every great defensive stop, is discussed in this book by details that will remind readers of such descriptive writers as Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and John Updike.
In seeing his first World Cup in 1982, Vecsey exclaimed, "This was some entirely new sport, a blend of ballet and geometry, quick triangles appearing and disappearing, instant decisions by athletes on the move, so graceful and independent, performing intricate maneuvers with a round ball, on the fringes of their feet."
The artistry of the great scorers of the game, including Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Roberto Baggio, Diego Armando Maradona, receives special attention from Vecsey, whether with pathos, drama or, especially melodrama, and these athletes are as entertaining as protagonists in major novels.
Indeed, while Vecsey understandably dedicated the book to his wife Marianne, who attended many World Cups with him, he might have dedicated it to Maradona, the rougish super star of soccer who provided him with such great material. Vecsey's account of his telephone conversation with Maradona in Naples, in which Maradona went back and forth in several languages pretending he was not Maradona, is one of the most hilarious stories I have ever read.
Vecsey's affection for the Italian team, known as the "Azzurri," for their blue uniforms, is combined with his bemused description of their melodramatic falls and flops to flim flam the referees into giving them decisive penalty kicks, along with his reporting on their various brushes with the law and gambling.
Vecsey's wife Marriane once said "Nobody else does what George does in his writing," meaning the skill in which he tells sports stories and the eloquent language he used to tell them.
Where else are you going to find description like this from the 1986 World Cup in Mexico? "Maradona kept running and leaped toward the ball, somehow getting higher than Shilton. He elevated his left fist above his head, as if imitating the Statue of Liberty holding a torch. I could see the fist raised, could see the ball bounce into the goal, could see Maradona wheel away, jubilantly, trying to sell the goal to the official and the crowd. The broadcaster quickly said it looked like a handball. The Argentines flocked after Maradona to celebrate. And the referee went for it."
"Maradona had heard his personalized will of God and made the instant calibration that it was worth a try- a red card for cheating versus a goal during a scoreless draw.
"Play resumed, with the English probably still in shock from the blatant cheating and referee error. Then Maradona performed one of the greatest scoring romps ever seen in his sport. He received the ball near midfield, with Hodge and Peter Beardsley at his flanks.
"Maradona wriggled onward, flicking the ball back and forth between his feet, as the defenders planted their own feet in the turf. He outraced Peter Reid, left Gary Stevens behind, and cut inside, leaving Terry Butcher with his back to Maradona, his right leg kicking backward in a vain attempt to slow Maradona down. Just outside the box, Fenwick seemed close enough to jostle Maradona, but, playing with a yellow card, Fenwick avoided contact, or maybe Maradona avoided him.
"Now it was between Maradona and Shilton. Shilton knew how to cut off angles, but he had never done it against Diego Maradona at the absolute peak of his career. Maradona shifted his weight, moved the ball from right foot to left foot, and slipped it past Shilton, so softly, so gently.
"Given Maradona's closeness with his creator, he no doubt had a sense of redemption. He had sinned and then sought absolution with the most developed part of his being--that is to say, his feet."
You don't find description like this these days in novels and poetry, much less in sports writing. Vecsey's book is a masterpiece, the culmination of a lifetime of work in the art of writing.
[Hansen Alexander's most recent book is "An Introduction to the Laws of the United States in the 21rst Century," an Amazon e-book exclusive.]