Grove Header (8).png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The World Cup is almost here. Get your head in the game with these 5 books

Argentinian forward Diego Maradona scored the "Goal of the Century" in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match against England in Mexico City. Maradona is seen here moving past English defender Terry Butcher (left) on his way to the goal and a 2-1 victory.
AFP/Getty Images
Argentinian forward Diego Maradona scored the "Goal of the Century" in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match against England in Mexico City. Maradona is seen here moving past English defender Terry Butcher (left) on his way to the goal and a 2-1 victory.

Sports seduces us with excitement and fantasy – not just the what-if moments, but also those in which some players seem to rewrite the laws of probability and physics.

Every four years, the World Cup lifts such moments to dizzying heights, pitting elite athletes against each other in a winner-take-all tournament that defines careers and sends millions of people into delirium or agony.

With the tournament kicking off in Qatar on Nov. 20, we asked two authorities on soccer to recommend their favorite books about the World Cup and the beautiful game, with all its glory and humanity.

Here's a list of titles – five books, plus a podcast and a magazine article – to whet your appetite for a full month of soccer.

Books

God is Round by Juan Villoro, translated by Thomas Bunstead

Mexico's acclaimed author and journalist deftly frames transcendent events in sports through a human lens. "In this beautiful collection of essays, Villoro marvels over moments in a way that makes you as a reader marvel too," says Gwendolyn Oxenham, who played collegiate soccer at Duke University and professionally in Brazil. She has a new book out this month on the U.S. women's national team.

Villoro latches onto rare moments, like the time Germany's Miroslav Klose talked a referee out of awarding him a penalty kick Klose didn't think he deserved.

Then there's the crowd's shared euphoria over a goal: "People punching the air and howling – it's hard to think of other circumstances in which the soberest of doctors suddenly unleashes a howl," Villoro writes.

"There's no way to read this book and not fall for the game," Oxenham adds.

A combination of images shows (left to right) Argentina's Lionel Messi, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil's Neymar in 2017, as they vied for the Best FIFA Men's Player Award. The three hope to help their national teams win at this year's World Cup.
AFP Contributor / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
A combination of images shows (left to right) Argentina's Lionel Messi, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil's Neymar in 2017, as they vied for the Best FIFA Men's Player Award. The three hope to help their national teams win at this year's World Cup.

The Age of Football: The Global Game in the 21st Century by David Goldblatt

If soccer needs an official historian, David Goldblatt could make a strong a claim. The author's acclaimed work The Ball is Round told the story of the sport's beginnings. In this book first published in 2019, Goldblatt examines how the game fits into world politics, culture and society.

The result is "a comprehensive overview of the history of the game from its foundation and amateur era to today's zillion-dollar extravaganza," says Keir Radnedge, author of the official FIFA guide to the 2022 World Cup and a former editor of World Soccer magazine.

"Football is first," Goldblatt writes, adding that the sport has risen to the scale of a world religion — and is more intertwined with money and political power than ever before. His book depicts the enormous span of local stories the World Cup generates, from hourly workers getting up in the middle of the night to see their national team to watch parties that are targeted by extremists.

The Barcelona Complex by Simon Kuper

FC Barcelona rose from a regional club to become a sporting and economic powerhouse, built by generational stars from Johan Cruyff to Lionel Messi. But the organization has also been famously secretive – a mystique that author Simon Kuper helps to penetrate.

"Kuper writes with awe and insight about one of the world's most fabled teams," Oxenham says. That includes looking past the team's outlandish successes, she adds, and into "a neighborhood team composed of boyhood friends who love to play and love their club."

Soccer Revolution by Willy Meisl

Anyone looking for the roots of the fluid, pass-driven approach to soccer that transfixes today's fans could start with this book that was first published in the 1950s.

Willy Meisl, an Austrian Jew, worked as a sports journalist in the United Kingdom after fleeing his home country ahead of World War II. In the 1930s, his older brother, Hugo, managed Austria's famed "Wunderteam" national squad – giving Willy a front-row seat as Hugo reshaped the game and Austria imported strategies from England and Scotland.

Radnedge calls Soccer Revolution "an intelligent review of the foundation years of the modern, professional game." The book is out of print. But, Radnedge adds, it often pops up on the second-hand market. And recaps and excerpts are available online.

Belgium's midfielder Kevin De Bruyne controls the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final football match between Brazil and Belgium at the Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia, on July 6, 2018.
/ Roman Kruchinin/AFP/Getty Images
/
Roman Kruchinin/AFP/Getty Images
Belgium's midfielder Kevin De Bruyne controls the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final football match between Brazil and Belgium at the Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia, on July 6, 2018.

Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World's Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game by Grant Wahl

What do soccer – and life – look like through the eyes of top players? Grant Wahl shares lessons gleaned from elite athletes such as Belgium's Vincent Kompany and the U.S. team's Christian Pulisic.

"I frequently recommend this book of engaging profiles to aspiring players," Oxenham says, "as it offers fine-tuned game insight, inspiring advice and a dive inside the lives of their favorite stars."

Wahl's 2018 book breaks down strategies and tips from seven people in key positions — from a coach to a defender and a forward — as they excel in a sport where play has sped up even as the game grew more technical.

A bonus podcast and article

22 Goals – a narrative podcast

"[Podcast host] Brian Phillips, in my mind, is the David Foster Wallace of soccer writing – full of enthusiasm and wonder, able to uncannily articulate just how we feel," Oxenham says. She describes 22 Goals as a sort of history of the game's most intense personalities and moments.

Oxenham shares a sample line from Phillips, about legendary French star Zinedine Zidane's famous stare: "It's the stare that would result if Darth Maul could be fused at a molecular level with Joan Didion in the Corvette photo."

Here & Gone: The Strange Relationship Between Lionel Messi and his Hometown in Argentina — Wright Thompson, at ESPN

"Wright Thompson goes on a quest to find out more about the enigma that is Messi, flying to Rosario, Messi's hometown, only to discover no signs of him," Oxenham says. "No statues, no wall murals, no photos, no evidence that the world's greatest was born here. Thompson takes you on a hunt to find out why – and how Messi came to be Messi."

About Our Experts

Keir Radnedge wrote the book on the 2022 World Cup, literally: He's the author of FIFA World Cup Qatar: The Official Guide. He's also the former general editor of World Soccer magazine, published in the U.K.

Radnedge has been to 14 World Cups and counting. He's also the man behind World Football Records, a compendium that is currently going into its 14th edition.

Gwendolyn Oxenham's new book, Pride of a Nation: A Celebration of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, comes out this month. She played college soccer at Duke and professionally in Brazil.

Oxenham's writing and documentary filmmaking career includes a project in which she traveled the world to play in pickup games. Her book Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women's Soccer is now an audio series called Hustle Rule, hosted by actress Hannah Waddingham (who also plays AFC Richmond owner Rebecca Welton on Ted Lasso).

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 17, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misstated the name of the 22 Goals podcast as 21 Goals.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.