The very best books about sport go beyond on-field events, beyond specific teams and tournaments. They go beyond the sport itself, transcending genre to reach something deeper.
The books below are about soccer, yes, but they are about so much more than that. They are about revolution, politics, religion, class warfare, violence, and obsession, and they are about a love affair that consumes millions of people across the globe—a love affair that brings them together and tears them apart.
1. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy
By Joe McGuiness
On the surface, this is a book about an unknown Italian soccer team struggling in the lower divisions of the Italian leagues. Beneath the surface, Joe McGuiniss’s book is a warm and enchanting blend of anthropology, travel writing, and personal memoir. McGuiness, an American, spends a season in the remote Italian village of Castel di Sangro and falls in love with the place and its people. He travels with the local team to remote villages and grand cities as they attempt to navigate the dizzy heights of Italian soccer’s second tier, and along the way brings to life parts of Italy that many readers will never have heard of. The result is a gloriously funny book, full of endearing and warm characters, that has likely inspired many a vacation to the remote villages of the Italian countryside.
2. Fever Pitch
By Nick Hornby
Easily the most accessible and universally appealing book on this list, Fever Pitch is a personal memoir that takes the reader deep inside English soccer culture. An obsessive Arsenal fan, Nick Hornby writes with an everyman appeal as he catalogs his victories and defeats in life and love and growing up in North London. Don’t be discouraged by the weak baseball-themed movie starring Jimmy Fallon—it shares little with the book beyond its name. Hornby is an engaging writer, capable of drawing the reader into a world they may only have a passing interest in, and Fever Pitch is a funny, touching, and eye-opening memoir that it is essential reading for even the mildly soccer-curious.
3. Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics
By Jonathan Wilson
OK, so this one isn’t for the casual fan by any stretch, but it offers so much more than the technical analysis that the title suggests. Jonathan Wilson will turn you into a knowledgeable and well-informed viewer of the game, but he will also give you unique cultural and historical insight. You may, as a soccer fan, be more than familiar with the cagey, defensive style of the Italians or the “Total Football” of the Dutch, but have you ever stopped to think about how those styles evolved and how they might be informed by the cultures and people that developed them? This is a book that will not only deepen your knowledge of the beautiful game, but will give you an edge when discussing politics and world history.
4. Among the Thugs
By Bill Buford
Any well-grounded soccer fan will tell you this book isn’t about soccer at all. It’s not about soccer fans either. It’s about hooliganism, organized crime, and a terrifying subculture that was associated with English soccer throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Bill Buford is an American author who went deep inside the notorious world of soccer hooliganism at its height, establishing trust and credibility with some of its most dangerous protagonists. The result is a gonzo-style tour de force that is equal parts funny, endearing, fascinating, and horrifying—always horrifying. This is not for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach it the rewards are wildly entertaining.
5. How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
By Franklin Foer
Like it or not, (and if you’re reading this I’m guessing you like it) soccer is a dominating, ubiquitous presence on this planet. New Republic editor Franklin Foer offers a lively and detailed exploration of how soccer shapes our world and how our world shapes soccer. From the brutal sectarianism of Glasgow to the women-free stadiums of Iran, Foer will take you to the far corners of the globe in rich and colorful detail, exploring politics, religion, organized crime, and economic disparity all from the vantage point of the beautiful game.
6. Soccer in Sun and Shadow
By Eduardo Galeano
For reasons that confound the average non-fan, soccer is referred to the world over as “the beautiful game.” If there is one author who makes a good case for this epithet, it is Eduardo Galeano. Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a collection of poetic vignettes that describe aspects of the game and its history in a tone rarely associated with sports writing. Galeano is a renowned Uruguayan author and journalist, and he achieves both a historical survey (beginning with the sport’s origins in China some five thousand years ago) and a magical and playful retelling of some of the game’s most iconic moments, all rendered in a style that will appeal to lovers of world literature regardless of the level of their interest in soccer.
7. Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey—and Even Iraq—Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport
By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
Essentially “Money Ball for soccer,” Soccernomics takes a clinical and statistics-based approach to explaining the trends, misconceptions, and realities that dominate the world of soccer. There are those for whom the beautiful game will always remain an emotional and romantic entity, and they may be put off by the nature of this analysis, but while Soccernomics does dispel a lot of myths with hard facts, the writing is never cold or boring. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski are engaging and amusing throughout and the result is not just an interesting book about soccer but an interesting book about the world we live in and the expectations, biases, and misconceptions that inform our world-views.
8. The Damned United: A Novel
By David Peace
David Peace casts the infamous Brian Clough as a dark and disturbed character in this brilliant, noir novel. Imposing fiction on reality, The Damned United takes us through Clough’s brief tenure as the manager of Leeds United in 1974. Clough is a notorious figure in English soccer, and Peace imagines the inner-workings of his mind, devoting a chapter to each of the forty-four brief days he spent on the job, painting him as a destructive, self-loathing, and dangerous figure. If you want the juiciest version possible, get your hands on the 2007 edition, which includes sections that were removed in subsequent editions because of a libel case. This is the rare case of sports writing that genuinely holds its own in the world of fiction.
9. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke
By Ronald Reng
Robert Enke was one of the leading lights of German soccer—a goalkeeper enjoying an illustrious career at some of Europe’s top clubs, and on the verge of representing his country at the 2010 World Cup—when he stepped in front of a train and abruptly ended his own life. Ronald Reng, a close friend and writer, pieces together his friend’s life and tries to find meaning in his death. A Life Too Short gives us a window into the internal struggles of a public figure dealing with the invisible forces of depression. It’s a touching and warm tribute to a complicated human being, a fascinating biography, and a reminder that the same human frailties and challenges lurk in the lives of the most accomplished among us.
10. Why Soccer Matters
By Pele, Brian Winter
The story of not just the greatest icon the game of soccer has ever known, but of one of the great iconic figures of the modern world. Pele is a transcendent figure and has been an ambassador for the sport of soccer, as well as the Brazilian people, for much of his life. In Why Soccer Matters, Pele not only tells the story of his own humble upbringing and inspiring career, but of his people, his culture, and his belief in the unifying power of the game. Along the way, he makes a valid case for soccer as a vehicle for social change, citing examples from his own life and his country’s storied past, as well as looking ahead to its potential role in the future.