With the World Cup approaching, one could not do better than to pick up Dubois’s book or to gift it to one’s nearest reluctant spectator.
Soccer is often referred to as “the beautiful game,” and it’s easy to understand why. It’s an open-ended game, made of imagination, improvisation and sudden bursts of creativity that can seem divinely inspired. Soccer seems to speak in an almost universal language, one capable of inspiring fervent passion of nearly opera-like magnitude.
But to the uninitiated, the sport’s claim to a kind of visual poetry can seem exaggerated. For long stretches of time, there can be what feels like endless passing between players without anything in particular taking place. Shots go sailing past the goal, seemingly miles off target. Players fall down at even the slightest touch, exhibiting untold depths of agony and despair until they rise again, unscathed, as though forgetting their own pain. Much ado about nothing, in short. Why tolerate two 45-minutes halves of a game that can unceremoniously end in a 0-0 draw?
In his book The Language of the Game, Duke professor Laurent Dubois, best known for his work on Haitian culture and history, offers an infectious account of o jogo bonito that’s likely to convert unbelievers. He ably captures the game’s sensual aspects as well as its conceptual appeal, the way it mirrors so much of the whirlwind of the human experience, and he gives us informed portraits of its most prominent protagonists.
The book’s ingenious structure follows, chapter by chapter, the main figures of the pitch—the goalkeeper, the defender, the midfielder, the forward, the manager, the referee and, finally, the fan. He tackles each one as though it were a mythological archetype, exploring the figure’s psychology and its mode of being within the cosmology of the game. Along the way, he illustrates his analysis with concrete examples drawn from some of the game’s greatest characters and most iconic moments of competition.
Throughout, he shows how each kind of player possesses his or her own poignancy and flair, and how part of what makes soccer special as a sport is the extent to which it allows a given player’s personality to shine through and be reflected in his or her every action on the pitch, as though a soccer team were composed of eleven Picassos calibrating their egos to make room for others.
Finally, and most importantly, the structure Dubois employs allows him to show how a given soccer game can be viewed from myriad perspectives, and can be experienced in several different ways depending on the player whose viewpoint one adopts. This is trivially true of all sports, but meaningfully true of soccer—any player can become the protagonist of a given game, relegating the rest of the cast to supporting roles, only to have someone else become the protagonist in the next match.
With the World Cup approaching, one could not do better than to pick up Dubois’s book or to gift it to one’s nearest reluctant spectator, to give a sense for how much drama the game contains, and to show how the whole arc of human emotion can find a home within those 90 minutes—yes, even if the game ends up scoreless.