Just as I was experiencing the delirium tremens during the first day on which World Cup games weren’t scheduled, I found relief in the writings of Aleksander Hemon. Hemon is a Bosnian-American fiction writer who in 1982 at the age of 27 visited Chicago and then could not return to his country and family because of the outbreak of war in the Balkans, especially around Sarajevo, the city of his birth. His first novel, Nowhere Man, was a breakthrough novel that transformed his experiences in both Bosnia and the United States and gained praise as a fine addition to the shelf of immigrant fiction. His latest work and his first work of non-fiction, The Book of My Lives, made a few “best books of 2013” lists and has been described by The Economist as an “acute meditations on exile and otherness.” He’s the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and last year was awarded the Heartland Prize, given to outstanding Midwest writers.
But it is The Matters of Life, Death and More: Writings on Soccer that has been feeding my addiction. An Amazon e-book, it’s a timely collection of previously published writing, that, with some alterations, Hemon has done on soccer for The New Republic between 2006 and 2012. Hemon is as knowledgeable as any writer on the ways in which soccer is an expression of national culture and identity and on the ways in which the contemporary game reflects changes in globalization, corporate power, and billionaire ownership. In some of the essays he covers the same territory as was done by Franklin Foer in How Soccer Explains the World while in other pieces he examines the depth of his fanaticism in the way that Nick Hornby did in Fever Pitch. He writes authoritatively about topics like the historical rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona FC and is a decidedly partisan fan of the Barcelona approach. He takes on the myth of David Beckman and reveals how the oversized personality is an average soccer player who hasn’t made much of a difference on the club or national teams for which he has played. He explains that it is a sign of his growing maturity that he is no longer enraptured by the “galacticos,” those over-paid, over-gelled soccer mercenaries or by the “neo-romantics” of earlier days, those genius players like George Best and Diego Maradona, players who came from impoverished backgrounds, played dazzling but selfish soccer, and carried more than a fair share of self-destructiveness in their characters. [Some exception is made for brilliant but troubled Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of Bosnian-Croatian origin, who plays nationally for Sweden.] Like many others, Hemon sings the praises of Lionel Messi, the Argentine who moved to Barcelona in early adolescence, was eagerly initiated into the Barcelona method, and has found a way to subordinate his genius to team play. One can only imagine how he feels about the triumph of Real Madrid in the Champions League (Barcelona was eliminated in the quarterfinals) and in the early demise a Xavi (who Hemon anoints as the best player in the world in 2010) and his Spanish teammates from this year’s cup.
Two pieces are only tangentially related to recent and current World Cup contests, but they are among my favorites. In one he writes about street football, the kind that he played as a kid on the gravelly playground between the Sarajevo apartment buildings in which he lived. It’s the “keep-the-ball” and “play-no-defense” aesthetic that shaped his early preferences for players and teams. In another he writes affectionately about the games in which he plays, he realizes ineptly, on the hard fields around Montrose and Belmont harbor on Chicago’s lakefront. Organized for more than 20 years by an Ecuadorian named German (his father was born in Germany), these games attracted the foreigners who lived in the Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods, players who were called not by their names but by their country of origin. Once a trim striker now a plump defender, Hemon celebrates these Saturday morning rituals and the ways that the passes from the Chilean to the Somalian to the Ukrainian for the easy tap in by the Korean past the Tibetan goal-keeper provide brief moments of magical transcendence. It’s a catholic place: even the 65 year old Lido, an Italian art restoration specialist, is put out on the field even though he has limited mobility. Hemon stops his rhapsody well short of Coca-Cola “we are the world” sentimentality.
Hemon is a thoroughly assimilated American. His Chicago Magazine article “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete List (excerted from The Book of My Lives) is a testimony to his love of his adopted city. Yet his heart is still in Bosnia and his mind is always turned toward the fortunes of the Bosnia-Herzegovina soccer team. When he returns to Sarajevo in 1997 after a five year absence, the first thing that he does is attend a game between the city’s rival soccer teams; the game is played on a pitch made uneven by the exhumation of temporarily-buried casualties of the Serbian bombings of the city. And now, almost two decades later, he like many around the world hopes that his country’s fortunes can provide some relief from the lingering poverty and recent devastating floods. He hopes that the Bosnian-Herzegovian players, many part of the diaspora caused by the wars, will advance to the knock-out round and give the country a boost. But it is not to be: despite a 3-1 victory over Iran, loses to Argentina and Nigeria sent the Dragons home. That many of these Bosnia players never lived in Bosnia is not unusually; 2/3rd of the Algerian 2014 World Cup team were raised and learned their football in Europe, primarily France.
Discovering Hemon’s contributions to The New Republic also made me aware of the fine soccer journalism published in this magazine during the run up to this year’s cup. You’ll find there a fine piece in which fiction writers and intellectuals provide deft portraits of some of the game’s best players: Hemon on Miralem Pjanic; Joseph O’Neill (Netherland) on Holland’s Arjen Robben; Geoff Dyer on Gareth Bale, who plays for Wales, which has never qualified for the World Cup; and Karl Ove Knausgaard on Argentina’s Angel DiMaria who he says looks like Kafka and reminds him of his affection for the Argentine writer Borges. Rabih Alemddine, whose novel An Unnecessary Woman I have blogged about on March 7, limns the character of Andres Iniesta. This piece is a reminder of two things: First, that good sports writing is good writing period. Secondly, that the international soccer player is a rich source for study. Unlike the football or hockey players who are heavily shielded by protective armor and their faces obscured by helmets, the thinly clad soccer player presents himself in human form and he’s “on display” twice as long per game as the equally unarmored NBA player.
Also, you’ll find a piece which suggests that one solution to getting the United States over the top is to continue to maintain military installations in soccer-mad countries where sons of American service personnel can be instructed in the skills and subtleties of the game. It’s interesting to note that three of America’s five goals in the World Cup where scored by sons of African-American soldiers stationed in Germany.