God Is Round: Tackling The Giants, Villains, Triumphs, And Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game – Juan Villoro (translated by Thomas Bunstead)

The Euro 2016 tournament is in full swing, with the knockout phases about to commence, the Copa America is down to the Final between Argentina and Chile, it is a time for football fans to sit back and watch the best players front up for their respective nations, and it also appears to be a time for football associated literature to hit the shelves. I recently read and reviewed Jean-Philippe Toiussaint’s “Football” a short work exploring his childhood memories and the pull of the World Cup. Today it is time to look at another translated work about the “world game”, Juan Villoro’s “God Is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villans, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game”, translated by Thomas Bunstead.
Juan Villoro is a well-known Mexican journalist and writer, publishing five novels (none available in English to my knowledge), and he has published two collections, “chronicles” and essays specifically about football, as well as regularly writing about the sport he passionately loves. This new work comes from Restless Books a digital-first publisher that “came of a response to the limited exposure an American reader has to international fiction”. In the words of founder Ilan Stavans; “The idea was to start out digitally because it was more economically sound, because the move from print to digital was already taking place, and because it is far easier to make translations readily available in digitized form. Of course, the digitized form means that the margin of revenue is much smaller. There’s Amazon, a huge emporium controlling book distribution, so you have to look for ways to go beyond that big conglomeration of power to find your own readership.” A publisher that also translated graphic novels and science fiction (two genres not often seen in translation), I came across this work when reading interviews with various independent publishers in “Today’s Translation World” (an article written by the translator here Thomas Bunstead), the interviews featuring publishers I regularly haunt, Deep Vellum, Phoneme Media, the newly launched Titled Axis, and Fitzcarraldo amongst others. 
The book “God is Round” is a collection of essays, all, of course, featuring football and coming from various times in Villoro’s writing career. Unlike Toussaint’s book, self-described as follows: This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual. This is a book for football fanatics, an assumed understanding and love of the game is required before you tackle the collection, as famous players are referred to, structures (eg. 4-4-2), awards, tournaments, grounds and more, all with an assumed knowledge.
Since I was a child I’ve been aware that the matches I watch aren’t the best. The sensation of being far from truly great endeavors intensified when satellite TV began bringing goals to us from distant lands. But in any case, being a Mexico supporter, I’ve always known that one’s passion for the game has little to do with winning all the time.
There are also the rituals, myths, superstitions, stories about how you chose a team, memories of times at matches with your father, the sin of switching teams and so much more.
In this changeable reality of ours, it’s perfectly acceptable to switch ideology, job, or even, after one form of therapy or another, one’s sex or religion. But to betray the activity that Javier Marías has defined as “the weekly return to childhood,” now that’s a thorny thing. Which person, having placed all their hopes in a team, can entertain a change of heart during adulthood, the very abolition of which is what football stands for?
As hinted in the quote a little earlier, there is also the Mexican element, what is it to be a Mexican, not just a football supporter (quite pertinent earlier this week when the Mexican football team lost to Chile 7-0 in the Copa Americana Quarter Finals 7-0);
In Mexico City the sense of belonging doesn’t depend on the people or the scenery. Everyone leaves, everything subsides.
And we have literary references, Antonio Tabbucchi appears here (as he did in the book I reviewed earlier this week, Serio Pitol’s “The Art of Flight”) and there is the tale of an Alaskan finding a soccer ball washed up on the shore, a remnant of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a ball signed by a group of children and the journey to take it back to its rightful owner. Sounds very similar to Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Man Booker Prize Shortlisted “A Tale for the Time Being” 
There are also frequent references to other Spanish Language writers, Javier Marias, Jorge Luis Borges and their references to football, and if their writings weren’t specifically about football, Villoro bends the meaning to make sure it fits. The stretch of the imagination is not required here very often, with reflections upon the game spelled out, drawing parallels to political systems, life in general…;
Football offers one of the most propitious situations for the intellectual life, in that the majority of the game is spent doing nothing. You run but the ball is nowhere near you, you stop, you do up your bootlaces, you shout things no one hears, you spit on the ground, you exchange a harsh look with an opposing player, you remember you forgot to lock the terrace door. For the majority of the game, the football player is no more that the possibility of a footballer. He or she can be in the game without being in the game. He or she has to be there for the group sketch to be complete, and has to move around to avoid being caught offside, or to shake off a marker. But there are long stretches in this strange state, being-nowhere-near-the-ball, since it’s only in the zone immediately around the ball that the game truly takes place.
Spain’s La Liga has become a metaphor for a country in crisis; only two or three ever stand a realistic chance of coming out on top, and there are always eight or nine struggling to avoid relegation. The most intense – and democratic – passion awoken isn’t about success but about saving yourself from utter disaster.
Opinions on the greatness of players are also featured, you are going to have to buy and read this for yourself to find out what he thinks of Cristiano Ronaldo, let’s say it’s not pretty, and to learn more about our writer’s opinion on other great players. There is also an examination and an opinion of FIFA’s corruption, which of course is still updating as the weeks unfold;
One of the strangest things about Western democracies is the way they’ve cordoned off the primitive impulse. And the place it’s been cordoned off? Professional sport. The same countries that preach about the rule of law and accountability accept the presence of institutions that are, strictly speaking, criminal enclaves. The most renowned is the one known as “FIFA”.
Utterly divorced from fiscal transparency, specializing in the peddling of influence and shady dealings, a levier of kickbacks, and an ally of autocratic governments, football’s chief global proponent has realized a dream of conducting itself like an irascible banana republic within the realms of the free market. With more paid-up members than the UN, this international organism is run by a group of people only interested in satisfying their own cravings and caprice.
And we have an opinion about the association of violence with football and the potential cessation of such:
Only when FIFA and the politicians and companies associated with the sport submit to democratic rules, only when these vultures within the game lose their “protected species” status (to use the apt phrase of Valencian novelist Ferran Torrent), only at that point will bloodshed on the terraces cease.
A book that is made up of a series of essays, it reads as such, with a number of opinions repeated throughout, but of course would have been singularly highlighted in a single essay, and this factor can be distracting and tiresome. I did find myself occasionally thinking, “Why am I reading this again?” However as a football lover the opinions, knowledge and insight into the passion of other nations (especially Mexico) as well as background to some of the South American Club teams that I didn’t understand, was overall an enjoyable read.

Blending literature, opinion, fact and speculation this is another fine addition to the football books I have recently read, and with significantly more depth than Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “Football” it is a preferred recommendation as reading material for the football fanatic during the European off season.

One thought on “God Is Round: Tackling The Giants, Villains, Triumphs, And Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game – Juan Villoro (translated by Thomas Bunstead)

  1. Pingback: How To Travel Without Seeing – Andrés Neuman (translated by Jeffrey Lawrence) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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