FEBRUARY 18, 2022
ALTHOUGH THE OSTENSIBLE TASK of Mark Yakich’s new book, Football, is to explain the global phenomenon of soccer, the author’s true goal is to praise “the beautiful game” in general and, specifically, to pen a love letter to the pickup games that got him — and so many of us — through the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.
Yakich grew up in Illinois, so for his early soccer games, his “mother drove [him] to a neighboring Chicago suburb to try a sport she’d never heard of.” His guide to the game today is Rodolfo Machirica, a player he met during his regular pickup game in New Orleans, where Yakich teaches at Loyola University. Machirica, from Mozambique, grew up with football so that — even though it wasn’t “his thing” back home — putting on the cleats makes him feel like a child again.
Born and bred in a heartland of English football and raised to play competitively, I don’t need a Rodolfo-like guide. What I do need, though, is someone to remind me of the beauty of the game apart from its combat and passion — football not as tribal warfare but as community bonding. For our pickup game, my friend Pierre is my Rodolfo, someone who embodies the beautiful game as a prosocial practice.
In a world where class, gender, race, and ideology are often used to divide and segment us, Yakich decisively shows how football brings us together. Unlike Big Tech, which promotes a myth of “social media” to cover its divisive profit-making and intrusive spying, sports in general — and football, specifically — provide actual unifying social media. Freed from the bonds of language, class, or creed, almost anyone — encompassing a surprising breadth of physical ability — can play. Yakich asks a rhetorical question about the inclusive demographics of his coed pickup game, whose members’ ages run “from 13 to 68”: “What do a plumber, a judge, a preschool teacher, a doctor, an actor, a retiree, a roofer, a college student, a sheriff’s deputy, an ex-army grunt, an undocumented migrant, a business professor, a tailor and a poet all have in common?”
My own group, founded by German journalists in New York 20 years ago, has been run by Pierre, a French fashion designer, for 15 years now. Constantly changing in composition, it spans a similarly broad age range. Gregorio, who has since retired, came back to play even after having a stroke in his 60s. André played with us from age 13 until he graduated college and moved away for a job — coaching soccer. While our Manhattan occupations have meant players arriving for Sunday games at 7:00 a.m. fresh from delivering babies or partying or producing galas, and others leaving promptly to conduct church services, attend conferences in China, or stack shelves, there are numerous players with whom I have played for a decade without having any idea what their weeks are like beyond Sunday’s white lines.
Yakich repeatedly approaches the different types of zen, spirit, or flow that inform the game. Watching the shapes of play on television, he can attain a “near mindless state, something like what ecologist and philosopher Timothy Morton calls ‘stupid meditation.’” This is not intended to be reductive; rather, it’s a focus on the here and now, the shape of things as they are becoming. As he approvingly quotes flawed superstar Zinedine Zidane, “Magic is sometimes close to nothing at all.”
His friend Nathan, who grew up in Guatemala, comes along to watch and see why Yakich enjoys playing so much, and Yakich quotes the notes that Nathan, also a professor, types up:
I see why you say multiple tiki-taka games in the week has [sic] replaced the crucial need for yoga or meditation. Tiki-taka [a Spanish style of play characterized by short passes] quiets the monkey mind because there is no time or space for anything but the present, or the very immediate future: if you don’t have the ball, you’re always moving to where you can receive it and so is everyone else […] like kids taking advantage of every second of recess!
Every single game offers certain moments, unique, sublime, or even ridiculous in their own little way, and I’m sure, based on the joy of this game, that those moments live another life […] [in the] few minutes before falling asleep.
Yakich is spot on about almost everything he says about football, soccer, fútbol, futebol, sepak bola, Fußball, or calcio (see chapter three, “The Name of the Game”). He captures the shared global experience, the flow of the game as enjoyed by billions and evinced by genius practitioners like Zidane, the distinction between professional Big Sport as capitalist expropriation and The Beautiful Game as played by the people, the rapport between the crowd and the players, the zen of random televised games, the bizarre alienation and camaraderie of being a thoughtful person in a soccer crowd, and the challenges and hopes of overcoming racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ bias through a game whose spirit transcends prejudices, but whose tribes too often embrace them.
What he misses, though, is the passion. I grew up going to games where Manchester United fans standing on terraces (i.e., bleachers) below us would jump and gob at us, trying to spit over a 10-foot vertical wall. They would end up standing in their own saliva, but the game Yakich and I love does not need spit or walls: it has no place for “us versus them” barriers. It is inclusive: a physical community meditation, it is flow incarnate. But as with any description of a religion, a chronicle of the world’s game must explain its zealots and fundamentalists, and the fervor of its sectarianism.
Having a vantage point from a neutral land can help Yakich be more objective, but for most people around the world, football is about belief, not objectivity. The three-touch pickup soccer that worked so well for social distancing and mental health in New Orleans during a pandemic is great, but it’s an edge case. Though Yakich has played competitive football, it doesn’t seem as though his playing experiences were formed in the crucible of competitive seasons. Furthermore, he is explicit about the fact that he is not a passionate fan of any team and watches random games from the “Chinese Super League.” So, he has the ethos and feel of pickup footie down, as well as the appeal of the game as an aesthetic. But he doesn’t convey the raw passion of football as war or religion.
Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, to which this volume belongs, aims to describe the “hidden lives of ordinary things.” Starting from “a specific inspiration,” which can be “a personal narrative,” the books explore “the object of the title, gleaning a singular lesson or multiple lessons along the way.” Yakich structures his pocket-sized book in 24 tiny chapters. Though their lengths vary, each is shorter than this current review. But each, in its own way, outlines an experience, an insight, or an explanation of football for Yakich, from the way the game has helped him with his panic attacks to the linguistic and cultural peculiarities of “pelada” (pickup soccer) around the world.
The one minor topic where I find his judgment deeply flawed — and I would have expected him, as a professor and poet, to be more sensitive to language — is his praise for color commentator Ray Hudson. A fixture on coverage of La Liga (Spain’s top league) over the decades, Hudson’s main features are his Geordie accent (he’s from Newcastle) and his memorable locutions. Sadly, these latter are precooked comments cobbled together from a thesaurus before the match. Unconnected to the flow of play, they substitute hollow verbal theatrics for footballing insight. Yakich discusses the career of superstar Swedish player Zlatan Ibrahimović, who admits that his fancy tricks were not appreciated at the Dutch team Ajax “unless they led to something concrete.” Hudson’s tricks lead to nothing.
Even though Hudson has stood as a barrier between Americans and football for decades, I don’t want to dwell on him. It’s too rare of a treat to have the opportunity to review a book by your long-lost twin. Yakich is a professional poet and teacher of poetry while I also have published poems and taught literature at the college level (though not, of course, with his success). We both celebrated our 50th birthdays in lockdown, playing pickup soccer to stay sane. We both wondered — independently, after playing socially distant sport in masks, illegally — whether we should tell our wives and daughters (dear reader, we both did). My occasional arguments with Yakich are minor and friendly, for the sake of argument and perhaps over a beer.
Yakich ends the book by inviting visitors to play in his game: “And, if you plan to visit New Orleans send me a note and bring along your cleats. I’ll let you know if we’re still playing three-touch.” Mark — when you come to New York, drop me a note, we play at 7:00 a.m. every Sunday.