‘Football’ by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Review)

FootballWhile most of my interests these days revolve around literature, there was a time when I was a lot more active, spending many an hour running around a pitch chasing a ball (often quite successfully).  Sadly, those days are long gone, but I’m still a fan of the beautiful game and quite partial to books which discuss it.  Having said all that, then, the latest non-fiction work from Fitzcarraldo Editions would appear to have my name all over it, and with the Copa America Centenario in full swing over in the US, and the European Championships having just started in France, it seems like a good time to give it a go 🙂

Belgian writer Jean-Phillipe Toussaint is another with a love for the game, and in his book Football (translated by Shaun Whiteside, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher), he discusses his relationship with the sport, with the text structured loosely around the last few World Cup Finals tournaments.  Starting with 1998, a memorable year for all Francophones, Toussaint blends his experiences of the tournaments with memories of younger days, looking back at games on Belgian wastelands with jumpers for goals.  We then move forward in time, with Toussaint focusing heavily on the 2002 event in Japan and Korea, less on the German edition of 2006 (and hardly at all on the 2010 South Africa World Cup), ending up with a uniquely personal take on the 2014 final in Brazil, one involving a storm and an old transistor radio.

Football is a short work, clocking in at 88 pages (with a few spaces scattered among them) – it’s certainly not a book that will take you a week to get through (ninety minutes, perhaps?).  Toussaint takes a rather personal approach, and while there is some description of what’s happening on the pitch, for the most part the actual football is implicit.  Those without the encyclopaedic knowledge of the World Cup that some people (like me…) have may not even notice the allusions at all.  This is particularly true in the first section, with its mini-essays and musings on topics such as stadiums, childhood, seasons and the trophy.

The heart of the book is the section on the 2002 World Cup, where Toussaint makes the journey to Japan, alternating between lecture tours and stadium visits.  This is by far the best part of the work, with vibrant descriptions of fans and games, in particular the part describing the writer’s experience before, and during, the match between Japan and Belgium:

Tens of kilometres away from the stadium, before I even entered the metro, I started to notice the first blue jerseys in the streets of Tokyo…
p.37 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016)

This vision of a blue tide sweeping through the busy streets of the capital contrasts with more traditional views of the Kamo river in Kyoto, reminding me of my own time in the country (I left Japan in May 2002, shortly before the World Cup – my application for tickets was unsuccessful…).

At the end of the book, there’s a bonus piece, an earlier essay titled ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’.  It’s a whimsical, wistful take on that night in 2006 when the best player in the world temporarily lost his head – and put it where it didn’t belong.  It’s an interesting take on the event, and while I don’t agree with the writer’s views completely, it’s a nice way to round the book off.

All in all, Football sounds tailor-made for me, yet in truth I never really warmed to it.  It’s a fragmented work which never hangs together, less a book than a collection of pieces put together for the occasion:

But I’m wandering off, I’m dawdling and shilly-shallying, without ever losing sight of my central idea, don’t worry. (p.13)

Forgive me if I doubt that a little…  Toussaint is obviously a fan (albeit no Nick Hornby), but the book falls between two stools.  In his foreword, he jokes that neither intellectuals nor football fans will like the book; I’m both (sort of), and it never really satisfies me.  Even the Zidane piece is not quite right, with its idea of Zidane knowing he is fated to lose, unable to alter this fate – which is not how I saw it (the best player on the pitch was racially taunted by a sleazy opponent until he snapped…).

The book is less about football than about memory, nostalgia, and Toussaint uses the topic to look back in time, with football a lens focusing our view of the past:

I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing as always, about the passing of time. (p.27)

And perhaps this is the way we need to read it, ignoring the rather coincidental guiding thread of football and concentrating on what the book says about the writer, even if that can be a little disappointing for those who actually want to read about the sporting side of life.  The writing is excellent, and Whiteside has managed to produce a text which is clear and flowing and doesn’t pander too much to a global audience (although I’d have preferred him to talk about ‘shirts’ rather than ‘jerseys’…).

On reflection, I’ve probably been a little harsh on Toussaint here, but I expected and wanted more from this, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed (for a much more positive take, see the review of Tony Messenger, another Melburnian reader and football fan).  Football is enjoyable in parts, and Toussaint does occasionally catch the right tone in his description of what makes football the cultural phenomenon it is:

When the dénouement comes, football transports us even further, it ignites us.  I have jumped with joy all alone in deserted living rooms.  During penalty shoot-outs, I have prayed mentally, I have held my breath, fingers crossed, eyes closed, open, hoping, pleading, fiddling with my grigris, clutching my talismans, imploring St Anthony of Padua, plunging mental needles into opponents’ calves. (p.17)

As have we all… Sadly, though, despite these occasional highlights, in any fictional football writing cup, Toussaint is likely to struggle to make the knockout stages 😉

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