‘God is Round’ by Juan Villoro (Review)

IMG_5473This summer has been one long celebration for the football fan with the Copa America Centenario taking place on one side of the Atlantic and Euro 2016 on the other, and as is often the case, publishers have taken the opportunity to release several books on the beautiful game.  I thought it only fair to follow suit and try one from both regions, but the European choice, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football, didn’t really do it for me.  Let’s see if today’s Latin-American equivalent can take out the trophy, or whether it’s more own-goals all round…

God is Round (translated by Thomas Bunstead, review copy courtesy of Restless Books) is a collection of essays on football by the Mexican writer Juan Villoro.  Over 250 pages, Villoro explores a variety of issues connected with the sport, comfortably walking the line between enthusiastic fandom and detached analysis.  While there’s little unique to his pieces, the view from Latin-America lends a slightly different slant to his opinions, particularly for those whose football reading has thus far been a diet of mainly European texts.

The book is divided into thirteen sections, many of the longer ones subdivided into mini-essays of a matter of pages, making God is Round an easy book to dip into.  Villoro begins by talking about fans and their importance, explaining how he came to support his team and theorising on the stoicism he finds in the average Mexican fan, a philosophy made necessary by decades of heartbreaking failure.  There are shades of Fever Pitch here as he looks back at his first stadium visits in the company of a father whose team the young Villoro will later reject.

The following section, ‘When a Goal is More than a Goal’, brings together several anecdotes tangentially linked by the idea of a greater importance outside the game.  While the story of ‘the world’s longest goal’, a ball floating all the way from Japan to the California coast (with the owner’s name written on it in pen), raises a smile, other pieces are more sombre.  We learn of a 1942 match between a group of Ukrainian prisoners of war and their German captors, one in which the home team’s inability to throw the match has deadly consequences…

Perhaps the most impressive, and cohesive, part of the book is the lengthy chapter entitled ‘The Football and the Head’, in which Villoro examines the mental pressures involved in football.  He puts forward an idea of football as a pressure valve, necessary for good health:

Football’s like fiber in your diet: you don’t want it to be all you have, but a certain amount is good for clearing you out.  People bring a lot to football, and so a lot gets eliminated there.  We can hardly judge it by the sublime protocols one associates with opera, given that its very reason is to vent emotional excesses, to let the lunatic inside each of us take control for ninety minutes, so that the person who comes home from the match might be, if no great humanist, at least reasonably normal.
p.78 (Restless Books, 2016)

However, when it comes to coping with the stresses of the beautiful game, some are certainly more equal than others, and Villoro discusses how a nation’s history and character can contribute to success or failure in major tournaments (coincidentally enough, I read this section around the time England were proving Villoro right with their dismal performance against Iceland…).

Much of the final third is devoted to essays on players, with Villoro musing over what makes some of the legends of the world game special.  There’s a lengthy section on the rise and fall (and rise) of a certain Diego Armando Maradona, a short look at the physical limitations on the career of the Brazilian striker Ronaldo as well as what amounts to a hagiography of Lionel Messi.  Perhaps more interesting, though, is an essay with a slightly different approach, Villoro’s diatribe against everyone’s favourite footballing cyborg Cristiano Ronaldo.  The writer makes no effort to hide his dislike for CR7, an individual in a team sport, summing up his opinions thus:

Cristiano’s physical perfection is a mirror for his solitude on the pitch. (p.207)

A little harsh, but it’s an opinion which many fans share – any Icelandic fan could tell you that’s there’s nothing as refreshing as a drink of sweet #RonaldoTears 😉

God is Round is an enjoyable read, but it’s by no means perfect.  In a short discussion on Facebook, a couple of dissenting voices were less than impressed, and some of their points were certainly valid.  The nature of the book, a collection of essays pulled together for the volume, means that there’s a lot of repetition, with Villoro fond of certain anecdotes and willing to pull them out whenever he feels the need.  The first mention of a goal by Lionel Messi which is almost a perfect recreation of Maradona’s ‘goal of the century’ is interesting, particularly when Villoro compares this act with Borges’ story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’.  However, by the time the fourth mention comes around, the anecdote has clearly outstayed its welcome.

It could also be argued that there’s a slight lack of flow to God is Round.  The section I mentioned above, ‘The Football and the Head’, works well precisely because it’s a cohesive text, with a progression in the ideas.  This doesn’t always work in the rest of the book, with the whole seeming a little disjointed.  When you add to this the fact that much of what Villoro says will be more than familiar to the well-read, lifelong football fan, you can understand those who are less than impressed by the book.

Still, despite these issues, I enjoyed it a lot, just as much for some of the writing as for the stories.  On the whole, Bunstead has done a great job here, bringing Villoro’s distinctive voice into English (perhaps I appreciate it all the more because, despite the spelling, the language is decidedly British…).  There are some excellent passages which slow time down, just as Villoro says football itself does, with frequent bon mots (e.g. devoting prayers to ‘Our Lady of the Slender Victory’), and I loved the comment which opens the short piece ‘The Speed of Memory’:

Football nostalgia is always in a hurry.  Félix Fernández makes the comment that among the things you lose when you make the move from amateur to pro, the most precious is the “third half”, which consists of drinking and remembering: the only thing better than seeing a goal being to play it back.  In this period of extra time, passages of play expand and dilate as though Proust were in the dugout. (p.117)

Also, while God is Round may not be destined to join the classics of football writing, Villoro is generous enough to point the reader in the direction of those books that have.  He mentions one of my favourite football books, All Played Out, Pete Davies’ epic description of Italia ’90, and the frequent allusions to Eduardo Galleano’s classic Football in Sun and Shadow had me searching for a copy on the library database long before I’d reached the end of the book.

While it won’t be for everyone, and there’s certainly an element of repetition at times, if you accept God is Round for what it is, a collection of disparate essays which haven’t been majorly reworked for the book, you’ll probably enjoy it.  It’s a work I’ll be definitely be dipping into again, and if forced to make a comparison, Villoro’s book would certainly sweep Toussaint’s Football aside comfortably in any imaginary clash.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling a little thirsty, so I’ll stop there.  I wonder if I’ve got any Ronaldo Tears in the fridge…

P.S. Villoro appears in conversation with Chad Post and George Carroll in the last part of a recent episode of the Three Percent Podcast – well worth a listen 🙂

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