The first thing you’ll notice about A Beautiful Game is that it’s a beautiful book. The photography is rich and diverse — a treasured pair of dirty boots in Liberia, a youth clinic in Cambodia, a junkyard kickabout in Brazil, Fabio Cannavaro with a medal in Germany. Flip through the pages, and the scenes are as vibrant as the made-for-HD Planet Earth and Life TV series. Put the book on a coffee table, and you may find visitors flipping through it regardless of their level of soccer interest.
The text of the book is a collection of essays from mostly famous players around the world, all telling their stories of how they grew up with the game. The 41 essayists include some of the world’s biggest names — Lionel Messi, Luis Figo, Franck Ribery (unfortunate timing, given his current scandal) and Cannavaro. Yet coincidentally or not, Major League Soccer is well-represented. Landon Donovan is the chosen American. Former MLS players Ivan Guerrero, Claudio Suarez, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Nelsen contribute along with current Chivas USA teammates Ante Jazic and Maykel Galindo.
Best of all these is a riveting introduction from David Beckham about a UNICEF visit to Sierra Leone. Beckham talks openly of his fear of being overwhelmed by the conditions he would find on his visit, but as he tells it, he left the country full of hope after greeting families with hugs — and a football. The introduction sets the tone: No matter the circumstances, football gives children hope and joy. Five percent of the book’s proceeds will go to UNICEF sports projects.
The downside is that the stories, though they’re drawn from diverse countries, tend to sound the same after a while. Whether they’re playing on the streets of Honduras or in a club in Finland, the players all talk of playing until sundown and forging their happiest memories kicking about with their friends. Browse through the book in several sittings, and this disadvantage is quickly forgotten.
Yet the book has a deeper drawback. As inclusive as it is for people of different national origins, economic backgrounds and faiths, it’s not gender-inclusive. Women are barely visible — a shot of the U.S. team celebrating stands out as the reader flips through pages and pages of boys and men. How much would we love to read the story of Brandi Chastain picking up the game as girls were first encouraged to play in the USA? Or Marta, learning to play in a culture less accommodating to women’s soccer? (Or so we think.)
That’s the one major oversight. Otherwise, this fine book opens the reader’s eyes to the world, not with sad and shocking tales but with inspirational stories of global joy.
The details: A Beautiful Game, edited by Tom Watt, HarperOne (imprint of HarperCollins), release May 2010