At least since the fifth century BC, when Pindar entreated his heart to sing the splendor of the Olympian in his victory odes, poets have found in sport a worthy subject. And soccer—as we know it, a game of relatively recent advent, despite a lineage that can be traced back thousands of years—has inspired many to write in praise of its glory and in lamentation of the heartache it can yield. As “the world’s game,” perhaps no other sport has been written about by amateur and professional poets of so many nations. A commercial for the Museum of Soccer in São Paulo declares that “if soccer were a literary genre, it would be poetry,” and, unsurprisingly, several of Brazil’s greatest poets—including Carlos Drummond de Andrade and João Cabral de Melo Neto—have taken inspiration from futebol. Italian poet Umberto Saba wrote with stinging wisdom about the game during the 1934 World Cup, played in Mussolini’s Italy. In “Goal,” the pleasures and dangers of collective effervescence did not escape Saba, who regarded Fascism as a disease: “Few moments ever bring such joys / To those consumed with hate and love.” In his early 20th-century poem “Football Match,” the Flemish experimentalist Paul van Ostaijen wrote that “[t]he greatest joy is to win or die,” perhaps foretelling the lyrics of thousands of poets contributing to soccer sites worldwide.
This can be very serious indeed, because to many of us who love the game, soccer functions in two ways at once. It is, first, a game whose dual aims are to drive a ball into a goal—with vigorous force or sly elegance or, most thrillingly, a combination of the two—and to prevent the opposition from doing just that. At the same time, it is also a slate onto whose surface our private hopes and desires and victories and failures and hatreds and loves are inscribed and thereby transformed—allegorized or made more concrete, illuminated or darkened, depending on who wins, who loses, who plays beautifully, who badly.
And so it is with poems about soccer: some depict the game-as-the-game, and others engage it as a frame through which to observe even more universal concerns. Much of the work posted on the wonderful and wonderfully democratic website footballpoets.org, which has published 12,500 poems since it launched 10 years ago this month, could not be more explicitly about soccer, delivering up-to-the-minute poetic commentary on the game. Last fall, for example, after the infamous qualifying match in which a handball from France’s Thierry Henry robbed Ireland of its chance to compete in the World Cup, poems written in indignant response swiftly popped up on the site, including Jim Dolbear’s “Handy Man”:
More recently, Kevin Halls, who has contributed more than 70 poems to footballpoets.org and is a fan of Coventry City Football Club, a team struggling in the second tier of English league soccer, composed a knowingly irrational, tongue-in-cheek plea-in-verse to the club’s chairman to “buy Lionel Messi,” perhaps the greatest striker in the world (one to watch closely this summer when he plays for Argentina). Other contributors take more fanciful approaches. Liverpool-born Eddie Gibbons imagines a meeting between a famous painter and the French forward in “Frida Kahlo Meets Eric Cantona.” (Philosopher-footballer Cantona’s notorious 1995 press-conference statement, after he’d been shown a red card and then promptly delivered a kung-fu kick to a Crystal Palace fan he claimed had provoked him, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,” arguably approaches the poetic.)
Performance poet Crispin Thomas, one of footballpoets.org’s founders and editors, has composed more than 400 poems about the game, and is circumspect about why poets write about soccer. “Who can answer why?” he told me. “Some people ring football radio phone-ins. Some write poems.” True enough. Among those who have elected to write poems rather than call in to radio chat shows, few have done it better than Diane Ackerman, Simon Armitage, and Don Paterson.
American poet, essayist, and naturalist Diane Ackerman actively followed the short-lived New York Cosmos in their heyday, when the team’s roster included international superstars Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia. Ackerman, who described herself as “fascinated by the lyric beauty and tribal rhythms of the game,” became deeply immersed in the sport. She wrote about the Cosmos for the New York Times, and even started work on a novel in which soccer was featured, although she later abandoned it, writing instead some powerfully descriptive and closely observed poems. “Soccer at the Meadowlands” captures both the physicality of the game and the “invisible something” greater that it represents to its players and fans. As a celebration of a glorious goal—and with its very classical, homoerotic ending—it reaches directly back to the odic spirit of Pindar:
Near the goal, head sunk into his shoulders
as he sprints, Chinaglia takes the ball
spat at his feet,
dribbles it around a thatch of yellow shirts
and, sliding between the legs
of two defenders, belts it hard
into that caged, invisible something
beyond the green reason of the field
into the netted calm no one enters.
The home crowd's ear-splitting rant
grows seismic. Screams blur
to wind howl and cymbals.
A jig-step. Chinaglia raises his fists
as laurels. In a walking faint,
he gallops round the pitch,
leaping, as if lovesick,
into Marinho’s arms, leaping
to the hypnotic boom of the crowd.
West Yorkshire-born Simon Armitage’s “Goalkeeper with a Cigarette” manages to reproduce the defiant and defensive stance of the keeper, soccer’s solitary man—but liberated of the anxiety generally associated with his nerve-wracking position. We are told both what he is and what he is not:
That’s him sat down, not like the other clowns,
performing acrobatics on the bar, or press-ups
in the box, or running on the spot,
togged out in turtleneck pyjama-suits
with hands as stunted as a bunch of thumbs,
hands that are bandaged or swaddled with gloves,
laughable, frying-pan, sausage-man gloves.
Not my man, though, that’s not what my man does;
a man who stubs his reefers on the post
and kicks his heels in the stud-marks and butts,
lighting the next from the last, in one breath
making the save of the year with his legs,
taking back a deep drag on the goal-line
in the next; on the one hand throwing out
or snaffling the ball from a high corner,
flicking off loose ash with the other.
This is no fool, this keeper. This is a tough, cool character. But like a good game, his composure is hard-fought and hard-won. When the goalkeeper is given voice at the poem’s end, we learn what makes him tick in a piece of advice that is both devastating and exhilarating:
He is what he is, does whatever suits him,
because he has no highfalutin song
to sing, no neat message for the nation
on the theme of genius or dedication;
in his passport, under 'occupation',
no one forced the man to print the word
'custodian', and in The Faber Book
of Handy Hints his five-line entry reads:
'You young pretenders, keepers of the nought,
the nish, defenders of the sweet fuck-all,
think bigger than your pockets, profiles, health;
better by half to take a sideways view,
take a tip from me and deface yourselves.’'
The superb Scottish poet Don Paterson, winner of last year’s Forward Prize for his latest book, Rain, claims to have been inspired to write poetry as a young man after seeing Tony Harrison—whose major poem, “v.,” is set in a graveyard desecrated by skinhead soccer hooligans—on television. Paterson’s first book, published in 1993, was called Nil Nil, after the final score in a goalless match. When a game ends tied 0-0, there is no winner and no loser—there is, in a sense, nothing. The longish title poem is a block of obsidian: dark, hard, brilliant, and dangerously sharp-edged, in which soccer is the micro, history the macro. It is a song of what-is-unremembered, spiraling unrelentingly downward from the first three words—“From the top”—that follow the long epigraph (attributed to Francois Aussemain, a writer of Paterson’s invention) that speaks of “abandoned histories, to the final word: “Goodbye.” We are introduced to small-time footballers in games with “scores so obscene / no respectable journal will print them; though one day / Farquhar’s spectacular bicycle-kick / will earn him a name-check in Monday’s obituaries” and to a boy dribbling a stone into a gutter; “unknown to him,” it is in fact a gallstone—“all that remains / of a lone fighter-pilot” whose engine “plopped out and would not re-engage,” dispatching the airman to his death. This is a poem that just might kill a reader, too—unless the reader is willing and able to accept that it is also extremely funny—in a painfully bleak way. “It is,” Scottish painter Lex Braes confirms, “typically Scottish humor. So dire, you’d better laugh.”
So it will surely be for some fans as World Cup group stages end this week in South Africa. Only sixteen teams will remain, and there's only one title to be won—but there are still thousands of opportunities for poems.