Essay

Footy Verse

Soccer's laureates score during the World Cup

by Rosie Schaap
World Cup PoetryPhoto: Getty Images

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”:

Thierry
Henry
Incites
Eire.
Result !
Robbed !
Yet
Handball
Earns
No
Replay
Yet.

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.  

Originally Published: June 21, 2010

COMMENTS (9)

On June 21, 2010 at 2:07pm Matthew Beckerman wrote:
Even for a quadrennial fan, there is certainly a beauty to the game that I can find inspiring. For me, the sheer talent, speed and to some extent, abandon, of some of the Latin American teams definitely approach art. Contrast that with the amazing precision and ball handling of, say, the German team, which has a certain joy of its own, but seems more scientific somehow--it would be interesting to read a poet trying to capture that.

On June 21, 2010 at 2:52pm charles yoder wrote:
Oh Rosie My Rosie

You make me almost want to watch the real Footballers with pen and paper at the ready.

"to drive a ball with vigorous force or sly elegance or, most thrillingly, a combination of the two" "Exactemente", Al Taylor used to say.

To look and experience the there: be it sports, poetry or painting.

Love Charlie

On June 22, 2010 at 9:11am Wyn Cooper wrote:
Great piece, Rosie! I especially like the Armitage poem. I like the way it runs, dodging, down the page.

On June 22, 2010 at 1:15pm kimjaye wrote:
Rosie,

I was in Italy last week. The streets were
dead during World Cup and thundered
alternately.

It's my dream to be a "soccer mom." I
tried a few years ago, but the oldest was
still too young. She does like to
run...there's hope.

On June 24, 2010 at 11:16am Eric Heath wrote:
In soccer, very well played, I can sometimes see each possession of the ball as a poetic line and each touch as a word choice; a pass to a teammate or the loss of the ball as a line break and each pair of adversarial possessions as a couplet. Narrative can be seen in each possession. Goal kicks may even signal new stanzas. Perhaps part of the reason that even scoreless games can be so compelling.

On June 25, 2010 at 3:43pm Timothy Turner wrote:
Who is going to write the poems about
the events outside the World Cup
stadiums in South Africa? Bringing to the
attention of your readers, the political
struggles of an oppressed people, the
removal of thousands of african
vendors, traders, and refugees and their
shanty town homes in order to showcase
a ‘clean’ africa, the self-serving
economic model of FIFA paid for by
western sponsors, the billions of dollars
spent on infrastructure and stadiums,
that had no future economic or social
benefit for the country. Or the fact that
the majority of African fans are outside
the stadium, because of obvious
economic inequality. It is true that
soccer is poetic. I’m looking forward to
watching the games, like anyone else,
but be careful, while you’re in the
stadium surround by, McDonalds, Coca-
Cola, VISA, Sony, and Hyundai, you
might miss the chance to write about the
humanity outside. That game might be a
little more poetic.

On June 26, 2010 at 4:28pm Nick Asbury wrote:
I've tried penning a little prayer in advance of England's tie against Germany this Sunday. (The references require a certain knowledge of the current England squad.)

The Nation’s Prayer
27:06:10

Our Ashley who Hart and Lennon,
Hallowed be Jermain.
Ledley Kingdom come,
James Milner be done,
On earth as it is Glen Johnson.
Gerrard this day our Jamie bread,
And forgive us our Wright-Phillips,
As we Carrick those who Rob Green against us.
And lead us not into Matt Upson,
But deliver it to Emile.
For Wayne is the Lampard,
The Crouch and the Terry,
Fabio Capello.

Our men.

On June 29, 2010 at 5:29am kevin halls wrote:
Glad Rosie liked my poem on Messi, but it's not just my team Coventry who could do with him, England as well !
Also it's great that the poets site has been mentioned, all us lovers of verse and football would be lost without it.
I am so grateful to Crispin and his team for letting me send in my stuff, I can let my feelings be known about my team and football in general, and when you support the Sky Blues like I do that's a lot of pent up frustration !

On July 2, 2010 at 2:04pm Jack Griner wrote:
What ever happined to poetry like mine
and Edgar Guest?Being 85, maybe our stuff is more down to earth

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Biography

Rosie Schaap has been a bartender, a fortuneteller, a librarian at a paranormal society, an English teacher, an editor, a preacher, a community organizer, a manager of homeless shelters, and a ghostwriter for an inspirational magazine. Her work has been broadcast on the public radio show This American Life, and her book, Drinking With Men, a collection of true stories set in bars she's known and loved, will be published next . . .

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