Idols and Underdogs

Literary football fiction: a niche of a niche? In the two following excerpts, Rodge Glass, Shawn Stein and Nicolás Campisi take a fascinating look at football fiction in this exclusive preview from new story anthology Idols and Underdogs.

Rodge Glass: Foreword to Idols and Underdogs, originally published June 2016

Football fans consume vast amounts of non-fiction. Every day there’s a new twist to the ongoing drama of the game — in fact, in this age of minute-by-minute reports and the ever-ready ‘refresh’ button, the idea of daily team news seems quaintly old-fashioned.

To take one example: in the few hours after Manchester United’s Champions League match finished last night, my phone flashed up six newspaper articles, all written during and/or after the game, all edited, checked and online before I went to bed. There was: 1) a straight match report detailing the bald facts of who did what, when; 2) a more nuanced report focusing on the contribution of one star player; 3) another focusing on a recently side-lined squad player now getting his chance; 4) a piece on tactics; 5) a broader view segueing into a thought piece on how the ‘journey’ of the manager at the club is playing out; and then 6) a humour article making fun of it all. (I fell asleep reading number six.) The appetite for football-related writing is massive. It’s worldwide.

And it demands commentary instantly. This we know. But there’s now evidence that fans are also increasingly open to fiction about football. That makes sense. After all, what is a transfer rumour if not speculation, and what is speculation if not making things up? Though it’s gone largely unnoticed, fiction has been, for many years, a crucial part of the media’s football soap opera. Imagination has been central to telling the story, whatever the story is that day. This has usually been labelled ‘journalism’, though it doesn’t always need to be, and I feel strongly that fiction can make a contribution that the on-demand world can’t. It can tell us something more meaningful than straightforward stats.

fiction has been, for many years, a crucial part of the media’s football soap opera.

That’s why I’m interested in it — because football is a reflection. Which means it’s a different game in Ecuador, in Uruguay, in Peru. When this book was sent to me by Adrian at Freight, with the email header ‘Your kind of thing?’, he already knew it was.

In the UK, football fiction is relatively new, but there are examples of the form which have blown apart the idea that somehow sport is sacred, and writers are not allowed to fictionalise it. Arguably, the leader for this has been David Peace, the first literary writer I came across who was brave enough to break apart the conventional historical story in order to get to a kind of deeper truth. This book was The Damned United (2006), a novel which was nothing less than a revelation for me, a weaving together of two stories involving Brian Clough during his successful spell managing Derby County in the 1970s, and disastrous one managing Leeds. Peace inhabited Clough’s voice. He imagined himself into dressing rooms during key events, but more than that, did all those things that literary fiction does at its best — revealing a world readers wouldn’t usually have access to, and doing it with character, detail, charm, subtlety. Much of which is absent in the hectic now-now-now of contemporary football reporting, especially within the sanitised environs of clubs preoccupied with ‘developing our brand’.

Though on one level The Damned United was a novel about Brian Clough’s 44-day period leading a team he despised, it fascinated me even though I have no interest in Leeds United. How? Because it was written with the rhythms and tics of Clough’s DNA. And because, like all good football fiction, it wasn’t really about football at all. It was about male relationships, about a fast-disappearing England, about a man cursed and blessed. Which is deeper, broader, more intriguing, than the bald facts. I thought of Peace when reading Selva Almada’s “Team Spirit”, a story which examines the impact the game has on Argentinian women whose men are obsessed by sport. This is the contribution football fition makes. To look off the field as well as on it.

The Damned United was the direct inspiration for my own football fiction, Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs. I saw what Peace had done and felt liberated. So I invented the least successful player ever for Manchester United (based on half a dozen real ones), and made him fall in love with United’s most successful. By stretching and remoulding history we are able to show the world we truly live in. And I wanted to write about the tension between what modern commercial cash-rich clubs think they are for (money) and what the communities that follow those clubs think they are for (identity). The more I looked around, the more I noticed — as Shawn and his team have done — that I was just one of many people using football in fiction. While I was writing my book, Peace was penning Red or Dead (2013), a stunning fictional portrait of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. Soon after I discovered the writing of Roberto Bolaño, to whom nothing, not even football, was off limits. There was a whole tradition here.

Freight was publishing football fiction even before it existed. Freight Books began proper in 2013, but many years before that was doing one-off projects as part of Freight Design, its sister company. The first of these was The Hope that Kills Us (2003), an anthology of Scottish football fiction which was an unexpected cult success, and which encouraged Adrian at Freight to experiment further. (And now here we are.) Part of what made that book impressive was that, along with the fiction, it contained plenty of truth in it too, hinted at by that memorable title which sums up the attitude of many Scottish football fans over the years who have endured their teams specialise in glorious failure. So again we see that good football fiction reflects the societies it presents. Which brings me to Idols and Underdogs.

Literary fiction is a niche of the vast world of fiction publishing. Football fiction is a niche of literary fiction. And Latin American football fiction is a niche of a niche of a niche. So why should an independent like Freight publish this book? Simple: because it’s great writing that makes a contribution to our understanding of Latin American cultures.

a niche of a niche of a niche

Also, for those of us in Europe used to a sporting narrative that has, this summer alone, seen a 20-year-old move from Liverpool to Manchester City for an eye-watering £49 million pounds — not even the most expensive signing of the transfer window which exchanges millionaires like slaves — this book shows a world where the audience is within spitting distance of the players.

Yes, the Premier League, La Liga et al are full of South Americans: Messi (Argentina), Neymar (Brazil), Falcao (Colombia), Rondon (Venezuela). But by the time they get to cash-rich Europe, their pasts in these countries are so far behind them it’s almost as if they never existed. Falcao may have been born in Santa Marta, and have the handsome, distinctive indigenous look of the area, but is it possible for El Tigre to relate to people at home when being paid a staggering £140,000 a week in England? (That’s a big cut — at Man United, it was more like £265,000.) Does Rondon’s new life in Birmingham have anything in common with that of Miguel Hidalgo Prince in Venezuela? This book takes us back to those streets where footballers are born, and vividly shows us that glorious continent where football is sometimes still part of the community, rather than looking down on the community, charging fortunes. Yes, it has many imperfections. It’s often chaotic, unpredictable, corrupt, infuriating. But to me it’s somehow more real. These stories feature amateur and semi-professional football, as well as professional teams where the players are living anything but the star lifestyle. The characters here may be idols, but they’re not superheroes, they’re underdogs, and as any good literary writer will tell you, that’s far more interesting to read about.

In 2013 and 2014, my wife and I lived in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia — we followed all the games of the Chilean national team during World Cup qualifying, one of my favourite experiences of our time there. Watching these matches within the nations of Latin America, often huddled around a TV with half the town in attendance or watching a dodgy screen in a rowdy street bar, we got a tiny glimpse into what football means to people there.

In Bolivia, we paid the equivalent of cinco Bolivianos (about five pence) for polystyrene floats to sit on, as there were no seats, only concrete, with thousands of supporters packed in tight for the Cochabamba derby, with yet more supporters still piling in from the markets outside. The atmosphere was amazing, the bands played from first minute to last, and the crowd partied like I’ve never seen in the reserved family stand at Old Trafford where nervous silence is the norm, despite decades of success. Few outside Bolivia cared about that game we attended, but it didn’t matter. What matters is authentic experience, and the stories in this book strike me as authentic. Each one contains the flavour and the passion I remember from my time watching football in Latin America. And each one sets me off idly dreaming about a return.

It’s exciting not only to have stories in Idols and Underdogs from writers I already know and love, like Juan Villoro or Roberto Fuentes, but also a host who were new to me before reading this book, and will be to most UK readers. Too little Latin American writing is translated into English, and it’s a pleasure to be a small part of bringing the likes of Ricardo Silva Romero, Sergio Galarza and Carlos Abin to the attention of English-speaking readers.

This project is truly exciting for us. Firstly, because we believe this anthology to be something genuinely new and different. Secondly, because the interviews included here with each writer give an insight into the writers’ processes and their home countries in a way rarely glimpsed before. And thirdly, because — forget the context — they’re simply great stories. Thank you to the authors. Thank you to those who valued the stories enough to publish them in their original language, those who translated them with such skill, and especially to those who brought them to us. And thanks to you too, for keeping football fiction alive.

  • by Rodge Glass, Fiction Editor, Freight Books
Shawn Stein and Nicolás Campisi: Prologue to Idols and Underdogs, originally published June 2016

Prologue in the form of a literary challenge

This anthology is the result of professional serendipity.

Despite being a professor of Latin American literature and my lifetime love of football (Latin American “fútbol”, “futbol” and “futebol” or North American “soccer”), I only became aware of football fiction a few years ago. While browsing the contemporary literature section of a bookstore in Santa Teresa, Río de Janeiro, a collection of Brazilian short stories focused on football caught my attention.

I am not a typical gringo. Although my parents wanted me to become a lawyer or an engineer, I grew up wanting to be Diego Maradona. During my undergraduate studies, I came to terms with the fact that my fascination with playing football greatly exceeded my ability on the pitch. Instead of following a career path that would please my parents, I chose the impractical field of literature, but I never stopped playing football. I have had the privilege of being able to play longer than any reasonable lifetime should allow.

I confess that before the tragic murder of Andrés Escobar after the 1994 World Cup hosted here in the United States, I was completely unaware of the social impact of football in most countries around the world. A few years after that World Cup, I began to coach football youth teams in the USA, a country where the game is growing but still suffers from underdevelopment and from a lack of public interest.

Back then Major League Soccer (MLS) was just beginning, and football games in Europe or Latin America were rarely broadcast. However, World Cup games were, and this is how I gradually became a fan of the game without supporting any particular club. Unlike the majority of my North American compatriots, I began to follow the World Cup with an obsession that rivalled the intensity of the other billions of football fanatics on the planet. I now cherish every opportunity I have to go to a stadium, to revel in the stands and join in the choruses of club chants and songs, wherever I happen to be in the world. When I discovered football fiction as an emerging corpus in Latin America, the topic first aroused my academic curiosity and then ignited a quixotic search for the stories that best illustrated this fascinating new genre.

“We don’t have anything like that here.”

Idols and Underdogs is also the result of professional indignation. There are no extensive bibliographies in existence and surprisingly few critical studies of Latin American football fiction. In recent years, this topic has become a primary research interest. Whenever I make professional trips to Latin America I devote days and weeks to scouring the collections of national libraries and bookstores. Once I added football fiction to the list of books I was searching for, I encountered dozens of librarians and bookstore clerks who would respond to my questions about where I might find fictional football stories with perplexity written on their faces. The inevitable, often irritated, reply was: “We don’t have anything like that here.”

Sometimes I would leave a single bookstore that supposedly didn’t keep anything like “that” on its shelves with half a dozen novels, short story collections and anthologies — often great works of literature — related to this astoundingly popular sport. Astonishingly, football fiction is a subgenre that has been marginalised from the stigma of being “lowbrow” and is still unknown to many of the “guardians” of literature, even though excellent short stories and novels focused on football abound in the catalogues of national public libraries. It is odd and also unexpected that football fiction is so disregarded and dismissed in the “football” countries of Latin America where its potential as a lens for the struggles and pleasures of the region is so great.

This anthology is also the result of an unexpected collaboration. The idea arose in 2013 when I was directing an independent study of Latin American football fiction for my young collaborator from Argentina, Nicolás Campisi. It made for a strange paradox that a young Argentine writer and football fan could not name at least two or three representative authors of football fiction in his own country. Together, we gradually discovered the geography and the characteristics of this new literary territory. We first identified those countries with strong traditions of football fiction, such as World Cup champions Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. But we also learned of the virtual lack of any such tradition in many neighbouring Latin American countries. We discovered that much of the fault lay with a tension created by Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Graciliano Ramos and Lima Barreto, among other Latin American intellectuals, who never managed to see beyond the rigid dichotomy dividing intellectuality and mass culture, the interpretation of football as the opium of the people or a catalyst for brutish behaviour. For example, according to popular mythology, Borges stated – among other public provocations — that “football is popular because stupidity is popular” and “football is a game of imbeciles”.

In spite of the imposing weight of anti-football intellectuals’ dogmatic criticism, a diverse body of literature has been produced. Without a doubt, we uncovered many works that were stereotypically uninspired, but also many jewels that stood out for their aesthetic originality and their authentic representation of the football imaginary. This project partly arose as an attempt to tear down the aforementioned stereotypes that classify sports literature as an irrelevant or inferior subgenre. Fruitlessly reviewing the incomplete canon of football fiction, we began to dream of a kind of literary Copa America which would unite the several national expressions devoted to the sport that dominates the South American continent; hence the choice of eleven authors representing the ten nations (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), plus Mexico as a special invitee from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), as has been the tradition at the Copa America for the past twenty years.

Finally, Idols and Underdogs is the result of an arduous process. In order to locate and assemble the selected stories, we have thoroughly mined the catalogues of libraries from Washington, D.C. to Montevideo, eventually arriving at the conclusion that these particular pieces represent the best of contemporary football fiction in Latin America. We might well have put together a very different team. In the case of those countries with the strongest traditions, there is an ample list of talent. In Argentina, for example, Roberto Fontanarrosa and Osvaldo Soriano contributed to the dissemination of the genre throughout the continent with an excellent body of work, but we chose to avoid hierarchies. Rodrigo Fresán, Ariel Magnus, Eduardo Sacheri, Inés Fernández Moreno, Rubem Fonseca, Antonio Skármeta, Hernán Rivera Letelier and Patricio Jara are among many talented authors whose works we might have chosen.

Argentina, the country where the presence of football in fiction has perhaps the deepest roots

And although there is no doubt that women have not contributed extensively to football fiction and that little has been written about the often tense relationship of women to this traditionally male-dominated game, we learned that several female writers have contributed very important stories to the genre. Hence, the inclusion of Selva Almada in our collection as the representative of Argentina, the country where the presence of football in fiction has perhaps the deepest roots. Since our idea was to include the current views of the authors themselves, we needed to invite those who have not yet left the “game”. Thus, classic authors such as Mario Benedetti or Roberto Bolaño, were not considered. At times the process of making contact with some of the authors made us feel a bit like talent scouts wandering from pitch to pitch in search of the next great discovery.

Eventually we recruited our wise colleague George Shivers to help us navigate publishing procedures and to weigh in during the final selection. We are very grateful for the considerate guidance and assistance that George and many other friends and colleagues around the world gave us throughout the process.

Of course, this book would never have been possible without the generous collaboration of the authors and publishers. The authors’ answers to our interview questions provide excellent material for examining cultural difference and the intersections between football, politics and literature, as well as the individual impacts that football has in different regions of the continent.

A comparison of their responses provide us with a rich, yet complex, image of the role of football in Latin American societies, such as the unbridled passion of fans contrasted with deep seeded disinterest of others, or the benefits versus the social costs of mega events like the 2014 World Cup in Brazil organised by multinational conglomerates such as FIFA.

Football’s social and economic impact across the globe is undeniable. Simply put, we hope that this anthology helps to promote this emerging genre. Football fiction presents a unique means of achieving a deeper understanding of the football imaginary in Latin America. The selection of stories that comprise this anthology took into account a diverse reading public. No doubt erudite football fans will devour these pages, but we also challenge curious readers who know nothing about football culture to explore these extraordinary spaces of sports drama and delve into the rich cultural differences found across large portions of the geopolitical space known as Latin America.

Besides featuring treasures of this undeservedly ignored literary genre, our anthology provides a close look at the different ways in which football is articulated, lived and imagined in the eleven societies that are represented (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela). Football fiction visibly reflects how sports affect us emotionally, physically, psychologically and financially.

Among many different categories that we might have used to present these stories, we opted for a simple division based on the level at which the game is played: amateur, semi-professional, and professional. The stories that take place at an amateur level attempt to preserve the innocent joy of the game, employing plots that reveal the profound impact football has during childhood and adolescence. Sergio Galarza (Peru) underscores the problematic impact of rigid social hierarchies that are reproduced in the game, as he narrates the frustrated expectations of a high school student who wants to have a more significant role on his team. In addition to glossing the tense relationship between football, academic life and the pursuit of sports glory, Carlos Abin (Uruguay) illustrates the way in which football played during adolescence can create emotional ties that unite people for the rest of their lives. Abin uses football to show how humanity can, in the end, overcome the violent inhumanity of totalitarianism. Miguel Hidalgo Prince (Venezuela) offers us a mind-blowing account of adolescent “futbolito” (or “futsal”), which stresses the tensions between friendship and competition in sports. Roberto Fuentes (Chile) constructs an anatomy of the neighbourhood football game that questions the parameters of politically correct behaviour. Ricardo Silva Romero (Colombia) offers us a story that narrates the decisive game in the career of a high school coach whose team has to win so he won’t be fired.

Football fiction visibly reflects how sports affect us emotionally, physically, psychologically and financially.

The unexpected connections between the coach, the referee, the players and the fans accentuate the ethical and ideological divisions in an educational environment. The stories that deal with semi-professional leagues portray the frustrations and difficulties that characterise the experiences and perceptions of football on the margins of sports hegemony. Selva Almada (Argentina) presents provincial football in a supremely authentic manner. Despite employing a light yet acid humour and declaring herself an Argentine woman who hates football, Almada manages to profoundly humanise the little-known world of organised female fan groups. Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivia) captures the uncontainable potential of football-related passion as he reconstructs the scene of a murder that takes place on the pitch itself, employing the voices of an extensive number of witnesses.

The stories that deal with professional football critique the mercenary forces that threaten to corrupt the fabric of the football imaginary. Sérgio Sant’Anna (Brazil) portrays a coach’s final days on the job. In spite of having achieved enormous success, he is now coaching a struggling, small team with a long history that has fallen victim to the logic of the marketplace, which turns everything it touches into merchandise. The high level of self-awareness regarding his precarious professional situation offers a privileged reading of the sports psyche. José Hidalgo Pallares (Ecuador) depicts the revenge of a goalie on the fans who have “crucified” him throughout his career. Juan Villoro (Mexico) gives us a magnificent articulation of the forces of corruption in professional football as well as of the difficulties that arise during the transition from professional player to coach. Javier Viveros (Paraguay) uses the perspectives of various individuals associated with a commercially successful club to satirise — without reservation — the powerful influence of the corporate model in professional football.

More than anything else, the book is a labour of love. In our humble critical opinion, these stories are representations of the best of Latin American football fiction as they show the human side of the sport, raise existential concerns and draw connections between sport and ego, question the myth of fair play by deconstructing the mechanisms of the mediated spectacle, and fictionalise masterfully the simple game as it is played in streets, fields and stadiums around the world.

We believe that the stories and interviews in this anthology contribute to a better understanding of human existence by delving into irreverent attitudes toward football and lifting the game of football up as a cohesive and communal experience.

by Shawn Stein and Nicolás Campisi

Idols and Underdogs (published by Freight Books, 2016) is now available in print or ebook. Eleven stories, one from each country in the South American World Cup qualifying group, plus Mexico (following the precedent set by the Copa América).

Idols and Underdogs includes some of the most prestigious names in Latin American literature. A hymn to the jogo bonito, these short stories demonstrate, in stark contrast to its European counterpart, just how connected Latin American football is to its roots in the backstreets, barrios and favelas. Including Juan Villoro (Mexico), Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivia), Ricardo Silva Romero (Colombia), Sérgio Sant’Anna (Brazil), Sergio Galarza (Peru), Selva Almada (Argentina), Carlos Abin (Uruguay), Roberto Fuentes (Chile), Miguel Hidalgo Prince (Venezuela), José Hidalgo Pallares (Ecuador), and Javier Viveros (Paraguay), this is a who’s who of Latin American fiction. Also contains author interviews, charting personal views on football and its intersections with politics, literature, and wider culture.

Idols and Underdogs is an English translation of Por amor a la pelota: once cracks de la ficción futbolera. Translated by George Shivers, Shawn Stein and Richard McGehee.