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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: "Eight World Cups" by George Vecsey

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"Some readers of the New York Times might say they began paying attention to soccer from the time I showed up in Spain in 1982. I never thought of myself as an evangelist, never passed myself off as an expert. Millions of fans around the world knew more about the game than I ever could, as some would remind me in caustic e-mails.

Maybe because I discovered soccer relatively late in life, I saw it with fresh eyes, a fresh heart. I loved the difficulty of it, the kaleidoscopic surprises, with a growing appreciation for the history and the strategy."

--- George Vecsey, "Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer", page 41, published by Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, with a list price of $28.

If you are an American journalist and write about soccer, most likely it is because of George Vecsey. He laid down mainstream journalistic roots for the sport that did not exist before him and opened doors that had previously been shut. In this memoir, he takes us from his first World Cup in 1982 to his last one in 2010 in brilliant detail.

Organized Format

Italy 3 (P. Rossi) - Brazil 2 (Socrates, Falcao) at the 1982 World Cup in Barcelona, Spain.

There are 19 chapters, an epilogue, appendix section that detailed his eight World Cups, along with a detailed bibliography and index.

Writing Style

Spain National Team photo SpainNationalTeam.jpg
Photo credit: AndhikaMPPP.

The author is a gifted journalist who injects not only facts but a compelling narrative which makes this book an engaging, entertaining and informative read. For example, "I have come to think that soccer lends itself to great writing because it thrives in the imagination, like so much of life. Great writers put themselves into the possibilities of the sport --- pondering, What if Socrates of Brazil had passed to his left instead of his right? I suspect that poor doomed midfielder asked himself the same thing. Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dickens would have loved divining the choices of the costumed surrogate armies in our modern world of soccer..." (Page 13)

Italy National Team photo ItalyNationalTeam.jpg
Photo credit: AndhikaMPPP.
Mr. Vecsey detailed what many have been loath to admit publicly: That US mainstream sports editors harbored a significant prejudice and ignorance of soccer. "The animosity to soccer has been abetted by many of the best sportswriters of the past generation... Traditionally, American sports editors would take note of world-level soccer only when they came across a photo of a soccer riot, death in the stadium." (Pages 18-20)

A Linguistic Journey

Brazilian Portuguese Footballing Terminology Guide by Street Smart Brazil.

The author also used and explained many foreign words learned from his soccer treks around the world. For example, "horizontal bands of blanca y celeste (white and light blue) of Argentina's flag." (Page 28) Or, "I bought a Maria del Mar album called Alenar, the Catalan verb for 'to breathe.' " And "The players had long since stopped talking to the media, proclaiming what is known as a silenzio stampa (press boycott)." (Both quotes from page 31.)

"The kid known as Lo Zio, (The Uncle) because of his calm demeanor beyond his years, " which Mr. Vecsey used to describe Giuseppe Bergomi, an 18-year-old World Cup winner for Italy who exhibited unusual maturity for his age. (Page 40)

Another great example using Diego Armando Maradona:

"In Buenos Aires he was considered one of the cabecitas, an outsider. In proud Barcelona he was labeled a Sudaca, somebody from South America. It was not a compliment.... Given his mixed roots in rural Argentina, Maradona was openly labeled a terrone in Italy, a word that means 'hillbilly' or 'redneck.' " (Page 48)

And ones for Ronaldo (O Fenomeno) and Zinedine Zidane:

"Ronaldo --- pronounced 'Honaldo' in the Brazilian version of Portuguese --- was merely the leading star in the world, still only twenty-one years old, a large and nimble striker who could pounce with the quickness of a smaller man." (Page 144)

"Zidane performs the adage, the arabesque, the avant, and the pirouette, controlling the ball against world-level defenders like Aldair and Roberto Carlos. This is an artist playing the most virtuoso final we may ever see." (Page 145)


A great enhancement of this book was the author's decision to include background information about many of his interviews with global stars. Such as with Dino Zoff in Spain, Diego Maradona in Naples, to name a few.


Brazil National Team photo BrazilNationalTeam.jpg
Photo credit: AndhikaMPPP.

The author had a wide array of black-and-white pictures that chronicled his journey in American and world soccer. My two favorites: A 1950 image of Joe Gaetjens being carried off the pitch in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and the 1982 image of Dino Zoff holding the World Cup in Madrid, Spain.

Other Notable Quotes

Image credit:
360 Network.

"(Landon) Donovan was a beach boy, happiest when he could smell the Pacific. He had tried the challenge of soccer in Europe but declared himself a homebody, a Californian. He was intense, private, but it was a mistake to underestimate his drive, his toughness... In World Cup terms, he was America's Maradona, America's Baggio, America's Zidane." (Page 6)

"I could not help to notice disdain from friends of my generation, who clearly hated the idea, the very existence, of the sport... Soccer seemed to remind Americans of something they instinctively feared --- foreign languages, foreign influences... In a country that was founded mostly by people who wanted to get away from the Old World, soccer seemed to bring out a defensiveness, an isolationist posture, a fear of mobs and stomping boots in the generation that was young during World War II and the Holocaust and the Cold War and nuclear proliferation." (Page 18)

"Zoff (Dino) was tall and dark and angular, vaguely Dean Martin-esque, with none of the energy and gestures of his younger teammates on nearby lounges... He did not speak English, and I was more confident with my poor Spanish than my rudimentary Italian, so we spoke two different languages, and sometimes Jacomini interpreted --- a normal transaction in the polyglot world of soccer." (Page 33 in reference to World Cup 1982.)

"(Alkis) Panagoulis had a theory how to create interest in a national team: 'All you had to do was bring in the Russian team and have the Americans lose, 10-0, to them. That would have gotten to some action.' " (Page 44)

"Soccer was not exactly born with the arrival of the Cosmos in New York. The grand old soccer city of St. Louis, home to German and Irish and Italian immigrants, produced generations of players at midcentury. 'Every Catholic parish had a team,' recalled Colonel James Hackett, a former chief of detective in St. Louis, once a star forward for Chaminade High School." (Page 95)

"Roland Zorn, a German columnist who used to be based in New York and speaks colloquial English, told us that the Americans outplayed the Germans and deserved to win. His buddies nodded their ascent. 'The score was 1-0,' I said. Your guys won.' In the ballet-critic world of soccer writing, there is a concept of the just result, which team deserved to win, based on effort and artistry. In Zorn's considered opinion, the just result would have been an American victory. It is that kind of big-picture bond that unites professionals from different countries." (Pages 173-174 in reference to World Cup 2002.)

"But the Reds, inspired by crowds shouting "Tae-han Min-guk" --- Republic of Korea --- chased the ball until they scored in the eighty-eighth minute... That night I wrote that Totti (Francesco who had been given a second yellow card for simulation) had been guilty of bad acting. Then I began receiving e-mails. 'Devi morire,' one of them began. You must die. Terrific. It gave me a chance to use my rudimentary Italian to write back to my new pen pals." (Page 180)

"Why did Zidane (Zinedine) do what he did? The French manager professed not to know but clearly did not appreciate the self-destructive act by that great player. Zidane didn't come anywhere near the media to explain himself. And when Materazzi (Marco) marched through the mixed zone, he was carrying a boom box, with the volume turned up." (Page 207 in reference to World Cup 2006).


Mr. Vescey has written a book that provides detailed World Cup history with an American flavor. It will make a great addition to your sports library and the perfect reference for the upcoming World Cup.

Please Note

I have received a complimentary review copy from a representative of the publisher, Times Books/Henry Holt and Company. I was not financially compensated by the publisher, author or any party who would benefit from a positive review.

About the Author

George Vecsey spending time with the US Men's National Team in March 2011.

George Vecsey ( and www.georgevecsey.com) has written more than a dozen books, most recently the bestseller Stan Musial: An American Life. He joined The New York Times in 1968, wrote the “Sports of the Times” column from 1982 to 2011, and is now a contributing columnist. He was honored in 2013 by the National Soccer Hall of Fame for his contributions as one of the first columnists at a major newspaper to cover the sport. He lives in Port Washington, New York.

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Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator from Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and The Soccer Translator since 2008. 

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