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Wall to Wall Soccer

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(alternate text)I was a striker for the very first youth soccer team ever in my little rural Kentucky town. Although clearly, I wasn’t very good since we didn’t score a single goal until the final game of the season. The next year, I played on the very first soccer team fielded by my high school. I don’t remember if we even scored a single goal during my freshman year. If memory serves, I believe we were 0-8 that first year, then my sophmore year we were something like 3-10-2, my junior year ended at 10-10, and my senior year we went undefeated in the conference. During those high school years, I realized that I couldn’t kick the ball into an ocean, so I began playing defense instead of trying to take all the shots.

You remember the misfits in the baseball movie Major League? That was my college soccer team. It wasn’t unusual for us to have a keg on the sideline and players frequently ran off to quickly suck down a smoke on the sidelines.

Obviously, soccer’s a big part of my life. Which means I’ve been in heaven these past couple of weeks as the World Cup 2006 kicked off. I watched as many games as work will allow, and I also re-read several good soccer books.

Beckham: Both Feet on the Ground, An Autobiography which is a surprisingly sincere and heartfelt look into the most famous player in the world. Another fine book that relates to that deadly free-kick artist is John Carlin’s White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid and the New Football. Carlin’s book focuses on the business end of Beckham and Real Madrid as well as just serving as a normal sports history. And the financial impact of the man, in spite of his critics, is staggering.

Beckham was not only more famous but more admired than Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, or any other Hollywood actor, alive or dead. The reason was that — whatever parity in matters of good looks — Beckham had one great advantage over all movie stars: that the part he played in reali life, footballer for England and Real Madrid, was dramatic and heroic. People like Tom Cruise made films in which they acted the part of people like David Beckham, not the other way around.

And because of soccer’s global reach, Beckham’s renown far eclipses even our own Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Just as a simple indicator of Beckham’s appeal, Real Madrid’s Jose Angel Sanchez points out that “The season before this one we sold approximately 900,000 shirts. This season, following Beckham’s arrival, we’ve sold three million. Draw your own conclusion.”

Carlin’s book is also notable because it focuses attention on Real Madrid’s other superstars. Purists are quick to point out that Beckham isn’t the best player in the world and that his celebrity status is a result of a misguided public more enamored with good looks than good soccer. That may or may not be the case. But Carlin introduces us to players who can legitimately claim to be the best in the world. Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Raul, and Zinedine Zidane are other Real Madrid players examined in White Angels and their roster includes several past recipients of FIFA’s World Player of the Year award.

Gavin Newsham’s Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos is another fine soccer book that has been on my mind lately. It’s a fascinating tale of how soccer came to dominate, however briefly, the attention of New York City. Newsham’s ability to weave in historical and cultural touchpoints of the time period make this a book sure to engage readers who aren’t die hard soccer freaks. A film version of the book is scheduled to be released July 7th.

And although Bill Buford is garnering a lot of attention for his new book, Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, I will always equate him with his magnificent look at holigan culture in Among the Thugs.

On my own personal soccer front, my team is now 1-2. We were pretty well matched with our opponents in the first game. In the second contest, we got blasted. The other team wasn’t that good, we were just awful. At some point, we quit keeping score but I believe the final was something like 2-10. And our two goals came late in the game, in total garbage time. But last week, we played well and got our first victory. So things are looking up.

And in spite of the fact that I am amazingly out-of-shape and that my diet consists of fast food and Mt. Dew, I haven’t vomited on the field yet. At least that’s something I’ve got on Mr. Beckham.