Review of A History of the World Cup: 1930–2014

Lisi, Clemente A. A History of the World Cup: 1930–2014. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xix+532. Glossary, appendices, bibliography, index, black and white photographs. $40 paperback, $39.99 eBook.

Reviewed by Benjamin Dettmar

World Cup

Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

The World Cup is the biggest single event for the most popular sport in the world. It is little surprise then that there are many books that tell the history of the greatest tournament in world sport. Clemente Lisi’s readable and detailed monograph, A History of the World Cup: 1930–2014, is a great addition to the canon of World Cup scholarship.

Lisi is a journalist by trade and the book is generally pitched at a wider readership rather than an academic audience. A History of the World Cup successfully toes that awkward middle line between academia and journalism; being an undoubted page-turner whilst also managing to delve into some of the more well-known and infamous World Cup events.

Casual fans of the game will remember France’s Zinedine Zidane and his 2006 meltdown when, during extra-time in the final of the competition, he turned around and head-butted Italy’s Marco Materazzi. Zidane received a red card and his team played down a man for the rest of the game before losing the final on kicks from the mark. The incident is given a frame by frame recount with accompanying commentary by Lisi:

The image of Zidane walking past the trophy, so close and yet so far away from his grasp, a defeated man in his last game, was surreal. The Frenchman’s brutal act ensured that he would end his career in disgrace after earning so much praise during the tournament (p.355).

The societal impact that the multi-national, multi-racial French team had on the country around the turn of the century should not be understated. Zidane (of Algerian descent), along with players such as Lilian Thuram (Guadeloupe), Claude Makélélé (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Patrick Vieira (Senegal) helped to shape the conversation about race and what it meant to be “French.” To this day Zidane’s headbutt is viewed differently depending on who you ask in France with race, class, and ethnicity playing an important role in how an individual views Zidane’s actions. Herein lies the problem with a book such as Lisi’s. Its encyclopedic nature means that it is perfect for leaving on a book shelf and referencing when you need to know about an event in World Cup history. However, the sheer size and scope of the tournament means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to give specific major events the detail and analysis they deserve.

When Lisi does delve into analysis his work is particularly strong. The discussion of Argentinian fans in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup highlights the rivalry that is at play in international football and reminds us all that political and social factors play a huge role in the game that we love. There was little South American collegiality in 2014 as thousands of fans from Argentina based themselves in Brazil for the final and taunted their hosts after the Brazilian’s capitulation to Germany in the semifinal. Lisi’s discussion of this is excellent and his work is at its best when he moves away from the chronological history and delves into historical analysis. The lyrics to the infamous song Brasil, decime que se siente are quoted by Lisi and leave the reader in no doubt as to the extent of the competition and hatred between the two nations.

 “Brasil, decime qué se siente tener en casa a tu papá.

Te juro que aunque pasen los años, nunca nos vamos a olvidar…

Que el Diego te gambeteó, que Cani te vacunó, que estás llorando desde Italia hasta hoy.

A Messi lo vas a ver, la Copa nos va a traer, Maradona es más grande que Pelé

Brazil, tell me how it feels to have your Daddy in your house?

I swear that even as the years pass, we will never forget

How Diego [Maradona] outplayed you;

How [Claudio] Cani[ggia] surprised you;

You’ve been crying since Italy [1990] until today.

You’re going to see Messi, he’ll bring us back the Cup.

Maradona is greater than Pelé. (p.433).

The song brings together the history of great players of the game (Pelé, Diego Maradona), history of games between the two nations (1990), and the hope for the future (Lionel Messi). Soccer, as Lisi continually proves, is serious business.

Perhaps the book’s greatest use, particularly in the United States, is to teach recent converts to soccer about the game’s rich history. As an English reader the section on Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal (when Maradona used his hand to score a goal against England in the 1986 World Cup Quarter Final) is difficult to read. But, when seen in the context of the footballing rivalry between England and Argentina (see also 1966, 1998, 2002) and the political fallout from the 1982 Falklands War, the reader begins to understand how much success in the World Cup means to individual nations.

ESPN’s saturated coverage of the 2014 World Cup and the success of supporters groups such as Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws means that the United States were the best supported team in Brazil 2014 (apart from the hosts) as well as one of the most watched squads on television. This was not always the case and fans of the underdog and of American sport will take great pleasure in reading Lisi’s accounts of the USA’s 1930 team (which finished 3rd), and the USA team of 1950 which caused one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history when it beat England 1:0.

Newcomers to the sport and dedicated fans alike will take a joy in learning of the successes of nations such as Hungary and will wonder how the Mighty Magyars of 1954, with a team featuring Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis, failed to win the World Cup. Similar underdogs, such as Austria who came 4th in 1934 and South Korea who came 4th in 2002, and teams such as North Korea who beat the Italians and almost beat Eusébio’s Portugal in 1966, have stories that are worth telling and learning about; Lisi tells these tales in a very readable way.

Charting the history of the tournament that started in 1930, where certain games had only 300 fans, through to the final of 2014, which was watched by (a FIFA-estimated) 1 billion people is undoubtedly the strength of Lisi’s book. The lack of footnotes and detailed endnotes will frustrate the academic reader and at times you are left wondering where the author gets his information. However, as mentioned, the World Cup is such a momentous event that the history has already been written.

A History of the World Cup: 1930–2014 is a perfect place for newcomers to soccer history and World Cup history to get a detailed, informative, but readable account of one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

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