Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. Shaun Whiteside, trans. Soccer. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019. Pp 100. Notes. $12.95 paperback, eBook, pdf, $39.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Patrick Salkeld
Belgian novelist, filmmaker, and photographer Jean-Philippe Toussaint offers his readers a highly-detailed, often complex, and thought-provoking journey in his latest book, Soccer (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Unlike other soccer memoirs such as George Vecsey’s Eight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, and Michael Agovino’s The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game, Toussaint writes more philosophically and lyrically.
Toussaint states his purpose for the book as, “I am pretending to write about football, but I am really writing about time,” (23). From start to finish, his love for and interest in soccer wavers due to extenuating circumstances, such as his father’s death, a lack of connection to the Belgium national team, or being busy with another project. He mentions it throughout the narrative in his second, and shortest, chapter (24-25) and then again in the beginning paragraph of his fifth chapter about South Africa 2010: “Perhaps people thought I was joking, but it’s true: I am beginning to get a bit fed up with football” (52). This sentence is his only reflection upon soccer in the chapter. Instead he discusses his time spent with artist Jeff Koons at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (52-58). He then returns to football during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (58-74). During that year’s tournament, he discovered the world of live-streaming football and the troubles that come with it, such as a stream that goes in and out leaving the viewer confused about what happened when the stream skips ahead in time after a lag.
Toussaint’s writing style is artsy and avant-garde. It flows like poetry because of his substantial use of metaphors, similes, and flowery descriptions which often make one sentence as lengthy as a single paragraph. For example, in his third chapter “2002 Korea/Japan” (his longest chapter with 22 pages) he writes in such a sentence:
My senses on the alert, I read with unease the expressions on the faces of the students, while my ears, pricked like a cat’s, listened out for danger or promises of a goal, trying to interpret the variations in intensity of the commentator’s voice, which went from a regular purr during the midfield phases of the game, to a rapid crescendo at the approach of goals by the opposing team to the brief fit of hysteria, close to apoplexy, at the moment of the cross and the generally failed attempt at a volley (38).
Some readers might take issue with his style, desiring that he skip the exposition and get to the point. They might also stumble when needing to read and re-read passages. Instead of acknowledgements, Toussaint writes a warning to fans that they might “find it too intellectual” (viii). This, in a sense, is both the book’s weakness and strength because, as the description on the back of the book says, it is “a thrilling departure from the usual clichés of sports writing.” Although, I will say, I do not think Vecsey’s, Agovino’s, and Hornby’s books are cliché; they simply write with a more straightforward style.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Soccer should be used in college courses. Toussaint’s lyricism alone offers students exposure to a writing style not usually encountered outside of literature and/or philosophy classes. A course about fandom, especially one that examines sports fan memoirs, would be a perfect course for Toussaint’s book.
Patrick Salkeld received his M.A. in History from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017. He is an independent cultural historian whose current research focuses on soccer in the United States since the 1960s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @PatSalkeld.