Despite its status as the dominant sport in South America, football has traditionally been considered unworthy of serious intellectual treatment by many of the continent’s prominent thinkers. The tide does, however, slowly seem to be turning and in Idols and Underdogs (Freight Books, 2016), Shawn Stein and Nicolás Campisi have collected 11 contemporary short stories from the region that take football as their primary plot point.
The two standout entries are those from Sérgio Sant’Anna (Brazil) and Carlos Abin (Uruguay). Sant’Anna (further reading: The Extra Flight) uses the thought-train of a down-on-his-luck coach as a vehicle to expound his own football philosophy in the engaging In the Mouth of the Tunnel, while Abin’s The Final Penalty is a neat story of lives that intersect through football and a rumination on the tales we tell of childhood involvement in the game.
There is merit also in Edmundo Paz Soldán’s frantic retelling from ever-shifting perspectives of a murder on the pitch, in Juan Villoro’s story of a retired player who takes on an impossible coaching job in an isolated oil boom town and in Sergio Galarza’s tale of a boy from a conservative family seeking social acceptance through football.
But there are missteps too. Selva Almada’s exploration of the way in which women support the game never really finds its rhythm, while Football Inc. by Javier Viveros takes its time to reach coherence following a befuddling opening. As can often be the case in sports fiction, some of the on-field scenes struggle to engender emotional investment in their outcome.
The quality of the translation also varies. There are some fine passages but others that read a little awkwardly. Most jarringly for a book focused on football, some of the translations seem to display a lack of knowledge of the sport’s parlance. Goals are “made” instead of scored, a team is said to have scored “lots of ties” instead of lots of equalisers and a corner kick is referred to as a “corner shot”. A more thorough eye (or perhaps a bigger budget) could have yielded a better end product.
The stories are accompanied by author interviews that provide interesting, if brief, insights into how football is viewed at a cultural and societal level in each of the continent’s countries and the ways in which football and politics regularly intersect. But they too feel like somewhat of a missed opportunity, reading more as question-and-answer exercises than genuine conversations.
Idols and Underdogs serves as proof of football’s ability to carry a fictional narrative and provide a platform through which to explore societal issues, and those behind its publication should certainly be commended for adding something new to the literary gamut given that the majority of these authors have never before been translated into English. It is a worthwhile and at times engaging and enlightening read but one that struggles to achieve the consistency required for a title-winning effort.