Simon Kuper, also the co-author of the New York Times bestselling book, Soccernomics, reveals the anatomy of the people that define modern soccer in his new book, Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World’s Most Popular Sport. Kuper profiles some of the sport’s greatest players and coaches, including Freddy Adu, Arsène Wenger, Jorge Valdano, and Lionel Messi. Kuper delves into not only the way they play the game, but also details the players’ upbringings and exposure to different soccer cultures to explain their unique contributions to the sport.
Of the 14-year old Freddy Adu in 2003, Simon Kuper wrote: “Probably the world’s best soccer player of his age, he is undoubtedly the world’s most mature person of his age.” Mr. Kuper went on to opine that “Adu is exactly what U.S. soccer needs,” because “Americans are getting a little tired of their athletes going on strike, shooting limousine drivers, and blowing their fortunes on defense lawyers.”
I wish he’d made a distinction between a strike and a lockout, but with regard to Freddy Adu, Mr. Kuper may yet be proven right. Having bounced around overseas with various clubs with which few people in the U.S. are acquainted (Caykur Rizespor in the Turkish second division?), Adu has recently bobbed up again on the roster of the U.S. National Team. But whether the author is right or not is beside the point when you’re reading Simon Kuper. He is always entertaining, and sometimes brilliantly so, such as when he describes Italian player Gennaro Gattuso as “just like Rumpelstiltskin, the evil, bearded dwarf in the fairy tale.” Nor do his comparisons always require a fictional character. In assessing the nature of Lionel Messi, the magnificent but reserved Barcelona star, Kuper notes that Messi is “a man with nothing to say” who “lacks (Diego) Maradona’s wild poetry. ‘I don’t go out much. I enjoy being alone at home,’ he says in two sentences never spoken by Maradona.’”
The profiles that make up this excellent collection were written over the last decade or so, and apparently they will have to do. In the introduction to Soccer Men, Kuper writes that he’s not much inclined to interview players these days because “it isn’t worth the humiliation.” If Mr. Kuper doesn’t change his mind, he’s likely to disappoint both fans of soccer and fans of bright writing.