Much of what’s written about sports is forgotten quickly, in part because there’s always another game to anticipate, another season to sum up, another player to celebrate.
But several of the books I’ve read over the past year deserve not only a wider readership than they’ve achieved, but life beyond the conclusions of the particular circumstances they describe.
The Queen of Katwe introduces us to Phiona Mutesi, who learns to play chess from a saintly man named Robert Katende in the sad camp in Uganda where Phiona was born. Her facility for the game develops quickly into expertise. She beats all the boys. She travels to other camps and wins there. She plays in tournaments as far away as Russia. There is reason to suppose that by playing chess, she can haul herself and her family out of poverty, which is the encouraging part of the story. The other part is the powerful lament author Tim Crothers provides for our world in which poverty stunts and crushes millions of children less fortunate and less gifted than Phiona Mutesi.
This Love Is Not For Cowards is set in Juarez, Mexico, where attending a soccer game is risky business. Author Robert Andrew Powell went out to watch Los Indios of Ciudad Juarez, anyway, and he had lots of company, and when Los Indios won, there was joy, even when there was also gunfire, kidnapping and various other sorts of mayhem.
“There was a lot of murder,” Powell tells us, and often it was overwhelming. But often it was overwhelmed. One of the conclusions Powell took away from his time in Juarez was that finally la gente - the people – were bigger than the cartels. Warned to stay inside on the day of one particularly big game, the people spilled into the streets when Los Indios prevailed. They partied all night, and as Powell writes, “it was a beautiful thing in a city that doesn’t have a lot of beauty.”
Gwendoyln Oxenham’s travels were even more ambitious. She found pick-up soccer games in a prison yard in Bolivia, on top of an office building in Toyko, in an airport in Tehran, and beside a polluted river in Kenya, where making moonshine provided the only employment. She chronicles her adventures in Finding the Game.
Soccer can’t save the world any more than chess can, but Oxenham shows us that the game can provide the consolations of play even to those who are poisoned by the water they have to drink and the air they must breathe. She is a witness to their misery, which borders on hopelessness, but through her accounts of the soccer games she plays with them, she shows us they are also fellow players on the same spinning planet she inhabits, and that we inhabit with her, and with them.