Book review: Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Like Albert Camus, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is a philosopher and a novelist, and also like Camus, Toussaint shares a life-long love of soccer. Football should not be mistaken as a high-brow equivalent of Fever Pitch: Toussaint is no Nick Hornby, writes Tom Mooney.

The author of Fever Pitch, a love letter to Arsenal and particularly Highbury, wouldn’t dream of lending his name to the following sentence by Toussaint describing the World Cup in Japan, at which Ireland were famously eclipsed by an emerging Spain from the penalty spot.

“I had a feeling that football and Japan, even though they are contradictory — tumult and tranquillity, fire and water — were merging together to give birth to a new element, an unknown and delicious alliance that as yet had no name.”

And yet we expect nothing less from a French intellectual (born in Belgium) for whom soccer, like painting according to Leonardo da Vinci, is a cosa mentale, and for whom the frisson of excitement of a live match is to be found either before or after the actual game, occasionally during.

Observing the countdown to the Belgium-Brazil match in Kobe, Toussaint, with a charming and infectious joie de vivre, spots with the eyes of a marvelling child, how “a sea breeze gently rippled the flags of the corner posts in the tepid night, then at last it was autumn, or perhaps it was already winter, the deluge and desolation of the sad, big stadium”.

But if you are expecting an analysis of why the architects of total football, Holland, behaved so loutishly in the World Cup final in South Africa against Spain, or why his beloved Brazil were humiliated by Germany in 2014, look elsewhere.

This short treatise is bookended by the World Cups in France and Brazil, but Toussaint’s powers of description are deployed memorably not by a feint by Zidane or a pass by Xavi, but by his computer crashing during an Argentina- Holland penalty shoot-out.

“I was in complete darkness,” he laments, perhaps a metaphor from one reared in the last century at the state of the modern game, increasingly balletic and effete by the day.

Toussaint has been accused of rambling and occasional banality in Football, but his prose sparkles more often than not, and his passion for soccer, like Camus, is best seen as an antidote to the strenuous business of writing novels: Nue, a sequence of 10 books, took him 10 years to finish.

His afterword, Zidane’s Melancholy (a reflection on international soccer’s most infamous act of thuggery since Schumacher took out Battison in 1982) when the French captain head-butted an Italian defender, who is not name checked, in the World Cup final in 2006, reads like the game’s obituary, as if Pegasus had been shot between the eyes.

Toussaint’s contention is that the interest you take in a football match has a particular relationship with time, which he clarifies as ‘a perfect simultaneity’ between the unfolding of a game and the passing of minutes: something necessarily is lost in the translation, like describing a Frank Lloyd Wright plan over the phone, but I think Toussaint means the act of football diverts the spectator from the burdens of life, and removes us from thoughts of death.

So existential, so French.

“We are, for the duration of the game, in a cocoon of time, preserved from the wounds of the outside world, away from the contingencies of reality.”

Football’s publication in English coincides with the death of Johann Cruyff, who brought soccer to its aesthetic summit in 1974, and I suspect that the chess-like interplay between Germany and Holland was more to Toussaint’s liking than the fare on offer today.


Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Book review: Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Fitzcaraldo, £12.99


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