No live action? No weekend games? No problem. As part of our new series, we will recommend one book each week for you to dig into during this time of self-isolation, in order to fill that sports-shaped hole in your heart.
Which is your favourite sports book?
I'm cheating a bit; I'm not naming my favourite book but the one that took me completely by surprise and opened up a world to me. Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos.
What did you particularly like about it?
I went to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup with several questions in my mind. One of them was this: How would Brazil's single-sport obsession compare with India's? How would India's love for cricket compare with Brazil's for football? As it turned out, no contest. What I saw in Brazil was an organic, all-pervasive and deeply emotional relationship with the sport that operated at almost every level of life. Like a couple that has spent a lifetime with each other, accepting the faults and negotiating the faultlines of the relationship but in a perpetual embrace.
The other question I had was, 'How could I best negotiate this country, understand that relationship, interpret those emotions?' Here's where Futebol came to the rescue. On the surface, it's about football; but it's actually about the myths, the magic (often literally so, often of the black variety) and the madness that surrounds o jogo bonito. Similar to how Brilliant Orange uses Dutch landscape and architecture (and imagination) to explain Total Football. But of course worlds apart.
How does he go about it?
In a roundabout way, through the characters, myths and legends that populate the sport. From the opening chapter, set improbably in the Faroe Islands, through the depths of the Amazon, to the more familiar terrain of Rio and Sao Paulo, Santos and Botafogo, you see the country explained.
There's a lot of heartbreak, especially in the story of Mane Garrincha, the footballer touted to be more talented than Pele who threw it all away and died in relative poverty. Bellos approaches the story through folklore - the curupira and the saci-perere, rural spirits who create havoc - and draws a common link with Garrincha: they all deceived with their legs. The curupira runs with his feet turned backwards, the saci-perere is one-legged; Garrincha's legs were famously curved in the same direction, which allowed him to bamboozle defenders, throwing them the wrong way.
Or the chapter on football's spin-offs; the improbable (though, in Brazil, you use that word with caution) Autoball, where cars play "football" with a giant leather ball. Or button football, a form of carrom using buttons with player names and a ball that must be flicked into the net. Or the spinoffs of the spinoff: Nailball (buttonball using nails hammered into a board as static players) and Ecoball, played on a pitch dotted with trees. If you hit a treetrunk, Bellos says, you are sent off temporarily, to suck a lime. And of course the more famous Futsal and its cousin footvolley (yes, volleyball using feet instead of hands).
From the ridiculous to the sublime: A chapter on, and conversation with, Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, MD. (Only Socrates could use just one of those names and still make an entry). He lays the marker down in the preface to the book - "Football is a sport made from spontaneity and discernment, luxury and freedom, and one that, I believe, is part of our most primitive genome" and then explores the themes with Bellos. His theories of why Brazilian football has lost ground can appear radical - the game in Brazil is too white, for one, the modern game is too physical and confining, for another - but this is Socrates speaking. He of the movement for democracy in the face of military dictatorship.
The story starts, obviously, with the Maracanacao - when Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in the final match of the 1950 World Cup, in the brand new Maracana Stadium, with an estimated 200,000 spectators watching. All Brazil had to do was draw but, with minutes remaining on the clock, Uruguay knocked in the winner. At the Football Museum in Sao Paulo, one room has the radio commentary from that match on loop. You can hear the buzz of 200,000 people anticipating a win - and then, as the ball goes in, complete, deathly silence. The defeat prompted a deep, nationwide sense of mourning, palpable to Bellos 50 years later. (Fun fact: The defeat prompted Brazil to ditch the white outfits they wore that day for their now famous yellow and blue.) When Neymar injured his back in the 2014 quarter-final, my hosts in Brasilia reacted as though a member of the family had died; Futebol helped me understand what they were going through.
Any others you would recommend on the subject?
I relate to football through the prism of culture, not tactics and formations, so my choices are dictated by that. So I'd pick Feet of the Chameleon by Ian Hawkey, which looks at African football through the eyes of a variety of people, not just the football fraternity. Or, as mentioned, Brilliant Orange, less geography and more geometry. On the subject of Brazil, or Rio de Janeiro, Ruy Castro's Carnival Under Fire. A superb history of one of the world's most alluring cities.
Any you would recommend on a total different subject?
Yes, thank you for asking. Alex Ferguson's My Autobiography, released soon after his retirement. The most successful football manager of the last 40 years explains how he kept winning - a combination of ruthlessness, self-confidence and unflagging energy. Bonus: Three pages on the Kennedy assassination.