Berlin has never been one of the world’s iconic football cities: Manchester has the heritage, Milan has the mystique, and even Mönchengladbach made the Champions League final that time. Poor Berlin, by comparison, has been long been a slouch in all things Fußball. But now, with both 1. FC Union and Hertha BSC established in the Bundesliga, that picture is beginning to change – on the pitch, certainly, but also on the page, where the worlds of football and literature are increasingly coming together.
Angel di Maria – a slippery trickster, who had the name of Mother Mary and a face like Franz Kafka
This summer, the British-German football writer Kit Holden released Scheisse! We’re Going Up! (Duckworth), an insightful and entertaining ode to Union Berlin. Through a series of lively character portraits, enriched with historical context, Holden narrates Union’s fairytale rise from near-bankruptcy to its current heights. This elegant sports book is also a miniature history of East Berlin, and a wider meditation on what it means when a community forged in hardship suddenly finds itself in good times.
For a long while, football was not considered worthy of literary attention – Simon Kuper recently noted in the European Review of Books that books about football used to rank “even below self-help books sold in airports”. (Of course, ghostwritten players’ autobiographies have always done a brisk trade but, with all due respect to Gary Neville’s Red, we are talking about literature here.) Yet this is no longer the case. Nick Hornby’s 1992 memoir of Arsenal fandom, Fever Pitch, inaugurated new possibilities for literary authors. In 2003, Tim Parks added a highbrow bent to the genre with A Season With Verona, a magnificent travelogue where this middle-aged literature professor – prone to citing Giacomo Leopardi and ruminating deeply on Italian identity – spends a year on the road with the notoriously hardcore fans of Hellas Verona.
One of Europe’s finest longform football magazines, the delightfully named Elf Freunde (“Eleven Friends”), is based here
Perhaps nothing will ever top Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, which combined moments of dazzling beauty and wit with a rich seam of moral outrage at what moneyed interests have done to the game. “Football has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not for play but rather to impede it,” Galeano writes. “Luckily, on the field you can still see some insolent rascal, who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”
One particularly memorable indication of football’s growing cultural prestige came in the lead-up to the 2014 Euros when Karl Ove Knausgaard, then the absolute literary flavour of the moment, wrote a piece for The New Republic paying tribute to his favourite player, Angel di Maria – a slippery trickster, Knausgaard suggested, who had the name of Mother Mary and a face like Franz Kafka.
Literary Berlin, too, has its eye on o joga bonito. One of Europe’s finest longform football magazines, the delightfully named Elf Freunde (“Eleven Friends”), is based here; so too is Musa Okwonga, a prominent British sportswriter-cum-littérateur. Adrian Duncan organised his 2021 short story collection Midfield Dynamo into a 4-4-2 formation – his story ‘Prosinečki’, which features an ageing journeyman slogging it in eastern Germany, is football-lit of the highest quality. And readers of German might enjoy Annett Gröschner’s 2001 book about her hometown team, 1. FC Magdeburg, another fallen East German giant making its way back to the big time. Perhaps Union had better watch its back.
Football is not just a reflection of life – it is life in itself, a hugely influential phenomenon just as deserving of writerly attention as getting divorced, US college campuses or fighting with one’s mother. Good thing, then, that some of our finest literary minds are on the case.
- Kit Holden will be at Dussmann English Bookshop on Oct 4, 19:00 to present his book in conversation with Alexander Wells. Tickets available online.