By Mike Woitalla
The magic of the bookshelf is what has kept me from acquiring a Kindle, one of those convenient e-books that let you load up bestsellers at a discount and take a library on vacation.
I still go for real books, because I enjoy looking at the rows of them, reminding me of where I was when I read them, and what I got out of them.
One of my favorite sections is the lower shelf, which makes room for the big volumes and includes my collection of wonderfully illustrated World Cup books, to which I have finally made an addition, “The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event,” By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett.
My collection started in 1973, when my grandparents began the tradition of sending me, from Germany, World Cup books, before and after every World Cup. These books might be the main reason I learned to read German, but what I remember most is that they made soccer stars come alive for me.
One includes a 12-page section on Pele with 27 photos. Pele playing against Bobby Moore. Pele with Robert F. Kennedy. Pele riding a horse. And so on.
As I leaf through the first one they sent me, I recall how much I enjoyed the spectacular photos, especially of goals being scored. I looked at these photos over and over. Soccer being a rarity on American TV, this was my link to how the great ones play.
And I remember finding, at the back of the book, the 1950 score: USA 1, England 0. I hadn’t even known the USA played in a World Cup.
Today, we have no shortage of soccer on TV and youngsters can watch Pele or Maradona or Messi on YouTube. But I still imagine soccer-playing teenagers getting plenty of joy out of the colorful, informative and entertaining “ESPN World Cup Companion.”
“The Companion” takes a more light-hearted and irreverent approach than my German books. It has sections such as Best and Worst uniforms, the World Coiffure Cup and a brief history of Timeless World Cup Song Lyrics.
But “The Companion” also offers what I always enjoyed most: fascinating photos, riveting accounts of World Cup history, and profiles of the greatest players -- and villains.
The photos capture the intensity, beauty and skill of the sport. In some ways, by freezing a brilliant split-second, the still photo offers more than the highlight clip. Stunned expressions of Argentine defenders as Francois Omam-Biyik flies a good four feet off the ground to score in 1990. Michel Platini weaving through a quartet of defenders, somehow keeping his balance.
And those wonderful black-and-white photos of the early World Cups! Uruguay’s first goal against Brazil in the 1950 final, or Joe Gaetjens getting carried off the field after the USA's win over England.
The World Cup history is presented with such lively and witty writing, teenagers would relish this book without noticing they’re being educated on not just soccer’s story, but a bit of world history.
The “ESPN World Cup Companion” isn’t intended as a children’s book. It’s adult reading. But teens are more drawn to something that doesn’t treat them like children. And the presentation and prose are strong enough to give today’s young soccer fan an appreciation for the beauty of a book.
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event (By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett) Hardcover, 256 pages. Publisher: ESPN. $30.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Rockridge SC in Oakland, Calif. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)