At first it was easy. I took myself to an undisclosed location in rural France with neither TV nor internet. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but check the scores on my phone once a day. I held out until the quarterfinals, when I unearthed a battered old radio that picked up live commentaries from England. Back home in time for the semifinals, I succumbed completely and watched the last four games. No one seemed surprised.
All this by way of background. I can’t dispute the claims of some commentators that Russia 2018 was the best World Cup ever, because I largely missed it. Guardian journalist Barney Ronay is not so sure, either. However, as he writes in his highly readable new book, "How Football (Nearly) Came Home: Adventures in Putin’s World Cup" (Harper Collins, $15.15), he is certain “that it was a brilliant World Cup, epic in scale and relentless in its drama. Five weeks that seemed to stand outside of everything else around it.”
If there’s one thing you can love about the World Cup -- despite its bloated format, the often tedious group games, the ludicrous cost of staging it, the inflated ticket prices, and FIFA’s banal slogans about healing the world -- then it’s the opportunity that the tournament offers to escape reality for over a month. Now more than ever due to the prevailing public narrative of lies, hatred and ignorance, as well as the creeping threat of an environmental apocalypse of our own making, a retreat into soccer’s reassuring, unchallenging bubble becomes all the more tempting. Why read Naomi Klein when there’s a new book out about last summer’s World Cup?
Fortunately, Ronay is not a writer who’s blind to the political realities around him, although he’s torn on how to approach them. He notes at the outset that traveling to a country just to report on sport means that you catch “a heavily stilted but often slightly unguarded picture of the places you pass through.” Russia, he later notes, is not a democracy, but “not exactly a tyrannical regime either” – rather, it’s “corrupt, cynical, alluring, gangsterish and deeply divisive.” The country “demands a fixed position,” but either way you judge it, you risk accusations of being part of “mainstream-media Russophobia in the pay of the great delusional global conspiracy,” or “a Putin-bot homophobe in the pay of the great delusional global conspiracy.”
This light, dualistic approach to his subject matter serves the book well when it comes down to the main point -- the 64 games of soccer that constituted Russia 2018. It focuses specifically on England’s unexpected run to the semifinal, which Ronay covered for his newspaper game-by-game, but doesn’t neglect the tournament as a whole. The style is subjective, impressionistic, and relentlessly entertaining. The author finds the idea of Lionel Messi becoming old both alarming and absurd, but speculates that when the Argentine genius finally dies “aged 146, he will simply vanish like Obi-Wan Kenobi under a goatskin shawl in some Nepalese mountain retreat.” On Brazil vs. Belgium, he notes that the Belgian midfield “was stiffened by the presence of Marouane Fellaini, the footballing equivalent of the pair of dirty wellies you keep in the boot of the car for days like these.”
Barely a page passes without an imaginative aside, a risky metaphor or some old-fashioned snark. Panama, he notes, were “terrible in the classic CONCACAF style, the most spoiling, bruisingly physical confederation of all the spoiling, bruisingly physical” confederations. Germany kept “the ball so long they almost forgot they had it, disappearing into their own style.” Spain against Russia in Moscow produced “a performance that was both absorbing and horribly painful, football reinterpreted as a terminal toothache.”
For England, their victories over Tunisia, the aforementioned Panama, then Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden were only enough for fourth place, but for once, notes Ronay after the semifinal loss to Croatia, “this was a defeat that felt like a defeat, and not like something more, not a disaster, or a slight, or a farrago of blame and shame, or anything anyone has to feel bad or sad about.”
Keeping the sport in perspective is one of Ronay’s many skills as a writer. However, this comparatively brief account is not a magnificent World Cup book in the mold of Pete Davies’ epic story of England at Italia 90, "All Played Out" – that book will likely never be bettered because independent journalists don’t enjoy that kind of access any more. At times, it also feels like the publisher was nagging the writer to have it finished in time for the Christmas shopping rush (the proofreader should be fired for several errors, the worst being a reference to Croatia’s Ante “Rebi”), and there are a surfeit of insights into what it’s like being a soccer hack forced by time and geography to eat a lot of bad food.
You might even think the events of a mere half year ago are not yet worth recalling. Many World Cup books benefit from a historical distance, such as Graham McColl’s superb account of Scotland’s calamity in Argentina: "78, How a Nation Lost the World Cup," published 30 years later. Still, "How Football (Nearly) Came Home" is a bracing breeze of a book. If you’re missing summer and that sense of an easy escape into a world where “the scores are level. Both teams have one kick left. It’s now five minutes to midnight,” then go ahead and lose yourself in the artificial drama. It’s what World Cups are for.
• How Football (Nearly) Came Home: Adventures in Putin’s World Cup by Barney Ronay (Harper Collins, 2018) hardcover ($15.15)
(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)