Ten books about the World Cup’s past, present and future

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What to Read During the World Cup

The competition is not without controversy, but every four years, it enthralls billions. Here are 10 books that explain its history, its appeal and its future.

The French team celebrates its 2018 World Cup victory. This year, the games will be played in the winter, to avoid the summer heat in the host country, Qatar.
The French team celebrates its 2018 World Cup victory. This year, the games will be played in the winter, to avoid the summer heat in the host country, Qatar.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

By Miguel Salazar

Nov. 18, 2022

The men’s World Cup is back, and with it comes a monthlong celebration of soccer and an informal temperature check of the sport. This edition, which runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, offers spectacle at a cost. It will be the first World Cup played in the winter instead of the summer, to accommodate for the oppressive heat of the host country, Qatar, which stands accused of bribery and dire labor and human rights abuses.

At an organizational level, FIFA’s decision to schedule the tournament in the middle of the season has resulted in crammed club schedules that have led to injuries affecting nearly every World Cup team. Recent corruption scandals, along with FIFA’s plans to expand the tournament to 48 teams and rumors of a biennial World Cup, which would double the frequency of its most lucrative tournament, have added to the perception that the competition is little more than a cash grab by soccer’s governing body.

Developments on the field have moved in an opposite direction — toward a more ordered and professionalized sport. Tactical strategies have evolved to demand more collective discipline. The boom of data analytics has meant that teams can quantify even the most minute movements in every game, changes that seem to have pushed soccer further along on a “sad voyage,” as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once lamented, “from beauty to duty.”

Despite all this, the World Cup has retained its magic, partly because of the competition’s rich history, its ability to capture the imagination of billions and its power to anoint the sport’s legends. The majority of players on the 32 participating national teams — including, most likely, the promising but unusually young United States squad, which has qualified for the first time since 2014 — stand little chance of winning. But they are all headed to Qatar with the hope that anything can happen over the coming month. And fans can rely on certain constants: the goals, the emotions and the narratives of heartbreak and glory that will play out on the world’s biggest stage.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

This is the rare history book, translated by Mark Fried, suitable for newcomers to the sport and weathered fans alike. Galeano’s limitless curiosity guides readers through soccer’s origins, his favorite World Cup moments and other peculiar observations, such as how playing goalkeeper in Algeria taught Camus how to “unravel several mysteries of the human soul.”

Critchley understands what makes fans tick. In 16 loosely related essays, he draws on Hegel, Zinedine Zidane and other heroes to outline a “poetics of football experience,” writing with the zeal and conviction of a devoted fan.

This tournament most likely will be the last time Messi and Ronaldo share a spotlight on a global stage. Though the dust has yet to settle on their legacies, this dual biography is a comprehensive primer into the entwined histories of the two titans and the commercial forces that have molded their careers and, by extension, the sport.

Goldblatt’s modern history of the sport is unparalleled in scope and depth, covering nearly every continent as it surveys the nexus of sport and society, from corrupt governing bodies to how politicians have wielded the sport to various ends.

Over the past two decades, soccer clubs around the world have been adopting the gospel of big data. These books sketch the influence of American sports on data analytics in soccer and tell the stories of the evangelists who are revolutionizing the game, with O’Hanlon surveying its origins across the globe and Smith, the chief soccer correspondent for The New York Times, focusing on its effects on the English Premier League.

Wilson’s book is at once a crash course in soccer strategy and a scrupulous history that traces the sport’s evolution and chronicles how playing styles have risen and fallen against a constantly evolving tactical landscape.

Written by an investigative journalist at The Guardian, this barnburner chronicles the spectacular history of FIFA’s rise and fall from grace, from its early ambition to spread the gospel of soccer globally to the growing corruption that ultimately devastated its reputation.

As Carlos Fuentes once said, “If you want to talk about soccer, go talk to Juan Villoro.” This idiosyncratic essay collection, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is an appreciation guided by Villoro’s interests in the sociology of sport, player psychology and the aesthetic beauty of a game that he says “constantly teeters on the edge” of perfection.

Dubois traces the forces that shaped the lives and family histories of the World Cup champions Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram to examine the relationship of empire and soccer in a book that, while focused on France, can find echoes among many national teams today, from England to the United States.

Buford’s witty account of his travels and experience with English hooligans — those boisterous, often violent male soccer fans — is a classic in the canon of soccer journalism, combining an anthropologist’s eye for detail with indulgent prose. The audiobook, narrated by the author, is highly recommended.


Inside the 2022 World Cup

The tournament, which is being held in Qatar, runs through Dec. 18.


Reporting From Qatar


The Teams, Players and Coaches


Understand the Tournament

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