The subtitle of Paul Gardner's The Simplest Game (Little, Brown, $8.95) is both attractive and accurate—"The Intelligent American's Guide to the World of Soccer." And indeed, one finds tactical talk, inside dope, analyses of styles and predictions for the future of the world's most popular game as it continues a slow growth in the United States. These Gardner gives us with the agile wit and concise style that one expects from one of the foremost English soccer writers. But add that to the fact that Gardner has lived in the U.S. 17 years, and you have an author whose vision is in step with reality. He can see through the pretty pictures painted by home-grown pundits who insist that pro soccer will be pushing the Super Bowl off TV within five years.
Gardner threads his way easily through soccer's history, its principal styles, its stars and its chancy future in the home of basketball, football and sports conglomerates. As Pelé says in his foreword, "[It] is not meant to teach you how to play the sport, or how to watch it, or how to coach it. Yet, when you have read all that Paul Gardner has to say, I think you will have a new and deeper understanding of soccer...."
The reason has to do with Gardner as a writer. He engagingly describes the "working class" sport in his portrayal of a soccer game played by 12-year-olds in a suburb of Palermo, Sicily:
"His name was Salvatore, and he was the undisputed star of the game; his skinny little legs with their incongruously large black shoes were everywhere, and he was a source of mixed wonderment and amusement to his friends. A hefty swing of his leg sent the ball spinning wildly off the edge of his foot, straight up in the air; never stopping for a moment, he ran around in a tight little circle looking for the ball until it dropped, like a padded thunderbolt, right on top of his head. One of the other boys who had been watching this brief scene suddenly spun around and I could see his face, pulled tightly closed, his eyes wrinkled up, his mouth stretched and compressed into a thin grinning line, his hands dropped helplessly at his sides. He made not a sound, but I have never seen such a wonderful portrait of pure joy."
As for the future of soccer in the U.S., Gardner poses an interesting question to the owners, organizers and officials of the U.S. soccer movement, one that has, in his view, an implied answer. "We have already seen that the chief result of the growing commercialization of world soccer has been that the sport has become more defensive, more cautious, and less exciting. The question, then, is, can American soccer, which is to be unabashedly based on cash and whose progress will be carefully guided, retain its freedom? The spirit of soccer demands freedom, freedom to experiment, freedom to be bold and daring and imaginative, freedom to play. When those freedoms are stifled by overcoaching or overplanning or even overfinancing, then soccer becomes a hollow shell of a game. It has lost the very things that have made it not just a game, but the game."
We have an opportunity in this country to help revitalize the world's greatest game. After reading Gardner's book, the well-informed "Intelligent American" will be ready for that exciting responsibility.