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December 2, 2014
Lunch with Klaus Zeyringer yesterday in a nice little Angers restaurant. Klaus is a well-known, prolific literary critic and author of numerous books among which a major history of Austrian literature since 1650. And a recent cultural history of football, for which he just won the second prize for the best football book of the year awarded by the German Academy for Football Culture (the first prize going to a photographic volume on the football of the 1970s that rang a nostalgic bell with the jury).
Does the world need yet another cultural history of football? I had doubts, but after reading Zeyringer’s elegant prose with real pleasure I can come forward with three good arguments in favour of writing and reading such a book.
First, the natural, by no means artificial, manner in which the links between football history and literary history in various national backgrounds are drawn. Klaus Zeyringer is helped here by his linguistic competences, intercultural sensitivity and impressive erudition, and – as I learnt over lunch – by the knowledge of his wife, a scholarly expert on Latin American cultural history at the University of Munich.
Second, the courage to tell the story of football in a non-chronological order, with sudden flashbacks and well-chosen illustrative anecdotes, jumping from the past to the present tense, and not even according to a very strict thematic order. It gives the 430 pages a remarkable fluidity, avoiding (not entirely, but almost) redundancies and awkward transitions.
Third, the fact that the book quotes www.free-project.eu among its references. Could there be a better proof for up-to-date research that underpins this literary undertaking?
Of course, the scholar in me had, despite the esthetic pleasure of the reading experience, a kind of after-taste. The problem is not that there are some omissions and that some national contexts are treated with particular emphasis. The cultural history of football is so rich and complex and global that you will never do it justice in one volume. Even the particularly dense and detailed history by our friend Paul Dietschy received some criticism for having ‘neglected’ specific names and places.
No, the problem lies in the fact that this is a book that is the fruit of intensive research, carried out by a renowned academic, concluded by a list of relevant academic references that gives evidence to the seriousness of the endeavour, and published in the ‘Wissenschaft’ series of a reputed publishing house. It’s not just an essay on football. But in order to facilitate the reading, it does not quote its inspirations properly. Sometimes the name of an author pops up here and there, but there are also passages that are clearly inspired by the works cited in the bibliography and that don’t carry any reference to a source or author. Is it only me? Have I developed a fixation on academic referencing or become a kind of fundamentalist of scholarly dogma?
Be it as it may, the publishing house has opted for a ‘grey zone’ that smells like an unsatisfactory compromise. What I must admit, though, is that the book is clearly not written for fellow academics. Its objective, as it appears to me, is to reach out to a cultivated public that has come to understand that football is definitely an important form of popular culture with surprising links to what is traditionally considered ‘high’ culture, a public that is only waiting for the key to open the doors to a better understanding of this fascinating socio-cultural phenomenon. There is no doubt that Klaus Zeyringer provides more than a handful of such keys, and he does so in a prose that is not only elegant and refined, but also refreshingly accessible.