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2006 World Cup of Writers - CBC

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Hey, I think the CSA should sponsor a Canadian entry. Read below:

Literary Kicks

Inside the 2006 World Cup of Writers

By Craig Taylor

October 3, 2006

They write, they score! Authors square off in Florence, Italy, during the 2006 World Cup of Writers soccer tournament. (Elisa Salvati)Some phrases tend to defy translation, even when it’s one writer speaking to another. Take, for instance, the moment last month when I was standing on a street corner in Florence at 4 a.m. I was in Italy as a member of the English team at the second annual Writers’ League, a gathering of soccer squads from around the world. Beside me was a member of the Italian team, swaying with tiredness, drunkenness and perhaps a little muscle fatigue. We were having trouble getting our group of stragglers to a nearby after-hours club called — bizarrely — Loch Ness. He turned to me and asked: “Have you been enjoying the tournament?”

“Of course,” I replied. The days in Florence had been divided into football, eating prosciutto crudo and cycling through the Piazza della Signoria. “It’s too bad,” I said, “That we got our asses handed to us.”

“Your ass and hands?” he asked.

“No, our asses handed to us. It was kicked, our team's ass was kicked.”

“Kicked with hands?” he asked.

I waved him off. It didn’t matter.

The simple truth, in any language, was that the 2006 World Cup of Writers ended much like the real World Cup: the English team came home with nothing but good memories and aching hamstrings. As members of our ever-optimistic squad pointed out, at least we didn’t lose on penalty kicks. At least we didn’t have the burden of Frank Lampard in the squad.

The Writers' League 2006 tournament was organized by Osvaldo Soriano FC, an Italian club named after the football-loving Argentine writer. It was the second year of the tournament, and sponsorship money came in from a large Italian telecommunications company. The tourney was meant to be an international gathering where writers could discuss Dante in the evening and hack each other’s shins in the daylight on one of the finest training grounds in Europe. There was no prize money, only prestige. To describe the four-team tournament as a “World Cup” might have been a stretch, but there were still the requisite rivalries. Would the winner be the dour Hungarians, or a Scandinavian team so physically fit, even their poets looked robust? The Scandinavian goaltender smoked a pipe, pissed behind his team’s net and was known for his translations of James Joyce. There were also the Italians, our first opponents, who had been humiliated by a last-place finish the year before. They now had a website full of heroic photos — it looked like someone had added a bit more stubble to each player’s mug shot — and their team had been playing together for ages. Theirs was an experienced squad, complete with a philosophizing goalkeeper and a documentary film crew that followed them wherever they went.

The English team flew in on Thursday. Hopes were high. Gathered were writers from London, Coventry, Bath, Bristol, Manchester, Norwich and, because no one was checking passports, representatives from Brooklyn, N.Y., Austin, Tex., and Vancouver Island (that’s me). I was a last-minute addition and thought of myself as an Owen Hargreaves figure, an unknown Canadian quantity that could bolster the midfield, even if my accent was broad and my links to England tenuous.

Bookish behaviour: A Writers' League soccer player finds solace in the written word. (Elisa Salvati)We were split between fiction and non-fiction writers. Up front were three strikers/literary novelists whose books have been described, respectively, as “moving,” “hilarious” and “bold.” Their scoring prowess was as yet untested. The midfield was in fine literary form, anchored by a Whitbread Prize winner named Patrick Neate and Haydn Middleton, a writer with a talent for children’s lit, mythology and flicking headers out to the wings. Our captain, Tobias Jones, on right defence, spoke fluent Italian and had written a book entitled The Dark Heart of Italy. We hoped he had an insight into the country's footballing weaknesses, as well as its dark core.

Did it matter that most of the players had never met, much less played with each other? Did it matter that the first time we caught a glimpse of our goalkeeper, novelist Graham Joyce, it was as he slid his carry-on bag into the overhead lockers on the flight? Surely, being writers meant we could creatively overcome adversity and craft a suitable ending. With a good first draft, who would need a second? When we arrived in Florence, the welcome dinner was served outside on the terrace of the Biblioteca Comunale Centrale. In between plates of pasta, we shook hands, tried to memorize our teammates’ names and warily eyed up the opposition.

At half-time 12 hours later, the English team was only losing 1-0 to the Italians. We had shown bursts of tenacity, thanks to the efforts of our Texan starter, Ben Markovits, who recited the end of Tennyson’s Ulysses in our pre-match huddle. It was perfect footballing weather in Tuscany: clouds over the hills, but no rain to obscure the Renaissance architecture of the villages in the distance. There was scarcely time to marvel at the surroundings. In midfield, I was busy tracking the Italians, including Alessandro Baricco, author of the novella Silk, and Cristiano Cavina, a solidly built writer who later in the tournament read out a rant against fair play that recounted the innocence of his childhood games. “We learnt how to return the kicks that we got,” he said. “To slow down the game by holding the ball in mid-field with a series of tactic fouls and not to give our hand to the player who had tripped us and wanted to help us up.”

Right, then. Fair play was not always evident, but occasional appeals were made to each writer’s sense of decency. At one point, the ball went out of bounds. Although it looked like a corner kick, the Italian goalkeeper claimed it for his own. Markovits, our striker, walked over and appealed to the keeper’s moral sense. “You have to tell the truth,” he said. “You’re a writer.” The goalkeeper, obviously moved, kicked it into touch. England ball.

Like any good piece of literature, our downfall was well scripted. A surge of hope came in the form of a successful penalty kick by Sam Taylor, which briefly tied the score. Then came the defensive errors, the offensive errors, the mid-field errors and the lung-burning futility that accompanies a general lack of pace. The conclusion was a letdown. Final score: Italia 5, United Kingdom 1.

The second game, against Hungary, was a vast improvement. Some great editor’s pen had corrected a few of our mistakes. The passes were sharper and the number of errors less harmful. We were confident enough to lose by a score of only 2-0. After our exit, the pipe-smoking Scandinavians remained coolly Nordic and won the tournament in penalties against the Italians. They were aided by the celebration of their game-winning poet, who marked his penalty kick with some suitably outrageous waves to the crowd.

The English team might have lost on the pitch, but there were other high points. The phrase that most resonated through the tournament came from our goalkeeper, Graham Joyce. During an opposing free kick, he took a look at the scattered assembly of defenders gathered in front of him and yelled out, “That’s not a f---ing wall!” After we told what looked to be a transsexual pub waitress that we were the English national football team, she glanced around, singled out one of our bespectacled players and announced, “That’s not a footballer.”

One day, though, we will be. Anyone with even the faintest knowledge of sporting literature — from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural to W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe — knows the first act is filled with failure, humiliation and the introduction of suitable adversaries. We certainly had all three in Florence. Plans are already afoot to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Over the next year, it looks like some of us will be happy to give up some writing time to practise headers and free kicks. At this point in time, the nation might need fewer brilliant novels and more international triumphs on the pitch. At the end of the tournament, Tobias Jones accepted the smallest of the trophies with grace and aplomb, and with our asses handed to us, we retreated back to England, and back to the writer’s solitary life.

Craig Taylor is a feature writer for the Guardian in London, England.

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