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3 smart takes on the World Cup

Sharp books to help you enjoy the world's greatest soccer tournament.

The World Cup 2010 soccer tournament kicks off in one month. South African soccer fans line up to buy tickets to World Cup matches. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

BOSTON — The World Cup is now just one month away.

And a swift month later we will all be making judgments on South Africa 2010 based on a variety of factors: the host country’s ability to provide a festive, efficient and trouble-free backdrop; the quality and aesthetics of the soccer on the field; how our own favorite teams fare; and whether those vuvuzela horns can be muted so that they don’t exact such a painful toll on our ears.

But regardless of what happens on and off the field in South Africa, the World Cup always delivers a collateral benefit for fans of the game: 'tis the season of soccer books. And several interesting and useful tomes have already landed on my desk.

Here are three notable efforts that offer fans a wide-ranging view of the game and the upcoming Cup competition. Full disclosure: only a small fraternity/sorority write about soccer in this country so we pretty much all know each other. I am well acquainted with both American authors, one of whom kindly gave me an acknowledgement, though, regrettably, not for my soccer acuity but rather for my good company during past World Cups. The British authors have been spared any acquaintance with me.

America — “Chasing the Game” by Filip Bondy (Da Capo Press): Bondy’s is the tale of the American team, a useful primer for both knowledgeable fans and those who, after a four-year hiatus from soccer, want to catch up with our lads before the America’s June 12th opener against England.

tim howard cover
Tim Howard, America's goalkeeper, pictured on the cover of "Chasing the Game."
(Photo provided)

We have pretty much come to take World Cup qualification as our birthright here — the U.S. team is one of only seven teams that has reached six straight World Cups — though it has more to do with weak competition in its region than the prowess of the Yanks. While 2010 Cup qualification did not produce great drama, the ups and downs of the 16-month chase provide a suitable framework for Bondy to reflect on our national team, its players and the game here.

Indeed, in just under 300 pages, Bondy provides a remarkably comprehensive modern history of American soccer and its World Cup experience. He also offers revealing portraits of U.S. coach Bob Bradley and key players who, with their performance in South Africa, will determine if American soccer is, in fact, proceeding on an upward arc.

The book is exceedingly well written as it executes as complex a weave — back and forth in time — as any witnessed on a soccer field. But its greatest strengths are Bondy’s passion for the game — his Czech-born father raised him to prize soccer over all other games — and the fact that he witnessed most everything he writes about. He has covered every World Cup dating back to 1990 and has traveled to the remote outposts like Tegucigalpa and Port of Spain where the team earns its Cup qualification.

Bondy doesn’t stint on the historic 1950 World Cup where America produced what is likely the greatest upset — U.S. 1, England 0 — in tournament history. He interviews the surviving members for what is a fascinating sojourn into the roots of the modern American team. For fans that lament the lack of a soccer culture in this country, a look back at 1950 reveals how far American soccer has come. The rest of this welcome book reveals just how far it still has to go.