Kick and miss | Gay Talese and the new soccer journalism

The 448-page tome is Talese’s first book since 1992. Talese once wrote himself a memo: “More writers should be doing what you’re doing—NOT writing. There’s so much bad writing out there, why add to it?” (Photo copyright © Joyce Tenneson)

I am not now, nor have I ever been, fond of the game of soccer.” With these McCarthy Era echoes Gay Talese begins his memoir, A Writer’s Life, published last month by Knopf. If one had to choose where Talese, the dapper practitioner of literary journalism and chronicler of popular culture for The New Yorker and Esquire, might begin summarizing his career, the 1999 Women’s World Cup final would seem an unlikely candidate.

But Talese’s narrative picks up the thread from 10 July 1999. We read as Talese gets ready for a tennis match, watches the New York Yankees and muses about his beginnings in sportswriting at the University of Alabama with a column called “Sports Gay-zing.” “I had not planned to watch the match,” he writes, and we might think that he does not intend to write about it either. But, 336 pages later, having taken us on flashbacks to the civil rights movement and his literary treatments of Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Lorena Bobbitt, among others, Talese resumes with the story of China midfielder Liu Ying.

After 120 minutes of regulation and extra time, the match between the United States and China had come down to penalties. American goalkeeper Briana Scurry‘s save of Liu’s spot kick provided the opening on which Brandi Chastain would capitalize. Talese watched the failure, Liu’s sunken demeanor, and realized, according to Josh Getlin‘s account in the Los Angeles Times, “that was the real story.”

Liu, number 13, said she “didn’t have a plan” when taking the penalty kick against Scurry. (Action Images)

“I thought of myself as a young sportswriter,” Talese tells Getlin, “and how I would have run into that locker room and told the story through her eyes.”

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