Kick and miss | Gay Talese and the new soccer journalism

As an alternative, Talese, several months after the World Cup, flew to Beijing. He had no contacts. Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine had declared no interest in the story, similar to other missteps Talese had in consulting editors who killed his idea for a book on immigrant restaurant workers and, ultimately, the Bobbitt piece. Talese was drawn to “losers,” in the words of his wife, editor Nan Talese, and with Liu Ying he proved dogged. In one of the many memos that Talese writes to himself and posts on the wall of his “writing bunker,” he said that Liu’s “moment of humiliation reached me in ways that were (are) very personal.” The final occurred during a depressive episode for Talese, and he identified with Liu’s heartbreak.

The story of Liu Ying, as outlined in Jere Longman‘s 2000 book, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World, has compelling elements. Liu, whose corner kick earlier in the match easily could have led to a winning goal had Kristine Lilly not cleared the resulting header off the goal line, proved indecisive at the critical moment. In Longman’s account, Scurry notes Liu’s demeanor—her “head was down and her shoulders drooped”—and convinces herself that she will make the save. (No place here to decide whether Scurry’s encroachment on Liu was the key factor. To Liu, it did not matter.)

Longman mentions Liu’s mother, Sun Zhixian, weeping in a China hotel, but Talese takes the drama much further. Liu’s story consumes the last 55 pages of Talese’s book. Getlin writes that “it may have been the biggest reportorial challenge of his life.”

Dressed in his cream-colored Italian suits and sporting a Panama hat, Talese was like Truman Capote in Kansas, a New York boulevardier entering a world suspicious of outsiders.

After months of persistent digging, he finally made contact with the soccer player. She had little to say about the soccer defeat and its impact on her, to his consternation. So he kept digging, until he found his way to her mother. She, quite unexpectedly, gave Talese the human story he wanted.

When Liu Ying missed the kick, her mother said she cried for her pain, and her daughter’s pain. She was embarrassed and didn’t want others to know how she felt. The next morning, a sobbing Liu Ying phoned home, saying, “It’s all my fault” over and over. Strangers came up to her sister on the street, criticizing Ying’s failure.

Liu, 32, has retired from soccer and hopes to become a physical-education teacher. One might smile that Liu and the 74-year-old Talese found each other and perhaps helped lead the other on to rehabilitation, whether rehabilitation was necessary or not.

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2 comments on this post.
  1. Brian:

    This is why I loathe penalties as a way of determining important matches. Since the PK is so heavily weighted in favor of the shooter, there is never a hero, only a goat.

  2. Old:

    Why do “games” need winners?

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