Israeli writers’ trophy leads to ‘emptiness of the day after’

Kissing the trophy, Tel Aviv, 16 Dec 08
Yali Sobol, left, and Lior Garty of Sofrim Golim, which could mean either “counting goals” or “writers in exile,” kiss the cup after a 4–2, come-from-behind victory over Germany on Dec 16. (Photo courtesy Israel Football Association)

Eduardo Galeano traces the impulse to write El fútbol a sol y sombra (Soccer in Sun and Shadow) and other works to perceptions of his own shortcomings as a young player: “Irredeemable klutz, disgrace of the playing fields, I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball so desired denied me.”

The statement makes one wonder whether writing and playing football are mutually exclusive talents. Must one resort to literary imagination when denied the opportunity to achieve glory in the arena?

Assaf Gavron, captain of the Israel team that had its introduction to the European Writers’ League in a friendly in Germany in May (see Dec 9), suggests that barriers between sport and literature are not so impermeable. Gavron occasionally has introduced footballers as characters in his novels and short stories and sees the game as a legitimate literary subject. For writers, the appeal of football is simple: “I think the main appeal is to accomplish the boyhood dream of many men really, not only writers,” says Gavron in a podcast interview Dec 18. “It is to be a football star.”

Interview with Gavron, from Tel Aviv, Dec 18. (24:26) Download »

When trophies do come, however—as one did for Israel on Dec 16 when it beat Germany 4–2, following a 3–2 win over English writers two days earlier (see video)—the post-match comments take on a different tone. It is hard to imagine David Beckham pondering “the loneliness of a player on the pitch” in homage to Peter Handke‘s metaphorical connection, in The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, between goal-tending and existential separation. The ephemeral nature of glory (sic transit gloria mundi) also does not come up often in the mixed zone. But Gavron, for one, draws a comparison between a football victory and finishing a novel.

I tell you what does feel similar is the emptiness of the day after. You win it, it’s exciting, you lift the cup and then the day after you’re back to your normal day life. You have to start climbing a new mountain from the bottom. It’s similar to the day you complete a novel, which is also something that you work for a long time, day after day, and aspire to and then, the moment it’s done, the next day you look around and say, “OK, what’s the big deal? What am I doing now?” And you’re back to your gray and normal life.

The Israeli entry in the Writers’ League, composed of poets, novelists, creators of comic books, editors and publishers ranging from Haifa in the north to Jerusalem (see roster below), fell behind by two goals against Germany. Similarly, in Berlin in May, Israel had allowed three in the first half—two on penalties. This time, Gavron said that home turf and a possible advantage resulting from Germany’s earlier match with England, a “World War II battle” after which two players were taken to hospital, meant that Israel could exploit a disciplined training schedule leading up to the tournament. The game-changers, though, were two players with elite experience—one on a youth team at Maccabi Haifa—who have become published authors.

Gavron jokes that now the side can envision its own writers’ team library—stocked with books from exchanges with other footballing men of letters. The library might adjoin a trophy room that glitters like Real Madrid’s. In reality, though, the cup likely will end up with the team’s sponsor, a popular Israeli café chain.

Titelkampf, the collection from Germany's national team of writers

Earlier in 2008, the German
writers’ team produced
Titelkampf: Fußballgeschichten
der deutschen

(Title Bout: Football Stories
from the German National
Writers’ Team).

The most immediate benefits from entry into this loose amalgam of writers’ teams, previously confined to Europe, are gaining a rallying point for young Israeli writers and offering a new means for exposure to literature. The Writers’ League concept started in Italy with Osvaldo Soriano Football Club, named for the late Argentine writer. (One of Soriano’s football stories, “The Longest Penalty Ever,” became a feature film in 2005, El penalti más largo del mundo.)

Italy organized a World Cup of Writers in 2006, also contested by England, the Netherlands, Hungary and Sweden. Murmurings among some “pissed-off” members of this fraternity are that Sweden has bolstered its club with pedigreed players of dubious literary credentials. “Even their poets looked robust,” English writer Craig Taylor said of Swedes at the 2006 event (“Literary Kicks,” CBC, 3 Oct 06). Other members in the collective include Spain, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland and Norway.

Gavron and other organizers might have been tempted but limited team selection to writers with poetry collections, novels (graphic and text-based) or nonfiction works to their names. For those living with fingertips glued to a QWERTY keyboard, or Hebrew equivalent, football offers a chance to learn how to become part of a group. “You know writers are usually on their own behind the computer screen, not much social life,” Gavron says, “so it was a great opportunity to find some kind of social life and to get together with people who are like you.”

The theme for the literary event at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theatre on Dec 16, appropriate for a tournament celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary as a modern state and featuring England and Germany, was perception of the other. Israeli football commentator Avi Meller guided the discussion.

According to Gavron, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been pushing such sporting exchanges, which have formed part of Israel and Germany’s “special relationship” since the 1960s. The football associations of Israel and Germany have helped sponsor the writers’ events.

Der Spiegel on the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2005 characterized periodic nitpicking and bickering as “more like Homer and Marge than two sovereign states” (Henryk M. Broder, “Normality in the Shadow of History,” 24 Mar 05). But for every diplomatically mandated visit to the Yad Vashem memorial signs of normality in the relationship abound: Volkswagen and Mercedes automobiles in the Holy Land along with German tourists on beach promenades in Tel Aviv. Germany, after the United States, is Israel’s most important trade partner.

Gavron said that writers beneath a blue Tel Aviv sky this week took another small step to healing stereotypes and stigmas affecting the three nations. They could all consider themselves people of the book.


  • Ralf Bönt writes from Germany that, along with German authorities, he has been maneuvering toward a possible May 09 event in Berlin also involving teams from Iran and the United States. Iran has started building a team, the United States is fighting dispersion and the full diaries of potential competitors such as expatriate Bosnian author Aleksandar Hemon. At least Hemon, as of 2001, seems to privilege football over a traditional writer’s life as he tells English novelist Zadie Smith (“On the Road: American Writers and Their Hair,” Neal Pollack’s Timothy McSweeney’s Festival of Literature, Theater, and Music):

    Can I still play football three times a week? You look at me with your monk’s face, full of an infinite pity, yes, but without understanding, loosened from the realities of this life like a boat that has slipped its rig and floats in the bay. Because you know the truth as I know it. The aesthetic, political, journalistic, academic opportunities afforded a writer in these United States of America—all of them are sadly incompatible with playing a game of football, three times a week.

  • Nir Baram, Israel’s first goal-scorer in the tournament, writes about the experience (“When was I ever so happy?” he asks) in Ha’aretz (“Word Association Football,” Dec 21):

    During the three days of the Writers’ League tournament we created a world in which there was nothing other than the game: no commitments, no disturbances, no world. We cursed, broke legs (that is, the English broke the Germans’ legs and vice versa), swore to victory and glory; a German player even cursed a referee and got the red card. Suddenly we discovered a window onto the world of childhood where all complexity is eliminated: There is us and there is them, there is winning and there is losing.

An Israeli TV report on one of Sofrim Golim’s training sessions opens with a poetry reading from Eli Eliahu and continues with pitchside interviews with Eliahu, Baram, Gavron, Yehezkel Nafshy and Yali Sobol. A friend of Gavron’s claims that the team has garnered more attention than the World Cup … or war. (3:36)

Israel roster

  • Mordi Alon: Lives in Binyamina with his wife and two sons. He produces fiction, biography, anthologies and children’s books at Glory publishing house.
  • Yoav Avni: Lives in Tel Aviv. Author of two books, Those Crazy Americans (short stories, 1995) and Three Things for a Lonely Island (novel, 2006).
  • Nir Baram: Lives in Tel Aviv. His first novel, Tell Me a Purple Love Story, was a best seller; his third novel, The Remaker of Dreams, was shortlisted for the Sapir Prize.
  • Eli Eliahu: Lives in Givatayim. Studies Jewish philosophy and literature in Tel Aviv University. Author of the poetry collection Me and Not an Angel (Helicon, 2008).
  • Lior Garty: Lives in Tel Aviv. Playwright, theater director and actor with TV experience.
  • Assaf Gavron: Lives in Tel Aviv. Published four novels, some adapted for theater and film and translated into Russian, German, Italian and Dutch. From English he has translated works of J. D. Salinger, Philip Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer. Wrote the computer game Peacemaker.
  • Dovi Keich: Lives in Tel Aviv. Illustrator, animator and creator of comics collections Arthur around the World (Am Oved, 2001) and Izzy (Keter, 2002).
  • Ori Kerman: Lives in Givataim. Writer, editor, designer and illustrator with credits on The Thirteenth Cat, The Complete Book of Monsters and The Monsters That Changed the World.
  • Tomer Kerman: Lives in Binyamina. Editor, translator and author or co-author of seven children’s and humor books.
  • Guy Lichtensztajn: Lives in Tel Aviv. Short-story writer and editor of When Madeleine Stowe Cries, an anthology of short stories related to cinema.
  • Yehezkel Nafshy: Lives in Petah Tikva. His poems have been published in French, Russian, Hindi and Arabic. His book Opening Now won Israel’s Eisenberg Prize.
  • Amichai Shalev: Lives in Hertzlya with his wife and two children. Author of the novel Days of Pop (2004).
  • Roi Shani: Lives in kibbutz Gesher Haziv. His debut novel, Gini’s Lamborgini, was published in 2005.
  • Udi Sharabani: Lives in Tel Aviv. Journalist, script writer, artist and ex-footballer. Performs spoken word and poetry. Currently writing his debut novel, about a footballer.
  • Uri Sheradsky: Lives in Har Adar. Editor of monthly sport magazine Shem Hamisehak. Author of The Complete Book of Football, Revivo—A Biography, The Lexicon of Sports and First Half—Sport Photography from the Early Days of Israel.
  • Avi Shilon: Journalist, lives in Tel Aviv. Published Begin, 1913–1992, the biography of Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel.
  • Noam Slonim: Lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. Writer for TV comedies Ha-Hamishia Hakamerit (The Cameric Five), Puzzle and Hamovilim.
  • Yali Sobol: Lives in Tel Aviv. Author of novels Between Apartments (Babel, 2004) and Key Money (Kineret-Zmora-Bitan, 2006).
  • Gil Tsernovitch: Lives in Tel Aviv. Playwright, director and theater actor with TV experience.

Coach: Asi Singal

Manager: Shlomi Avital, Aroma Espresso Bars

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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