In Chicago midfields, Hemon discovers transcendental soccer nation

AH: I have a hard time living if I’m not playing or watching soccer, but playing mainly. … If there’s a connection between writing and playing football, it’s the sense of total presence in the world. The Granta essay touches on that. The sense of total presence—when you have the ball and you know where people around you are, and you know what is going to happen. Somehow your body knows where the ball is going to go and what is going to happen. And you have this increased awareness of your surroundings and of the presence of other people and of the course the action will probably take. And that’s nearly a transcendental feeling. I can only imagine what it would be like to feel or do something like that in the finals of the World Cup.

In writing, too—although it doesn’t happen so much at the level of the physical—at the best moments I have a sense when I’m writing of total presence in the world.

GG: Do you get the same transcendental or spiritual feeling as a spectator, watching the sport, or does that come just by playing?

AH: Watching is a little more passive, because it’s not your body reacting. But because I’ve played, I know what it might be like. I’m able to imagine what a great player might feel in a situation like that, when something incredible happens. I begin to imagine the transcendence that that player experiences.

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On 2 Mar 02, Bergkamp eludes Greek defender Nikos Dabizas of Newcastle to contribute to a 2–0 Arsenal victory in an FA Cup quarterfinal. “Here was one touch so sophisticated that it did not so much guide the ball as issue it a series of instructions,” writes Sam Wallace in the Daily Telegraph.

If you remember the great goal, the [Diego] Maradona goal in ’86 in Mexico, when he ran past the English defense, that’s something thrilling to watch. One of the greatest goals I’ve seen is Dennis Bergkamp playing for Arsenal against Newcastle, when he somehow touched the ball so the ball went around the defender on one side, and Bergkamp went the other side. … I can understand the physics of it, what he did with his foot, but the idea … how he would have thought to do that is just amazing. When you see this you know something extraordinary has happened. … There was some confluence of cosmic forces that allowed it to happen.

GG: The story “The Conductor” from your latest collection, Love and Obstacles, includes a brief narrative about boys trying to retrieve a football that has gone into the river. There is a rope between the two banks and a crate in the middle. It sounds like this is something you have seen, that soccer was such a part of growing up that this solution already existed for practical problems.

AH: I have never done it, but I’ve seen boys doing that, because boys will be playing soccer near the river and the ball will go in. And then the river would take [the balls] and they would end up in a whirlpool. … There would be a crowd of balls in the river, in the middle of the river. Clever boys constructed this device and tried to catch the ball. They would catch a few of them. I have never done it, but I watched them doing that often.

GG: Sarajevo before wartime was known to be a tolerant, diverse city. Was soccer something that divided or brought communities together or did you think about it in those terms?

AH: There were two main clubs. Fans of those clubs were at odds. It didn’t used to be violent, but there was rivalry. It was a big derby, as is the case in Rome—Roma and Lazio—or Real and Atlético Madrid, or Liverpool and Everton. Those were not organized along ethnic lines. It was more along class lines. One of the clubs, the younger club, FC Sarajevo, was founded in 1945, which is to say it was founded [by] the Communist left wing. And they were always thought to be more privileged and supported by the power structures.

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