- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

By Tim Parks
Arcade, $26.95, 447 pages, illus.

Sadly, many Americans fail to understand the phenomenon of the World Cup, the world's biggest single sporting event and soccer's biggest tournament, that recently took place in South Korea and Japan. The final game on June 30 in Yokohama between Brazil and Germany drew an estimated worldwide television audience of 1.2 billion viewers.
Veteran sports writers such as Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated magazine, even call soccer a "bizarre sport" and "un-American." Go figure.
This hostility toward the world's most popular sport, from people who should know better, baffles. As a foreigner, I have always been fascinated by America's homegrown sports, and after surviving a batting cage came to appreciate baseball.
It's been said that understanding baseball is the beginning of understanding America. One wonders, if more Americans understood soccer, they would have a better understanding of the world at large. After all, a general knowledge of "football" is a great icebreaker, no matter where you go on this planet.
A good read on why soccer inflames the passion of so many around the world, even to the point of the ridiculous, might just be Tim Parks' new book, "A Season with Verona." Mr. Parks, an Englishman and novelist, has lived in the city of Verona, Italy, for more than 20 years and has become a devoted fan of the local team Hellas Verona. Throughout the nine months of the 2000-2001 season, Mr. Parks, a talented writer, follows the club to every game and chronicles his adventures as he travels the length and width of Italy.
It could be argued that the Italians are more passionate about soccer than any other people. Italy has a national daily newspaper devoted purely to soccer. A game is even played before the pope a former goalie to celebrate the Catholic Church's 2,000-year history.
Mr. Parks' team, Hellas Verona, are the classical underdogs with the sole purpose of staving off relegation back to Serie B, or the second division. The club's one moment of glory came back in 1985 when the "Yellow-Blues" won their only league title. Now the small provincial club is back in the top division (Serie A) where it will have to face the giants of Italian soccer such as A.C. Milan, Juventus, Roma, Lazio and Inter Milan.
Mr. Parks' story begins outside the Zanzibar, a famous watering hole for the "brigate" the hard core fans who travel to all the away games. The fanatical supporters leave in the dead of the night to make the 700-mile and 16-hour journey to play Bari at the other end of Italy, for the first game of the season.
The poor coach driver on the way to Bari is cruelly, cursed and taunted, as are the police at the stadium. On any other day no one would take the abuse, but the "framework of football provides" for these outbursts on game-day, writes Mr. Parks.
The author captures the faith and fanaticism of the supporters in a scene at the Bari stadium. The fans are separated by armed police, who stand stoically while the fans hurl vulgar names at each other and chant their clubs' songs. This childish comedy becomes even more bizarre when the wind blows a Verona fan's precious 1985 championship hat into the no-man's land that separates the rival supporters. The fan pleads with the police to return the hat. Ironically, the Bari fans join in taunting the police. Suddenly, a brave Bari fan breaks through the police ranks and retrieves the hat for the grateful Verona supporter. For a few minutes the opposing fans applaud each other before turning back to their old ways.
Mr. Parks goes out of his way to defend the people of Verona, who are castigated by Southerners in Italy as "bigoted, workaholic, uncultured, crude and gross." Worst still, Verona's soccer fans are considered the most racist in Italy. The club has never had a black player and its fans cruelly mock black players on visiting teams.
Mr. Parks makes no apologies for the behavior of the fans, however, he sees them as "easy targets" for the sanctimonious liberal press who are always out to catch them at their worst.
"Every public statement is so predictably pious, the stadium offers the only place where you can stand up and yell something excitingly foul," he writes. But there is redemption in this story, and by the time the season is over Verona has signed its first black player a Colombian who is warmly welcomed by the fans in his home debut.
For those of us linguistically challenged, Mr. Parks' book is not always easy to read as page after page is littered with Italian words. Still, the author does a fine job in getting under the skin of the Italian soccer culture, while at the same time offering a fascinating travel guide to the country.
This book in many ways reminded me of Bill Buford's 1993 book "Among the Thugs," however, the Italian fans, who occasionally disturb the quiet of Italian towns and scare off the odd tourists, appear far less violent than the English soccer hooligans Mr. Buford traveled with.

John Haydon writes a column on soccer for The Washington Times.

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