When I was a freshman in high school, there were two books in our school library about soccer. One was Joe McGinniss’s fantastic account of a tiny club’s unlikely survival in Serie B, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. The other, and for me, far more important book was Fever Pitch, English novelist Nick Hornby’s autobiographical paean to football fandom.
As a 14 year old, like now, I was a soccer fan, a term which carried an entirely different connotation at the time. Plenty of my friends played soccer, but few, if any, knew anything about the culture surrounding the game. So I was understandably delighted to have discovered this book. I still remember opening my borrowed copy for the first time and finding, to my joy, that not only was it about soccer (and in those days, we celebrated every time soccer got coverage, even the smallest of passing mentions; it was kind of pathetic), but about Arsenal. As a young Arsenal fan myself in an era when information was scarce (thank Bergkamp for Arseblog and BBC Sport), even at the height of our success, Fever Pitch seemed like a miracle, a gift from benevolent footballing gods. It spoke of a culture whose absorption in the sport far outstripped mine, and it did so with in the kind of detail that only the hopelessly obsessed can provide, written with humor and real affection for the club and the sport. Besides being an invaluable informal history, it gave being a soccer fan a sense of identity, a feeling that you were a part of this deep, long-standing culture when we really didn’t have much of one (a close parallel to what young Hornby was himself seeking when he took the train into London every other week), especially in a city that was the better part of a decade away from landing its own MLS team.
Fever Pitch turns 20 this year. It has spawned two film adaptations, one I fondly admire, and one I utterly revile. It has introduced me to the rest of Hornby’s canon, and he is, as anyone who has read his works will know, an immensely gifted novelist.
It’s not for me to judge the book’s cultural impact, whether its enlightened take on soccer obsession helped to spur the acceptance of what we know as “modern football,” or whether it was symptomatic of an inevitable revolution, and thus merely an excellent work that articulated the zeitgeist of an imminent sea change. All I know is that I fell in love with the book. I went out and bought my own copy, and read it so much it fell apart at the bindings. I bought another. It’s dog-eared, stained, and certainly much loved. Happy 20th, Fever Pitch. And thanks for everything.
H/T to twohundredpercent for the anniversary reminder.