Killing the game story would be a shame

My love for almost everything began with a love for sport writing, and it remains my favorite kind of journalism.

In the early days it was the game story that most excited me. There was so little television coverage of sports back then – no replays or ESPN and the like – that if you wanted a good accounting, you read a rundown of the game in the New York Daily News. A sharp game story accompanied by some data visualization – uh, I mean the box score – and you were good to go.

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post.  His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Goff’s story for more than a month now.  I am about to X-ray it for you to reveal what I think makes it special.  You can read it now. Or you can follow along as I quote passages and then analyze them.

Great journalism comes at the intersection of talent, preparation, and opportunity. The readiness is all.

Red Smith was ready when Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard round the world” to lead the New York Giants in a shocking 1951 defeat of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the most famous baseball game ever played.  Smith’s lead for the New York Herald Tribune read:

Now it is done.  Now the story ends.  And there is no way to tell it.  The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic can ever be plausible again.

The kicker of the story, describing the downcast pitcher who threw the infamous pitch to Thomson, remains just as memorable:

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

Most striking about Steven Goff’s game story out of Belo Horizonte, Brazil is its unconventional approach to news writing.  It begins with two long paragraphs that almost ignore the details of the game.  What might have been expected in the report of a routine match flew out the window in the wake of a historic loss and humiliation.  Goff was ready:

It’s been said Brazil has never fully recovered from its greatest sporting tragedy, the 1950 home loss to Uruguay in the World Cup final.  Despite proceeding to win a record five global crowns and injecting beauty in the beautiful game, for blessing the sport with legendary players such as Pele, Romario and Ronaldo, Brazil remains haunted by the ghosts of “Maracanazo” – a term capturing the heartbreak of that day before 173,000 spectators at Rio’s Maracana stadium.

While that 76-word lead has no news in it, per se, it was news to me.  Perhaps students of the game would automatically understand the reference to the 1950 disaster (the way that I know about Bobby Thomson’s famous home run). This lead provides something that we say we want more of these days in journalism: context.  In a single paragraph, we come to understand the place of Brazil in the history of world football, and the place of world football in the history of Brazil. Now we are ready to put into that context what happened “yesterday”:

After what unfolded Tuesday, a 7-1 loss to Germany in the cup semifinals, Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations, an expression to capture what it looked and felt like at Estadio Mineirao, what it meant to concede four goals in six minutes of the first half, to suffer one of the most humbling setbacks in World Cup annals, to lose at home for the first time in 12 years and to equal the largest margin of defeat in its eminent history.

Has there been a better 88-word sentence in the history of game stories?  I’m ready to see it.  This one will suffice for now.  Let’s examine the parts:

  • “After what unfolded Tuesday” – The obligatory When of the story, but “unfolded” is a verb I associate with the beginning of a surprising narrative.
  • “…a 7-1 loss to Germany in the cup semifinals” – This is the What, the news, but it can be embedded in apposition because most people will already know what happened.
  • “…Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations,” – This phrase picks up the focus of the first paragraph, not only the idea of national disaster, but something so devastating that a new word may be needed to describe it. One part of a story sticks well to another; we call that stickiness “cohesion.”
  • “…an expression to capture…” – This phrase introduces a list of four discrete elements of the national humiliation. The entire sentence should remind us that the well-organized long sentence – one that takes a reader on a journey – must be on the workbench of every successful writer.

A good game story almost always answers the question ‘How’ for the reader.  How did the Giants defeat the Dodgers in such a surprising fashion? (By cheating – stealing signs – as it turned out years later.) How did a world soccer superpower allow seven goals in a game on its home field? Take these three short paragraphs:

Between the 23rd and 29th minutes, Brazil imploded. Without Thiago Silva, their defensive sentry, the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.

Kroos passed to Muller, who crisscrossed with Klose inside the penalty area. Cesar blocked Kloses’ initial shot but had no chance to stop the second.

“It was a great shock to them,” German Coach Joachim Loew said, “and you realized they were confused. They did not know what to do.”

The phrase that stands for me is: “the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.” The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.

Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing.  What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective. There are moments when the skillful writer can merge the elements of information and judgment, the kind of move we might expect from a Frank Rich reviewing a Broadway play or a presidential debate.

This final paragraph did the trick for me:

After the final whistle, Brazil’s players gathered at midfield and applauded the spectators. It was almost a plea for forgiveness. None was offered.

I love it that a story that began with two sentences that totaled more than 150 words, ends with a sentence of three words.

What this story reveals most of all is how ready Steven Goff was to write it.  That readiness – a combination of preparation and physical energy – reminds me of one of the great stories in the history of sports writing.  (I am retelling it from a chapter in my book Writing Tools.)

I end with the story of a famous foreign correspondent and novelist, Laurence Stallings, who was assigned in 1925 to cover a big college football game between Pennsylvania and Illinois.  The star of the day was Red Grange.  Known as the Galloping Ghost, Grange dazzled the crowd with 363 yards of total offense, leading the Illini to a 24-2 upset victory over Penn.

The famous journalist and author was awestruck.  Red Smith wrote that Stallings “clutched at his haircut” as he paced up and down the press box.  How could anyone cover this event?  “It’s too big,” he said, “I can’t write it,” this coming from a man who had once covered World War I.

Someone should have quoted Shakespeare to him:  “the readiness is all.”

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  • tri-village

    This isn’t the half of it. Goff has filed other stories from locales around the world that are nominally about the competition he is covering, but which reveal his gifts as a travel writer. On his blog for the Post site, Soccer Insider, he is celebrated for his reviews of restaurants and such in nearly every city he visits.

  • rbruce20

    Why doesn’t the Times publish local youth game stats and mini-stories, besides school results? It’s a no-brainer that posting game stats would attract more readers. Don’t post them on-line, but only in the daily newspaper. What better way to encourage people to read the sports page.