An essay about how to capture soccer through writing.


To write about soccer is to study empty space. There is space between lines on the field, between an athlete’s body and the bodies of her opponents, between her cleat and the ball as she dribbles toward the goal. There is space between what the mind wants and how the body reacts. There are expanses of time in which the athlete waits: between trainings, between games, between seasons. And there is the great void of desire, into which the athlete pours everything. Until one day, she stops.

While working on a memoir about the struggles, joys and desires that saturated my career as a professional soccer player, I’ve taken to reading great writers on the subject of pain. The sensation is notorious for evading language, for being difficult or impossible to articulate. In her book “The Body in Pain,” the essayist Elaine Scarry writes, “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.” As I read this sentence, I conjure the image of a familiar inky mass with porous edges, blotting out my view of the world.

In my own writing, though, I find it easy to write about the physical suffering I experienced while playing. Pain took place somewhere; it had a setting. Pain was in doctors’ offices, training rooms, fields, hospitals. It was in waiting rooms and clinics, it sat with me on the bench. I could often point to my pain: my knee, my head, my aching back. On the other hand, the joy of playing was boundless. I haven’t read as much about the blacked-out bliss of euphoria. It can’t be held, treated or wrapped up, and it’s just as solitary, profound and spacious.

So I was curious: Who could help me learn to write about the vast and empty feeling of scoring a goal?

Some sports books are written by documentarians — journalists or historians. These books (such as Roger Angell’s “The Summer Game” or Norman Mailer’s “The Fight”) are written from a distance, from the perspective of a fan or a critic. They are written with the reader in mind, who often demands that blank space is colored in with shades of glory, pain, triumph and defeat; narrative imposes limits on spaciousness.

Another kind of sports book is written by the athlete or her ghostwriter; these books immortalize one great player, a single life. But they, too, can fall short. In a blistering review of tennis player Tracey Austin’s autobiography, David Foster Wallace famously wrote that athletes are incapable of writing about their experience. “Those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius,” Wallace declared, “must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it.” The same sort of power that allows an athlete to “bypass the head and simply and superbly act” might also make them incapable of articulating what it feels like to experience the beauty of their own expertise.

That said, in my search for an approximation of glory, of complete delight, of the space inside blissful oblivion, I have often found a home in the words of famous athletes. In her book “Forward,” Abby Wambach says that after scoring a goal, “the picture went black — not a slow fade, but a swift guillotine chop that separated the scene from my ability to see it.” English soccer great and D.C. United head coach Wayne Rooney was once quoted explaining that playing soccer felt like being underwater, and “when you score the goal it’s like you come up for air.” In Nathalie Léger’s “Suite for Barbara Loden,” she recalls baseball player Mickey Mantle explaining why he did not write an autobiography:I wanted to describe the trajectory of a baseball, the air, the rustling air, the space — the hole the ball makes against the background.”

But many athletes cannot resist the impulse toward narrative. When I was playing, I desperately wanted to prepare for the future, to understand the arc of my career. For a time, I thought I was writing about soccer to find my way to an ending that I could live with, where ambition might come to rest.

Last month, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) named the roster of women who will compete in the World Cup, which runs from July 20 through Aug. 20 in New Zealand and Australia. Most consider participation in this tournament to be the pinnacle of a woman’s career. On social media, the USWNT posted videos of each player as they got the call from the coach informing them of their inclusion. I studied their reactions and thought a lot about the players who just missed the cut. Before she heard that she would be on a plane this month, USWNT midfielder Kristie Mewis mused to herself in a podcast interview, “If I don’t make this World Cup team … do I feel fulfilled in my career?”

But we know how ambition works. For each aspiration that is fulfilled, another lingers further away, tempting you to give chase. One desire after another breaks apart and, like sand, runs through your fingers just as you close your fist around it.

To be successful in sports takes some mystical combination of talent, luck and hard work. Plenty of people will tell you they know the perfect proportions. It is the same with writing. I scour interviews with writers who share the routines and rituals that they claim will yield the most finished projects, the most words on the page. What is the secret to a great writing practice? Is it enough to show up, again and again (to run sprints, to sit at the desk), or does success require some sacred element that is out of our control?

I have found some inspiration in a third, more limited genre of sports book, the kind that is most precious to me: those written by artists who have also been great athletes. In “Swimming Studies,” one such book, Leann Shapton writes about the relationship between her visual art and her swimming career. “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.”

It doesn’t last long, Rooney wrote about coming up for air. “You can hear the crowd, the atmosphere, for that four or five seconds,” he said. And then back down.

It is true that I can write a sentence and days later not know how exactly it got on the page. It is true that on the field, the body can act before and without the mind. What might we lose if we color in this blankness with words? Perhaps to demand a story from an athletic career, from the arc of a single game, is to betray its most beautiful gift.

The space of oblivion is no longer a private moment I pass through as the ball finds the back of the net. It lives inside me now, a blank emptiness where soccer used to be, which expands and compresses like an accordion. As I write about soccer, I lean against this great absence, and I know that I am touching the space between who I was on the field and who I will carry on to be.

Georgia Cloepfil’s nonfiction debut is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Her other writing can be found at

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