To some, soccer is simply a sport. To others, such as “The Fault in Our Stars” author John Green, soccer is an art form — a wonderfully tactical and poetic dance.
“Football is the kind of theater where the audience doesn’t know the script and neither do the players,” Green said in an interview Thursday with The Times.
The novelist, who is a lifelong soccer fan, has kept a close eye on the 2022 World Cup and has shared his artful observations of plays, rivalries and circumstances that have played out during the tournament to his 2.4 million TikTok followers.
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“I don’t know if you’ve ever loved someone who’s disappointed you and betrayed your trust over and over again, but I have. That someone is the U.S. men’s national soccer team,” Green said in a TikTok celebrating the USMNT advancing to the round of 16.
“For most of my life I’ve given the U.S. men’s national soccer team so much of my love and in exchange, they have given me very little … it’s been disappointments all the way down until today when Christian Pulisic scored a goal to defeat Iran and send the U.S. men’s national team into the knockout stages of the World Cup.”
In another TikTok, he spoke of the unimaginable pressure that comes with taking penalty kicks.
“I really dislike it when people are like, ‘Those players can’t handle the pressure of taking a penalty kick at the World Cup.’ Neither could you, neither can any of us,” he shared. “I mean nobody can handle even the normal, everyday pressures that all of us are subjected to. Certainly, nobody can handle the pressure of taking a penalty kick while literally half of all humans are watching.”
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Green’s love affair with soccer goes back many decades to when he played the sport in middle school. Despite being a self-described “terrible” player, the 45-year-old Green has always harbored a deep passion for the game that he has watched most days over the last 20 years.
“I loved it when I was in high school. I was by far the biggest fan of my high school soccer team,” Green said. “I just love the game. I’ve always thought it was beautiful and very metaphorically resonant for me.”
The “Looking for Alaska” author noted that though the similarities between his line of work and the art of football don’t seem obvious, they are definitely present.
“I don’t think football is that dissimilar from writing novels. Like a lot of it’s about trying to open up space in unexpected ways,” he said. “The bright line that I drew as a child between jocks and nerds, between art and sports, of course, it’s a completely false dichotomy. And there’s so much that’s beautiful about football, so I often try to bring that to it.”
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In another set of TikToks — which have since been taken down by FIFA because, according to Green, they are “the thieves of joy” — the “Paper Towns” writer showed highlights and praised the patience that comes with crafting a perfect play on the pitch during the Argentina-Poland match. Later, he celebrated Japan’s nonstop effort against Spain that led to an improbable goal that allowed it to advance as winners of Group E.
“I was trying to look for plays that were accessible enough that I could explain to people who don’t care about soccer, why I find those plays so beautiful, but still be able to talk about it in a minute or a minute and a half,” Green said.
As for who he is rooting for in Sunday’s final between Argentina and France, Green’s heart can’t help but root for Lionel Messi and Argentina, even if his head is telling him that France has the more complete team.
When speaking about Messi’s impressive run to set up teammate Julián Álvarez for Argentina’s third goal against Croatia in the semifinals this week, Green talked about his love for Messi’s style of play.
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“It took a level of like creativity and ability to understand space and navigate space that is really, really unusual,” he said. “ You watch a player like [Messi], Luka Modrić or Roberto Firmino and, to me, their play is just so beautiful and creative and unexpected … those are the moments for me that are so full of joy.”
Though Green’s love for the game is unfailing, it’s not uncritical.
Off the pitch, this year’s World Cup has been mired in controversy, mostly notably because of the working conditions for migrant workers who built stadiums for the tournament. Green has dealt with the internal conflict that many have felt of supporting the game he loves while also being cognizant and proactive about calling out injustice.
“I think it’s important to say that it’s not only Qatar it’s not only the World Cup, it’s not only FIFA, it’s also the Premier League and lots of other leagues around the world and football has historically often been used as a means of oppression and as a way of reinforcing unjust systems,” Green said.
“I think that, for me, the way that we call attention to this stuff is by calling attention to it. So that’s one thing I really admired about the work that Grant Wahl did in Qatar, and throughout his career, was that he loved football, and part of loving football was criticizing football. And, you know, paying critical attention, not just attention.”
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When asked if he sees himself as an ambassador of sorts for a sport that has been the future sport of the U.S. for decades, Green rejected the label wholeheartedly.
“I don’t really feel like I’m an ambassador for football. I don’t think that football needs an ambassador,” he said. “To be honest with you, I think the game itself is beautiful on its own terms and it has plenty of fans in the U.S. and it’s the fastest growing sport in terms of attendance in terms of TV ratings, so I don’t think football needs me.”
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Carlos De Loera is a reporter and a member of the 2022-23 Los Angeles Times Fellowship class. He previously worked at The Times as an editorial assistant and intern with Arts and Entertainment and at the Houston Chronicle as a features intern. De Loera is a L.A. County native and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in history and minored in journalism, ethics and democracy.
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