Book Review: “Unseen Academicals,” by Terry Pratchett – Wizards Playing Soccer

Terry Pratchett is not a sports writer. The world he writes about, Discworld, is a flat world borne through space on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn borne through space on the shell of a giant turtle. It is a world filled with wizards, witches, trolls, dwarves, and other fantastical creatures. Perhaps in preparation for the upcoming World Cup, Pratchett’s newest “Discworld” novel, Unseen Academicals, is about the first organized modern soccer match in the history of Ankh-Morpork, principal city of the Disc (based off of London).

The state that football finds itself in at the book’s inception is not a good one. The games are played primarily in back alleys and on the streets. Play is amateurish and violent, with little in the way of organization or even real talent. And the crowd, collectively known as “The Shove,” is just as violent as the players or worse, with frequent rioting and even the occasional death. Worst of all, the crowds seems reluctant to any form of change for the better. “It was something that people themselves had put together and rickety and stupid though it was, it was theirs” (241). Despite this all, it is beloved by the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, and Pratchett has a good enough understanding of sports fandom to understand why: “‘The noise, the crowds, the chanting, oh the chanting! It becomes a second blood! The unison! To not be alone! To be not just one but one and all, of one mind, of one purpose (121)!'” This unity lies at the heart of community sports, and any sports fan should find themselves nodding along with the explanation of why a sport as violent and poorly organized still gathers a crowd so devoted as to engender violence.

Unseen Academicals is the story of how the game of football in Ankh-Morpork went from this highly disreputable state to one of organization, rules, and elegance. This is conducted through a joint venture by the city’s tyrant ruler and the staff of the local wizard school, Unseen University (hence the team name). The manner by which they go about doing this are at times devious, and Pratchett uses them to make an interesting point about the role organization and organizing bodies play in the conduct of athletics. The shortest answer is that given enough time, organization and power structures will win out.

Overall you have a very well written novel about love and soccer (there are a couple of love stories thrown in on top of the soccer for those interested in that sort of thing). Sports fans will enjoy the training periods for the wizarding school, and much of what they go through will ring true for athletes of any sport (at one point they all go to the ballet to learn poise). Commentary on athletics, such as “they are a team… you have to train a team to be a team” (340) appears throughout the novel. And fans of sports writing will enjoy the final game between the Unseen Academicals and Ankh-Morpork United. It is written almost entirely from the perspective of a local journalist who, for the first time, is trying to cover a sporting event. The result is the “birth” of modern sports journalism, and readers will get a lot of joy watching the writing form come into being.

I won’t give away much of the ending, however it brings together many of the themes presented throughout the novel, including the unifying nature of sport, the role of the fan, and the ever-present conflict between organization and player (despite the changes to the rules made by the city tyrant, Ankh-Morpork United still plays dirty and their fans still descend into hooliganism, even attempting to sabotage the other team’s players). The final scenes are most satisfying.

I’m a huge fan of the Discworld novels, so I can’t say I read this book objectively. However I do believe there is much in this novel that sports fans will find enjoyable. If you can get past the fact that the goalie is a wizard librarian who is a giant orangutan, and if you can get past the coach of the team being a goblin (or is he?), and if you can get past all of the other elements in this book that make it at its core a work of fantasy (or maybe parody), then you will find yourself caught up in the lives of all of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful characters. And you just might learn something about soccer, to boot.

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