I received this book about a week ago, and the timing for this surprise delivery was perfect. What the publicists for this book had no way of knowing was that there are only two sports I watch on television, and only every four years, and those are the two I played as a child myself: Swimming and soccer.
So it was that I have been watching each of the major World Cup games and thus a children's book series about kids who play soccer held more than the usual level of interest on me.
It seems that this book series has been a hit in Germany in other nations, and some of the books have even been made into movies. Very interesting and how appropriate considering how, sadly, few Americans seem to care about this game. I'm guessing this book will be much more popular in, say, England, than in the USA.
In either case, it's great timing, having this book released during the World Cup.
The book even has an introduction from soccer star Landon Donovan who says, in part, "The Wild Soccer Bunch is a fun read. It brought back great childhood memories. Kids will fall in love with the book and get up and start kicking a ball around. I'm a huge fan of The Wild Soccer Bunch!"
I quickly arranged for an email interview with the books' author, Joachim Masannek, who is himself, of course, in South Africa to watch the World Cup in person. Color me jealous.
How did you come up with this idea for the series? How much of it is drawn from your real life experiences as a soccer coach?
Twelve years ago, I started to coach my two sons' — Marlon and Leon — teams. They were 7 and 6 years old at the time. They played on a team of a little village and dreamed that they could become FC Bayern Munich players.
So they decided to get their team black jerseys, a black ball and a special name: The Wild Soccer Bunch. And indeed, when we played against the kids that played on FC Bayern children's club, we beat them.
On the real Wild Soccer team we did a lot of activities besides soccer to get the kids to know each other better. We built a tree house, which later became an integral part of the series and we did the test of courage when the entire team jumped from the bridge into the river.
At that time, friends of mine came to me and asked me if I wanted to write books about this experience. There weren't at the time any new books for boys because publishers in Germany were convinced that boys do not read, and I thought it might be a good idea.
When I found a publisher, two other friends from my film school approached me to write and direct the first movie. Directing movies was my profession, so I agreed. With the first book and the first movie coming out we had success with the boys. Then, when we made the second film and let the Wild Bunch discover girls by writing a love letter, the girls became readers and an integral part of the fan-base, and from that time success increased in a magnificent way.
You've called soccer the most inclusive of all sports — can you explain what you mean by that?.
Everyone can play soccer. Girls or boys alike. You don't need much to play. There is a story about Pele, who played as a poor kid with a can as a ball. That's why it is the most popular sport in the world. In African villages they play barefoot. You don't need money or organization to play. No equipment needed to play pick-up soccer. Also, on children's soccer teams every player gets to run around and kick the ball. These are the basics.
Was the idea always to have one book for each player on the team?
Yes. This was the plan from the get go. All the characters of the Wild Soccer Bunch are based on the real kids from my team. The way I describe them in the books is very close to reality.
For me it was a process of going back into my own childhood memories. I realized how different kids see the world. I wanted to write from their perspective and their stream of thought. I wanted to give everyone the chance to become a hero, which is the must-have ingredient of a winning soccer team.
Which character do you most like?
I think it is a combination of Roger, Kevin and Alex, when I think of me as a kid. As an adult I would love to be like Larry, the coach.
How has it been received in other countries? I think I read that it has been made into films?
The books are now released in about 30 countries, and they are mostly popular in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Netherlands, Israel and China. In the beginning of the year it was published in Brazil, and obviously I'm very excited about that.
I wrote and directed five Wild Soccer Bunch films and it became the most successful German film franchise in the last 30 years. My boys acted in the films, so as a father I had to bring them down to earth because they started to behave like rock stars.
So this is the first of the series published in English? Will the rest also be coming out? When? Will the films also be coming out in English or with subtitles?
My American publisher plans to publish the next two books in the next year and hopefully will publish the entire series. He also has the rights to remake the films or TV series. German TV is now producing an animated series and I'm planning to write and direct the sixth film while writing two more books.
How did you go about deciding how much to change for the English version? I noticed, for example, you mentioned Chicago — was that so Americans reading it can better relate?
In some countries the local publisher asked to localize the books. My American publisher felt it would be more accessible if we recreate the Wild Bunch as Americans. It required a lot of work in many levels, the vernaculars, sensibilities, etc., and I'm very happy with the results, keeping my style and storytelling intact and making it friendly to American readers.
Is it coincidental that this is coming out right during the world cup?
No. My publisher planned it all along.
How did you get Landon Donovon to write the introduction?
As I understand, Landon Donovan knew about the books because he played in Germany. My publisher asked him to endorse the series and introduce it to the American kids, and he said that he loves the idea because he comes from a family of teachers and reading is very important to him. I am pleased that he is involved in promoting my books.
Which team are you rooting for in the World Cup and which one do you think will win the whole thing?
Germany of course! I'm now in South Africa, showing two Wild Soccer Bunch films to underprivileged children.
What were you doing for work before this became a hit? And what is Honky Talk Pirates?
I worked as a screenwriter after finishing film school. Honky Tonk Pirates is my new series. The first two novels will be published this winter by Random House in Germany and UFA Cinema is producing the film. Next summer I'll hopefully be back on the set to direct the first film.