Book Review: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

As someone with a colleague from there as well as having recently been to Romania, my interest in its neighbor Moldova has been piqued. I mean, it’s not as if the latter comes up in the news a ton. All I know about it boils down to two things: that it’s the poorest country in Europe and that it has a pro-Russia region its eastern region. So, finding a very hilarious and somewhat informative book about Moldova was a stroke of luck. After watching England wallop the hapless Moldovans in 1997 for their World Cup qualifying campaign, comedian Tony Hawks (not to be confused with the legendary skateboarder) made a seemingly-foolish bet with a friend that he couldn’t play and beat the Moldovan starting 11 at tennis (while having official proof in the form of recording it). Why tennis? Well, the thought at the time was that players for the national soccer/football team could transfer their athleticism over to other sports, and he happened to play it. So, cue Hawks traveling all over to make this happen. Oh, and the most important thing is that the loser would have to sing the Moldovan national anthem naked whilst in the street. No pressure at all.

Even though the book mainly focused on Hawks’ hilarious adventure, it also provided a fascinating insight on the country itself. He traveled to Moldova in 1997, which was six years after they declared independence, so things weren’t as developed. The prime example of this during his stint there was how the streets of Chișinău were not lit at night-they couldn’t afford to keep them on. Coupled with the fact that a plentiful amount of potholes existed, it made for an interesting, semi-hazardous ordeal for him. I cannot speak for the city nowadays, and maybe my Moldovan friends can chime in, but when we think of capital cities, you don’t imagine a lack of lighting. Also, Hawks said that the father of his host family, who was the head of a hospital department, received his salary in goods and services; the government simply couldn’t afford actually cash at that time. His escapades in attempting to travel around the country to find, play, and beat the individual players also highlighted the shoddy transportation system and incompetent bureaucracy, but his misery and ineptitude made for a hilarious read. In particular, whenever he had to go to the contested region of Transnistria, it was like entering a different country. Transnistria, for those of you at home, is designated as an autonomous territory within Moldova, and is very pro-Russian. As such, Hawks had to embrace even more restrictive bureaucrats and suspicious soccer club officials. While I’m sure it was challenging to the point of almost quitting, his humor and wit made these trips seem like minor incidents. From relentlessly mocking a club bureaucrat for having paid 25 pounds for a beer and sandwich in England to his commentary on the endless pantomimes carried out on his behalf by his hired translator/assistant, you were left laughing your head off.

As with any person who naturally decides to fanatically pursue a whimsical goal made in a bar, Hawks utilizes self-deprecation to highlight the absurdity of it all. Using personal anecdotes to demonstrate that of all people to undertake this, you get sucked in from the beginning. It’s rare that a book would start off with it, but it literally is the first thing you read, setting the tone. Given that he’s a comedian by trade, the interspersion of his own hilarious thoughts about what he thinks people around him might be thinking is a brilliant way to segue into the comical situations he engaged in. I admit that I really found these to be well integrated and subtle, which helped to flesh out the entire book.

All in all, this was a great read about an unusual challenge in a highly underrepresented country. Tony Hawks is a fantastically witty author who was able to make a Sissyphean task of tracking down 11 Moldovan soccer/football players and challenging them to a game of tennis into something of an epic journey. As a matter of fact, he even starred in the movie of the same name, so you can watch a faithful recreation of it. Check this book out!

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