I will not pretend to be a soccer aficionado. However, I absolutely appreciate -- even love -- the World Cup. I love it as the world's biggest sports event (with this year's edition to be, arguably, the biggest event in sports history). I love the pageantry. I love the passion of the fans.
I don't usually recommend hardcover books. In this case, I am going to recommend ESPN's "World Cup Companion," because it felt like the only World Cup book you will need to appreciate the history and spectacle -- the context -- of the event. It is entirely valuable.
For the past two Cups, I have tried (and failed) to find a book that distills everything I would need (or want) to know into one package. That is the value of "Cup Companion." It has some cheeky charm (the imprint of brilliant co-author David Hirshey), but it is the ultimate catch-up.
It's fine to have a grasp of the teams involved this year, which you will be able to get in a bunch of places. But I think you need to get a glimpse of Cups past -- the heroes and storylines, age-old conflicts and mythologies. It helps to appreciate the Cup today. The "Companion" filled that for me.
The book has a breakdown of every Cup, including a summary of the tournament; the greatest teams, players and rivalries; the "cult figures" and a bunch of really smart essays about the past and future of the event.
The subtitle "Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sports Event" is accurate. You will feel vastly more literate about the World Cup, at a moment when that literacy will be the most valuable form of social currency you can have.
The book is an easy read and aesthetically gorgeous -- ESPN's designers know their stuff. It is a must-read before things start in three weeks and an ideal coffee table book for June and July. That's why I am alright with the hardcover recommendation.
I should mention that the publisher sent me a review copy, but I would have paid the $20 for it on Amazon. Think of it this way: After reading it, you'll have enough to say that it'll probably be worth at least two free pints to you at the bar when you've struck up a conversation with a soccer fan.