Football Books: The Rough Guide to Soccer In Print

A few weeks ago, Tom Dunmore asked me to be Pitch Invasion’s regular book reviewer even though he knew full well my blogging track record back is just this side of abysmal (I am, to the half-dozen of you who read my work, the blogger known as Antonio Gramsci). I was so flattered I actually accepted but ever since, I’ve been fretting over what to write my first column about, not least because I haven’t actually read a football book other than the amply-reviewed Beckham Experiment in several months and my next fix from Amazon.co.uk probably won’t show up for another couple of weeks. So, what to write about? How can I introduce myself to the Pitch Invasion faithful?

In the end I decided that if I’m going to be regaling you all with my take on football books on a regular basis, I should probably start with an overview of the state of football literature in general. After all, it’s back-to-school time, and I’m sure you’re eager to do the background reading before we begin our journey together through the coming year’s football books.

Tony Adams Addicted

The basics

Lets start with the basics: as in every genre of sports writing, the mainstay is the biography or autobiography of the superstar player. These are normally tedious; the only ones which are vaguely of interest are the ones where the player himself is or was horribly messed-up in some way — Tony Adams’ Addicted, for instance, or Jimmy Burns’ biography of Maradona, The Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona. If anything, football lags other sports in this area: there has yet to be a player autobiography of the standard of Ken Dryden’s The Game, or that has the humour of Bill Lee’s The Wrong Stuff. This is not, in truth, entirely the fault of the publishing industry. Football doesn’t really produce many intellectuals on Dryden’s level (the only one I can think of off the top of my head would be Jorge Valdano, who does in fact write books on football, but none of them have been translated into English), and while it does have its share of “characters”, it’s hard to think of any quite as colourfully anarchic as Lee, either. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the limitations of the sporting culture than of the publication culture.

Biographies aren’t limited to players: managers and occasionally referees get a look-in, too. Again, there’s nothing here to look at, really.

After player biographies come club biographies – these, too are usually dreck. Read one on your own team, by all means. If you want more, read Phil Ball’s White Storm: The Story of Real Madrid about Real Madrid, which is probably the best of this genre and maybe Jimmy Burns’ Barca: A People’s Passion (although the latter needs to be taken with a serious dose of salt). Do yourself a favour and give the rest a miss. There simply aren’t enough teams with world-historical importance even within the limited terms of the football world. Books which look at “big derbies” aren’t much better, often reducing major clubs to outdated stereotypes (e.g. bourgeois River Plate v. proletarian Boca Juniors) in order to build up the story.

The Football Business

Football is, increasingly, a business – and there’s any number of books about how money (usually personified in the form of Sky’s owner Rupert Murdoch) is ruining football. Most are pretty uninteresting, but David Conn’s books The Football Business: Fair Game in the ’90s? (Mainstream sport) and The Beautiful Game?: Searching the Soul of Football both mix excellent financial reporting with a fierce and passionate devotion to the welfare of the fans who support the game. They’re well worth a read.

Foul by Andrew Jennings

Of course, corruption isn’t just about business – it’s in the buying and selling of matches, a subject examined in Declan Hill’s recent book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime. And there’s also a long history of serious corruption allegations at FIFA headquarters in Lausanne. A quick read of journalist Andrew Jennings’ Foul!: The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals is the best way to get a handle on this, though more academically-minded readers may prefer John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson’s books FIFA and the Contest for World Football: Who Rules the Peoples’ Game and Badfellas: FIFA Family at War (Mainstream sport), or Paul Darby’s Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance.

Academically minded, you say? Is there really an academic literature on football? You bet. Some of it is quite good (though since it’s priced at academic rates, it’s not the most accessible literature in the world). Most of the really good stuff is either written or edited by the University of Aberdeen’s Richard Giulianotti, and his Football: A Sociology of the Global Game is well worth the investment for the serious-minded. Also worth a look is Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini, a book adapted from author Simon Martin’s University College London PhD thesis.

Fever Pitch and Beyond

One of the problems with football literature, you’ll realize quickly, is that there is far, far too much of it about. Often, sub-genres start promisingly but then die a horrible death as someone tries to replicate the same theme for every single team in the Premiership and Football League. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, for instance, which was a well-written meditation on the relationship between sport, narrative and masculinity with Arsenal at its centre, was followed by at least thirty-odd volumes by fans writing books about their lives and how their fanatical support for (insert team here) is a metaphor for their overall condition in life. Dreck.

Another sub-genre is the “seasonal” genre. Some journalist comes up with an idea to spend a year following a particular team. Hunter Davies originally did it with Tottenham in the 1970s in his book The Glory Game: The New Edition of the British Football Classic (Mainstream Sport); the concept was updated and given a bit of a twist in the 1990s when American author Joe McGuiness spent a season at a tiny Italian club in The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy. These two books are classics and belong in everyone’s library. Tim Parks’ A Season with Verona: Travels Around Italy in Search of Illusion, National Character, and…Goals! had the literary style one would expect from a novelist and is an interesting look at the culture of Italian tifosi but ultimately kind of craps out because Parks’ knowledge of football isn’t brilliant. The couple of dozen other attempts at this genre, sometimes by journalists (like Guillem Balague’s A Season on the Brink: A Portrait of RAFA Benitez’s Liverpool), but more often usually by fans trying to find a way to write off the cost of their season ticket as a business expense (e.g. The Great Divide: The Inside Story of the 1999-2000 Season at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur by Alex Fynn and Olivia Blair). Unless you have an obsessive-bordering-on-compulsive interest in that particular club, they are not worth the paper they are printed on. And even then…

Then there’s hoolie porn: endless reams of books, usually by ex-hooligans, talking about the fights they had, how hard such-and-such a firm is, etc. Or the related genre of books about the sordid world that revolves around footballers, such as Mirror journalist Graham Johnson’s Football and Gangsters: How Organised Crime Controls the Beautiful Game. These can almost all be filed under “books that make you feel dirty when you read them”. Read Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, by all means, or John Sugden’s Scum Airways: Inside Football’s Underground Economy (Mainstream Sport) (which recounts how the hooligan element came to dominate the football tourism trade and the fake replica shirt market). Other than that, steer clear.

Books about specific historical incidents are occasionally worthwhile, and there are a lot of good books about the period around World War II, including David Downing’s Passovotchka: Moscow Dynamo in Britain, 1945 (Bloomsbury Paperbacks) (the Red Army team’s 1945 tour of the UK), Andy Dougan’s Dynamo: Triumph and Tragedy in Nazi-Occupied Kiev (about a semi-mythical game in occupied Ukraine where a team from Kiev beat a German Air Force team despite severe intimidation, after which several players were executed), and of course Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War“>Ajax, the Dutch, the War (which is about football in WWI in general but more specifically about the fate of Jewish club members once German judenrein policies came into effect in Holland in 1940).

The Global Game

How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer

Arguably, it was this same Kuper who inaugurated the modern age of football writing started arguably started in the mid-1990s with the publication of Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power. Bits of it are now dated, and some of the stuff on South America and the Ukraine are a bit dubious (the part suggesting that Dynamo Kiev was exporting fissile material in the mid-90s strains credulity), but overall it’s a fantastic read. Few have come close to equaling it – Franklin Foer’s attempt at doing so in How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization was mostly pathetic apart from a decent essay on Serbian football. But it’s nevertheless a historiographically important book because it opened up the eyes of the English reading public to the fact that football is a sociological window into the soul of other cultures.

This line of inquiry has led to a series of national histories of the game, and through it some of the best football writing around. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, John Foot’s Calcio: A History of Italian Football, Ulrich-Hesse Lichtenberger’s Tor!: The Story of German Football, Alex Bellos’ Futebol: Soccer: The Brazilian Way, Phil Ball’s Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, David Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game (Sporting), and Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football are all excellent national/regional histories of football of Holland, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Spain, the United States and Eastern Europe, respectively.

The problem with this genre is that once someone has written about a country or an area, then it is “done” and that territory taken. And, to be blunt, we’re running out of territory. James Montague took out most of the Arab world last year in a good-in-patches-but-disappointing-overall book When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone. Ditto Russia, with Marc Bennett’s Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game. Steve Menary tried to outflank everyone by writing about football in non-nations – those islelets and stateless ethnic groups that make up the non-FIFA world, such as Greenland, Tibet and Gibraltar – in an engaging way in his book Outcasts!: The Lands That FIFA Forgot, even if his central premise that FIFA should chuck any considerations about national sovereignty every time some groupuscule says it wants to field a football team is only barely this side of being totally batshit. But the real problem with these geographically-centred histories of the game is that in many ways they were completely blown out of the water by the monumental and magisterial The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt. This frankly brilliant 915-page global history of football everywhere around the world has set the bar for football history so high that it’s possible no one has anything left to say.

There’s a similar problem with respect to tactics. Though historically a fringe area of football publication, you could occasionally find a half-decent book on the subject – Sky’s Andy Gray published a surprisingly good book on tactics called Flat Back Four about a decade ago. But last fall, Jonathan Wilson published Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, and it’s hard to imagine anyone ever bettering it as a description of the development of football formations. There is probably still some room for a specialist tome on the evolution of defensive tactics, but other than that Wilson’s book is it.

Rounding out the literature, of course, are the quirky books. Charlie Connelly following the Lichtenstein national team for two years of World Cup Qualification in Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream; Andrew Anthony’s history of spot-kicks in On Penalties, Musa Okwonga’s take on the eleven elements of a successful footballer in A A Cultured Left Foot: The Eleven Elements of Footballing Greatness. There’s a few of these gems around, but if the title is going out of its way to scream quirky, it’s usually not worth the hassle. Paul Brown’s medley of anecdotes, published under the title Balls: Tales from Football’s Nether Regions, is one of those examples of a book that had a title long before any text was actually written.

Why England Lose by Simon Kuper

So where next for football literature? Is there anything useful left to write in the post-Goldblatt era? Well, there’s a good deal more to be written about the economics of football. This has received some academic treatment and was touched on to a certain extent by Andrew Zimbalist and Stefan Szymanski in their comparative history of football and baseball National Pastime. Expect Szymanski to touch on this theme a bit more in his forthcoming book (already released in the UK) with Simon Kuper entitled Why England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, which I’ll be reviewing in the next couple of months. Geographically speaking, a good treatment of African football is desperately needed – it’s been done a couple of times by Peter auf der Heyde and Filippo Maria Ricci, but neither really gets to grips with the subject in a substantive way. Mexico and Argentina could both do with something solid on their domestic games and though a couple of authors have had a run at French football, it’s still in need of a good popular treatment.

There’s definitely room for a book on how people consume football, both historically and in the electronic age – the different varieties of fandom and spectatorship. I nominate Tom for this one.

But most of all what football literature needs is some decent fiction. Apart from David Peace’s The Damned Utd, a fictionalized account of Brian Clough’s career and in particular his 44 days at the helm of Leeds United, there is remarkably little fiction of any quality at all dealing with our favourite sport. Certainly, football has yet to produce anything like the genius of WP Kinsella. With so much drama embedded in the game and the generally soap operatic nature of events off the pitch, it’s hard to believe that the sport still trails baseball in this respect. But it seems there’s no one on the horizon seeking to end this literary drought.

Over the next few months in the run up to the World Cup in South Africa, we can expect a higher-than-average stream of books about our favourite game. I’m hoping for a few gems amid the inevitable dross. But one way or another, you can find out about new football books here on Pitch Invasion, with me and my bitchy sarcasm as your faithful companions. I’m looking forward to it.


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