Raphael Honigstein makes his living as a football interpreter. Best known in the English speaking world for his columns on German football in the Guardian and participation in that newspaper’s well-known football podcast, he plays the reverse role in his home country, acting as English football correspondent for the Suddetsche Zeitung. This dual role – explaining German football to the English and English football to the Germans – puts him in a fairly unique position among football journalists. And it left him well placed three years ago to find a German publisher for “Higher, Better, Faster, Stronger”, a guide to English football which has just been re-issued in English as Englischer Fussball.
Now, if you’re even moderately familiar with English football, Englischer Fussball probably isn’t going to tell you very much – if anything – that you didn’t already know (the identification of Jimmy Hill as the originator of the idea for giving three pints for a win is perhaps the book’s only real surprise in this respect). It is not a history of the sport in England, though it is competent enough in describing history as required. Rather, it’s meant to be a kind of cultural examination of the English nation, posing the question: what does football tell us about the English national character?
This is not, of course, the first book to use football as a lens through which to spy on a local culture. There are a dozen or more such books out there, covering places like Italy, Spain, Brazil, etc. However, those books have all been written by Englishmen turning their gaze elsewhere. This is the first time a foreigner has, in English at least, turned the telescope around to look at the English themselves. True, Gianluca Vialli did take an outsider’s view of English football in The Italian Job, but he actually stayed clear of wider sociological conclusions and was in general less questioning of English football’s central myths than is Honigstein.
There is, of course, plenty of grist for the author’s mill here. Honigstein uses the fact that the Laws of the Game initially agreed to by the FA in 1863 were adopted at a meeting held in a public house to riff on English drinking habits by observing “it had to begin down the pub”. He puts under a microscope the English tendency to prize hard-tackling midfielders over ones with dribbling and play-making ability, and he takes apart the absurd notion that the English have an elevated sense of fair play compared to their continental counterparts.
None of this is especially problematic – the material is handled competently and his ability to make connections between various themes and concepts makes it an interesting romp. There are times when he goes too far – Honigstein’s 4-page detour, after noting the sexuality of certain sports terminology (ie. “scoring”), covering the German love for big strong keepers as a symptom of an anal-fixated desire not to be “taken at the back” and the ludicrous idea that puritanical America will never warm to football since it consists of 22 men trying to “slip one in on each other” is completely over the top– but on the whole he covers his material competently and with humour.
Like other books of its kind, though, Englischer Fussball has trouble sticking to the point. Only about half the chapters in the book actually remain true to the book’s premise of attempting to explain English culture through football. There’s a good reason for that, which also applies to most other books of this nature: namely, that the football-as-sociological-lens conceit is fundamentally pretty thin and works a lot better in a book proposal than it does in an actual book. National cultures are deeply complex local aggregates of learned behavior that grow up over centuries, while football is a 140 year-old ball game played with an identical set of rules around the world.
Will certain common learned behaviours manifest themselves on the pitch? Yes. Can these manifestations reliably be expected to explain much about the larger culture in which the game is played? No, that’s absurd. Certainly, there are local differences in the globally-regulated phenomenon known as football, but so too are there differences in McDonald’s menus around the world. It is, for instance, interesting to note that Czech McDonald’s franchises offer fried cheese, that Japanese ones offer Teriyaki burgers, that Feta burgers can be had under the Golden Arches in Athens and that the French can order a Royale with Cheese. But, fundamentally, so what? Yes, there are differences – but are they really deep reflections of culture? The inability of any author to yet convincingly hold such a case through an entire book suggests that they are not.
As a result, a large part of the book ends up being filler – a chapter on the press, a chapter on club finances and the rise of supporter-owned clubs like Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, a chapter consisting of an interview with a slightly doddery Jimmy Hill, etc. In it, we get a little bit of history and a little bit of sociology, most of which is handled competently but for one or two howlers that a more careful edit should really have caught, such as the description of Rushden and Diamonds as an “old” club when in fact it is the product of a 1992 merger of two Northamptonshire clubs and the back cover’s frankly baffling reference in 32-point bold type to “Mexico ‘72” as a major moment in football history. But while it’s all amiable enough, it has nothing to do with “explaining the culture” and also contains very little that someone who follows English football more than slightly casually won’t have already heard. One suspects that it worked better for its original German audience, for whom a larger chunk of the material would have been new.
The exception here is the book’s final chapter on the England – Germany rivalry, a subject on which Honigstein is uniquely placed to comment. This chapter is really quite good, laying bare both the modern tabloid-manufactured nature of the English “Don’t Mention the War” attitude to the derby (prior to 1966, England-Germany games were not marked by any references to the war) and the uncomfortable fact that the Germans don’t take the rivalry anywhere near as seriously as the English because, well, England simply aren’t very good. In perhaps the ultimate put-down, he compares the rivalry to that of England and Scotland – a rivalry, yes, but very one-sided.
In any case, the book’s specific content is perhaps less important than the fact that it was published at all. English football journalism can be waspishly and sometimes hilariously critical about English football and its culture, but this trait has never really been evident in the monograph literature. Certainly, the English are happy enough to play this game with other countries — the list of books reducing other people’s cultures to cliché through the medium of football is long. But this is different — this is the British themselves being reduced to a set of clichés by an outsider. Being “othered” in this way can be a jarring sensation, and presumably accounts for some of the hostile reaction the book has engendered in England, such as Rod Liddle’s bizarre review in the Times.
Englischer Fussball is thus a difficult book to encapsulate. The narrative meanders – sometimes this is a book looking to explain English football, and sometimes it is simply a litany of recent stories about wags, corruption, or what have you. It’s also uneven in quality, sometimes reading like a collection of press clippings and sometimes, as when he outlines how the English national team became a poor parody of the German one in the 2006 World Cup (“we’re prepared to play crap football all the way to the final”, said Ashley Cole, somewhat optimistically), demonstrating considerable astuteness.
The result is a book that the knowledgeable will often find banal but which contains flashes of brilliance that may be lost on the novice football reader. One senses that a more thorough re-write from the German original might have been advisable and that the failure to adjust to the different knowledge-level of the average reader has reduced what could have been a great book from an undoubtedly shrewd observer to a more pedestrian level. Honigstein has done all right here, and he deserves commendation for attempting to force the English to see themselves as others see them, but real frustration lies in the knowledge that, like the Three Lions come every tournament, he could almost certainly have better.
Alex Usher is Pitch Invasion’s resident book reviewer