Football literature can be a bit hit-and-miss sometimes, but there are some good books on the game out there. Here are a few that I’ve read recently…
How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
I’m using this book’s American title (it was, of course, published in Britain as How Football Explains the World) because this is the version that I happened to pick up in a (London) charity shop. Personally, I’m fed up with the whole thing about how some people get into a tizzy when other people call football soccer – for me, the tipping point came when I realised that Why England Lose had been published elsewhere as Soccernomics which is, quite frankly, a much better title (that book, after all, was basically a football version of Freakonomics). I have decided the football/soccer thing is something about which I no longer care; let people call it what they will, and enjoy the game. Back to the book: Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t really explain how football (or soccer) explains the world – a title like that may be eye-catching, but you’re setting yourself up to fail (rather like Ed Smith with his book What Sport Tells Us About Life which was more about how things that happen in sport can (funnily enough) relate to real life, as opposed to explaining them). Here, Foer is looking at football phenomena and trying to put them into a wider, non-footballing context – the focus is on globalisation but it’s more about how that has affected football rather than the other way round. He is, I think, trying very hard to write a modern-day version of that Nineties classic Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper (also published as … you get the idea) and he falls into a man-trap over impartiality, especially when he turns his attention to the Old Firm derby in Glasgow. He also allows his love of Barcelona to take over what could have been an interesting chapter on football and its appeal to the middle classes, the result being that he loses his way somewhat. Shame, as he may be onto something when he uses football as a prism to look at how globalisation (Nigerians playing professionally in Ukraine!) hasn’t done much to reduce local or even tribal rivalries and hatreds.
The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt
Now this is the good stuff – a very informative, warts-and-all book about modern English professional football and its impact on modern society, and how the game has gone from an unfashionable and in some cases embarrassing fringe event to being a key part of the entertainment industry. Goldblatt, who won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year for this, sets out to put the modern game in its social and historical context and he’s done a fine job. The chapter on how the match-day experience has changed since the forming of the Premier League – commemorative statues, Pukka Pies, poor-quality programmes, loud PA systems – is particularly good, as is the chapter on football and racism (this book, written in advance of the last World Cup – a popular time for publishers to bring out football books – was published before the Malky Mackay email scandal) and the part where he looks at what’s happened city by city, right down to the smaller clubs whose woes rarely reach the attention of the Premier League-obsessed national press. This well-written book has been impressively researched (we’re even told what team the Queen supports!) and deserves to be read by anyone who’s ever wanted to know more about how football came to occupy such a central place in modern English society.
Who Invented the Stepover? by Paul Simpson & Uli Hesse
I must admit to being a bit of a fan of those New Scientist books like Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? where answers are provided to off-the-wall questions. This book is to all intents and purposes a football version of that (the authors even acknowledge this in the introduction) and it sheds some light on football’s origins, development and culture. Why do games last for 90 minutes? Has any footballer ever played two matches on the same day? What’s the point of dugouts? These and more questions are answered within the pages of this book, in which you will find out about the ref who once added 45 minutes to a schoolboy fixture, the non-league player who was banned for two years, the original ending of Escape to Victory (to which Pelé and Bobby Moore both objected) and the time a group of professionals took on an elephant in a penalty shoot-out. It’s fascinating stuff, but there are a few errors. The pictures are accompanied by the odd basic typo that anyone with even a vague knowledge of footballing history will be able to spot; for example, Brazil are at one point named as the winners of the 1954 World Cup. There’s the odd omission too – in establishing the most brutal game of football ever played, the authors go over the World Cup games that, due to their excessive on-field violence, have been unofficially designated as ‘battles’, only to miss out the most recent (it happened in 2006 and the book was published in 2013). Despite these errors, the book is a good read that can be dipped into at leisure, and should be enough to keep fans entertained.
Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth R. RobertsNovels about football don’t have a good reputation, mainly because what happens on the pitch in real life can be strange enough (tellingly, after making his name with Fever Pitch – a memoir, not a novel – Nick Hornby didn’t try his hand at a football novel). For me, the best of a poor bunch was Simon Cheetham’s gloriously bonkers Gladys Protheroe: Football Genius which was a footballing take on the old ‘insert a fictional character into real-life events’ trick, with plenty of chaos alongside a lot of references to Watford. I mention this because Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? does a similar thing (albeit without the stuff about Watford); the titular character is a washed-up star from the Seventies – West Ham, Spurs and a couple of England caps – who has been deserted by his family and is reduced to telling stories about his career in return for drinks in pubs. At this low and rather pathetic ebb, he’s offered the chance to go back in time and redeem himself by rewriting history – well, see if he can score against Poland in the infamous Tomaszewski Game of 1973 (the one where England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup). He is summoned to appear before the Council of Football Immortals (five legendary managers seemingly trapped for eternity in a series of committee rooms) while he looks back at his life via a series of chapters based on matches he played in – at times, it felt genuinely autobiographical! This goes to show how well Roberts researched this, and how good a job he did at creating the realistically flawed character that is Billy Parks. The writing, needless to say, is excellent. All football fans should read this if they haven’t already done so. I, meanwhile, will be on the look-out for more of this author’s work.