Top five: football histories

By Kevin O’Sullivan

It’s now only sixteen days until the beginning of the most bloated, over-hyped, quality-diluted, greed-driven (see FIFA’s recent clampdown on South African airline Kulula for advertising themselves as the ‘unofficial national carrier of the “you-know-what”’) sporting show on earth. But do I still love it? Will I still collect and pore over a variety of free newspaper world cup guides in the way I did as an eight-year-old watching Francois Oman-Biyik head that goal against Argentina in 1990? Absolutely, although I think I might give the Star sticker album a miss this time.

Brian Glanville, The Story of the World Cup (newest edition: London, 2010).
First published in 1973, Glanville’s book is now on its eighth edition, and still offers by far the best synthesis of the competition’s history. In his long journalistic career, including columns for World Soccer magazine and frequent match reports for the Sunday Times, Glanville has been an original and refreshingly honest voice. The Story of the World Cup is an extension of that writing, managing to walk the difficult tightrope of match description, background information and pithy asides with confidence and style. I can’t think of any other writer who could quote William Wordsworth to describe Maradona’s ephedrine-fuelled exit from the 1994 World Cup – ‘Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade / Of that which once was great has passed away’ – and get away with it.

David Winner, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (London, 2000).
In the aftermath of Simon Kuper’s ground-breaking Football against the Enemy (1994), came dozens of football-as-popular culture books. Some, like Joe McGinniss’s The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (1999), were wonderfully executed insights into the connection between football and local communities. Others, like Alex Bellos’s Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life (2002) struggled under the weight of their own lofty pretensions. But none can surpass David Winner’s Brilliant Orange. This is, quite simply, the best book about sport I’ve ever read, exploring not just the history of a country’s football’s successes and failures, but what in its culture and mentality – including a fascinating description of the architecture of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – makes Dutch football and its players what they are: arrogant, questioning, irritable, but brilliant.

Frits Barend and Henk van Dorp, Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff: the ABC of an Obstinate Maestro (London, 1998).
The subject of Barend and van Dorp’s book – Holland’s greatest ever player, Johan Cruyff – is a mix of all four of those traits. But don’t be put off by the publisher’s description of this book as ‘authorised biography’. (In an age when Dwight Yorke can publish a memoir titled Born to Score, is there anything worse?) Instead historians should revel in reading this text as a primary source, built on extensive tracts of interviews between the authors across more than twenty years, and providing a unique insight into the workings of one of the more interesting characters in the modern history of the sport.

Jimmy Burns, Barça: A People’s Passion (London, 1999).
The influence of Cruyff’s approach – ‘football is a game you play with your brain’ – is still apparent at the club he played for in the 1970s and managed with such success in the 1990s. Like Winner’s Brilliant Orange, Jimmy Burns’s history of Barcelona succeeds simply because it is much more than a history of sport. Instead, it examines the club’s role in a much wider sense: its role in constructing and expressing the identity of a city and a region (Catalonia) in civil war and after; and how its evolution from the 1970s to the late 1990s (Burns wrote his book to coincide with the club’s centenary in 1999) echoed the changing and increasingly cosmopolitan face of both.

For all the metres of shelf-space devoted to the sport in your local bookshop (and, I notice, a whole table-full of not very good recommendations in Dublin’s Hodges Figgis), this list would not be complete without reference to those who chip away at the cliché-ridden daily coalface of hamstrings, metatarsals and WAGs. Simon Kuper’s ‘Sporting Life’ columns for the Financial Times are among the best; our own Tom Humphries, perhaps still best known in football terms for those interviews with Roy Keane, still writes with eloquent brilliance for the Irish Times; When Saturday Comes retains a uniquely irreverent, witty and insightful editorial approach; and the Guardian’s team of writers, although at times visibly straining to fill the space on their extensive football site, are still capable of producing pieces like Rob Smyth and Lars Eriksen’s excellent short history of the ‘Danish dynamite’ side of the mid-1980s.

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19 Responses to “Top five: football histories”

  1. Patrick Says:

    Excellent choices and assuming, in the manner of the Guardian’s excellent joy of sixes, that your list is not definitive can I add Paddy Agnew’s wonderful Forza-Italia: A Journey in Search of Italy and its Football. I would also echo the praise for Tom Humphries, and point readers towards his eccentrically titled Laptop dancing and Nanny Goat Mambo, with its superb account of his role in the infamous Saipan debacle. Finally I would suggest that Roddy Doyle’s The Van is the best Irish literary, and indeed cultural historical, treatment of the joyous days of Italia 90.

  2. dfallon Says:
    A nice read from Belfast Celtic online, on Oscar Traynor, the one we got over the ‘other’ lot.

    My favourite football book is Comrade Jim ‘The Spy Who Played for Spartak’ by Jim Riordan. It’s widely available today in, of all places, the dreaded Discount Books type stores. Such an unfitting end for a wonderful book.

    I pick up every issue of When Saturday Comes, it’s approach to the game is unqiue to say the least. The latest issue has a wonderful piece on Wexford Youths Football Club.

    Recently there was a first issue published of a similar League of Ireland focused magazine, the name of which escapes me at the minute, but which had a similar approach and articles on F.C Sankt Pauli of Hamburg, the Boe-iz/Rovers derby in Dublin with good emphasis on the history of the clash and other odds and ends. It’s a huge gap in the market, only really filled by fanzines (The excellent UCD effort, ‘Student Til I Graduate’ being the best) which often approach the history of the clubs involved in the way only a passionate fan can.

    No Al Calcio Moderno!

  3. Brian Hanley Says:

    The dreaded Eamon Dunphy (crucial in 1990, boring now) did write two very good books (not including the one on U2): ‘Only A Game’ and ‘A Strange Kind of Glory’.
    Simon Cupar’s ‘Ajax: The Dutch: The War’ and Paul Rowan’s ‘The Team that Jack Built’ weren’t bad.

  4. Gerald Hall Says:

    What about Eduardo Galeano’s El fútbol a sol y sombra? Admittedly a different bird from the others in the list in many ways, but so beautifully lyrical.

    ‘Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move for the love of God’…”

  5. Tomas Says:

    The only addition I’d have to the list of books is David Goldblatt’s ‘The Ball is Round’, which is, as far as I know, the only book which attempts to write a world history of football – and does a pretty good job of it, from what I’ve read.

    Re: bits of journalism, Leander Schaerlaekens’ piece on Joe Gaetjens for ESPN is amazing. Right up there with the ‘Danish Dynamite’ piece.

  6. Frank Says:

    Some interesting further suggestions of top football reads here:

  7. puesoccurrences Says:

    Some great additional recommendations there. Paddy Agnew’s Forza Italia is a great book, Schaelaekens’ piece on the US is akin to the Danish Dynamite piece, and there are some great reads in the list Frank posted. I’m glad too to hear of another reader of When Saturday Comes – the high quality writing and mix of styles remains a cut above anything else out there.

    Dunphy’s U2 biography put me off reading any else by the man, but I should eventually read ‘Only a Game’. I must admit that I haven’t read David Goldblatt’s book, although I did enjoy his contributions to Talking History’s programme on the history of the World Cup (downloadable here: I might have also included – and thought of doing so – a whole new section on football fiction – interesting though that no one has mentioned either The Damned United or Fever Pitch.

    Tom Humphries’ Nanny Goat Mambo and Simon Kuper’s Ajax history I’m less keen on. Both books made wonder about a question for another blog post – are some writers suited to particular media? In this case, I found that both found it difficult to sustain their undoubted journalistic excellence across a book-long text.

    But what’s perhaps most interesting is the absence of any really serious (read: academic) history in the books we’ve collectively listed. Where is the heavy stuff? Is sport still on the margins of ‘academic’ history (I’m sure the excellent Sports History Ireland conferences would have something to say about that)? Why?


  8. Seanachie Says:

    I can’t share your enthusiasm for Barça, despite being a fan of the club. Shoddily written and long stretches of boredom. Other than that a good selection, to which I would add Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy, Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow, Alex Bellos’ history of Brazilian football Futbol and also one little known book by Sindo GAA scribe Eamon Sweeney, ‘There’s Only One Red Army’. I am biased though, being a fellow Sligo Rovers fan (and fellow Ballymote Celtic clubmate of Sweeney’s).

    WSC is a fine magazine but French magazine So Foot is even better, and is crying out for an English-language edition. Recent articles have included football under Hizbollah, Football in Guantanamo and gypsies in European football.

  9. jonathan Says:

    Great piece. While agree with all your choices, I feel you are being a little hard on Bellos. I read it while in Brazil and found the chapter on 1950 to be quite illuminating and well written. But maybe I was corrupted by my surroundings.

    I would add Provided You Don’t Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton, a local journo who had the privilege of following Brian Clough throughout his years as manager of Notts Forest. A captivating personality portrayed critically and sensitively by a provincial journalist who really should have been writing for the nationals if the evidence of this tome is anything to go by.

    Great Blog, thanks

  10. Frank Says:

    Check out the football books window display in Hodges Figgis to see if we’ve covered everything worth reading on football in this blog entry.

  11. Paul Dillon Says:

    I’d second Brian Hanley’s recommendation of Dunphy’s two football books and add Gordon Burn’s ‘Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion’.

    On Patrick’s comment, Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Van’ might capture something of what were indeed the ‘joyous days’ of Ireland’s world cup campaigns, but ‘the best literary, and indeed cultural historical treatment’? There can’t be much competition. Strangely, several respected historians think Doyle’s novelistic treatment of the 1913-1916-War of Independence period is among the best in literature, which is absurd (O’Casey, O’Flaherty, James Plunkett).

    Doyle’s ‘The Van’ is mediocre and mildly amusing at best, but worse than that, it’s populist. Doyle wanted to please, to go with the flow, to ingratiate himself with the green-shirt-wearers of Jack’s Army. And what better way than to have a go at Dunphy? So Doyle has one of his chirpy caricatures express his contempt for the journalist. Hardly controversial. Dunphy was a hate figure at that time because he was prepared to criticise the manager’s negative approach and some abysmal Irish performances – the tabloids hated him, as did latecomer jingoistic fans: Dunphy ‘hated Ireland’, he was spoiling the party.

    While Dunphy has at times written and spoken a good deal of nonsense and knows it, ‘Only a Game?’ and ‘A Strange Kind of Glory’ are two very good books. I first read ‘Only a Game?’ in my mid-teens while playing schoolboy football in Dublin – finding it in the football section of the local library, it was clear that it was something different from all the ghost-written garbage. It was real. His book on Busby and United likewise benefits from his insight as someone who briefly knew the club from the inside. And he shows that football was a class-ridden sport in a class-ridden society.

    Gordon Burn, who died last year, was one of the best observers of Britain’s popular culture. He also wrote an often hilarious book on the 1980s snooker boom, ‘Pocket Money’, regarded as the only decent book on the ‘sport’. ‘Best and Edwards’ is a sad and angry book, revolving around the careers of two players who, of course, never played on the same United team. Duncan Edwards, one of the most promising players of his generation, was a man of the ‘fifties and died at Munich. The book has little about the action on the field – it’s as much about the times these men lived in, about British culture, working-class culture and football culture, and how, in turn, each player embodied and responded to the values of his times. He quotes Matt Busby as saying every manager hopes to find one great player, ‘I found two – Big Duncan and George. I suppose in their own ways, they both died, didn’t they?’.

    Burn’s book is a damnation of celebrity culture in its ’60s-’70s form and that of the Beckham era – players like Edwards lived in the same world as their teams’ fans. He also looks at how these players are remembered: public statues, memorobilia for sale. While it’s hard to be nostalgic for a world where players were effectively servants of the club-owners, Burn feels a certain dignity has been lost, and sitting in a grim pub called The Duncan Edwards wonders if it should more appropriately be called The Lee Bowyer.

    Whatever you think of the book, Burn deserves great respect: his bibliography shows that he had to read three of Best’s autobiographies, two books by his wives, and a biography by Michael Parkinson.

    Not forgetting that this is a history site, I see ‘Puesoccurances’ notes ‘the absence of any really serious (read: academic) history in the books we’ve collectively listed. Where is the heavy stuff?’. True, little ‘scholarly’ attention has been paid to it and in Ireland such work lags well behind work on the GAA. This is hardly surprising since until recently official Ireland (to use a Dunphyism) barely acknowledged the existence of football.

    But it’s of no great importance whether sport is ‘on the margins or at the centre of ‘academic’ history’. Academic fads come and go. You can do degrees in British universities in pop music, 1970s television and (I think in Liverpool), ‘football studies’. Thesis-like studies by sociologists and jargon-merchants analyse such elements of ‘popular culture’ to death, building academic careers in the process, while usually missing the real spirit and essence of their subjects. Nonetheless well-researched, well-written ‘scholarly’ studies of, for instance Irish football and the culture that surrounded it, would be welcome, and would be good to see among the ‘My Autobiography’s and dreary journalistic histories. But I suspect that it is books like those by Dunphy and Gordon Burn that are the real ‘heavy stuff’.

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