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.