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23rd June 2012 - Sean O'Conor


Intelligent football writing didn't begin with Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, reports Sean O'Conor from our Royal Festival Hall branch, but the it's only recently that British publishers have started properly catering for the demand from fans.


"That like a football you do spurn me thus?"
     Act II, scene 1,The Comedy of Errors

As Euro 2012 consumes the TV schedules and newspapers, and whole nations begin to get caught up in the excitement, it is the perfect time to take a look at what the bookshelves have to say about what Pelé called "The Beautiful Game".

The words 'football' and 'literature' seemed to be mutually exclusive for years, an oddity given that other sports - baseball, boxing and cricket notably - have produced a wealth of classic tomes.

In fact, there had always existed quality football writing, but most of it was not in English. Italian and Spanish had long connected the pen and the ball but England's accursed class system pigeon-holed the two arts as impossible bedfellows.

Albert Camus is known here as one of the 20th century's great thinkers but his love of football is often glossed over or ignored. He ascribed his knowledge of "morality and the duty of man" to the game and when asked whether he preferred theatre to football, replied, "Football, without hesitation."

Ditto Umberto Eco and Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose loves for calcio sit perfectly well with the rest of their lives. I am still waiting for Alain de Botton to pen the philosophy football classic.

Beastly Fury by Richard Sanders
Soccer's Anglo-Saxon origins were educated enough: the first rules resembling the modern game were written down at Cambridge University and the likes of Eton and Charterhouse dominated the sport's early years. In 1874 Oxford became the first and certainly last university to win the FA Cup. Richard Sanders' Beastly Fury and David Winner's Those Feet are useful guides to football's formative years.

Ten years later the northern industrial towns were top dogs at football and reshaped the cultural profile of the sport forever, while the southern amateurs and gentlemen of letters retreated to less stressful pursuits.

One existing link with football's origins however is journalist and author Brian Glanville, an old Carthusian who has been writing perceptively on football since the 1950s in English and Italian, as well as a handful of novels and plays. He is still going strong aged 80.

Amongst Glanville's backlist, The Story of the World Cup is seminal, and do delve into his personal selection, Football Memories, and England Managers, one of his pet topics.

In endowing football writing with erudition - who else in English could mention André Gide in the same breath as Paul Gascoigne - Glanville was somewhat of a voice in the wilderness, more an American-style sports writer than a British football reporter.

In the 1980s politicians and publishers tried to avoid football, and the sense of alienation produced a thriving fanzine culture - centred on Charing Cross Road's sadly defunct Sportspages bookshop - until the internet killed it off.

But then along came Fever Pitch in 1992, the starting pistol for a tsunami of football literature. Nick Hornby's memoir of mostly unrequited love for Arsenal, partly inspired by Frederick Exley's American Football book A Fan's Notes, struck a chord with supporters everywhere and is credited with bringing the game into many circles where it had previously been persona non grata. Writers like Martin Amis who had previously dismissed fans as "cheese and onion crisps" were now queueing up to become members of the 'soccerati'.

In fact there had been some great books before Fever Pitch, just few and far between. Hunter Davies' embedded season at Tottenham in The Glory Game paints a wonderful picture of football and London in 1972, a fly-on-the-wall reportage which stands the test of time.

Another classic from the '70s is Eamon Dunphy's Only a Game, the first diary of a professional player which laid open the life of boredom, failure and frustration behind the shiny surface. Dunphy is now a major Irish journalist, as opinionated as ever.

Footballer autobiographies tend to be 'my story' flotsam, but in the 1990s an influx of foreign talent signalled last orders for the old drinking culture, so the genre shifted to confessionals like Tony Adams' Addicted, Paul Merson's Rock Bottom and Paul Gascoigne's Being Gazza. My personal pick however is Tony Cascarino's searing Full Time, because no-one had realised the former Irish international was struggling with such internal conflict. There are many demons waiting for the unlucky footballer, as Ronald Reng's A Life too Short, the most recent winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, confirms.

Garrincha by Ruy CastroIn terms of biographies, Ruy Castro's Garrincha is one of many fine ones, a mind-blowing tale of a star who shone too brightly, while Catrine Clay's recent Trautmann's Journey recounts the wonderful life of the Nazi paratrooper who became an English football hero. Jimmy Burns' Maradona: Hand of God is the book to read about the Argentine demi-god. Burns has also written Barça: A People's Passion and just released La Roja, about Spanish football.

Jason Cowley's The Last Game is a moving reflection on the end of England's football traditions before the new money of the Premier League showed up.

A descendant of The Glory Game was Pete Davies' brilliant All Played Out tale of England in Italia '90, a warts and all exposé from every angle - that of the manager, players, journalists, organisers and supporters. Never again will a writer be granted such access to the inner sanctum of the national team!

An equally fascinating book on England is Back Home by Jeff Dawson, which retells the Three Lions' fateful campaign of 1970, when a team lost the World Cup, Harold Wilson the General Election and a nation its self-belief.
The new glamour of the Premier League and Fever Pitch really had opened the floodgates and football books scampered off into many directions.

Academic study came late to the game, but Leicester University had pioneered football-related research since the 1980s and has produced a number of soild, if stolid studies of football sociology. Across the pond, Princeton academics Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman produced a brilliant comparison of American sport and soccer in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, in 2001.

Calcio by Paul Foot
One advantage football has over American sports is its international element, which leads it into the field of cultural studies. A number of books have been written analysing a nation's football as part of its mother culture. Raphael Honigstein's Englischer Fussball (in English) is great, as well as Alex Bellos' Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, John Foot's Calcio and Steve Bloomfield's Africa United, but the real gem is David Winner's Brilliant Orange, which proves the similarities between Holland's football and its architecture, farming, puritanism and Piet Mondriaan. Yes, really. Then there is Simon Kuper's Ajax, the Dutch, the War, which blends football with history writing, taking as its starting point the Ajax star Eddy Hamel, who ended up in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

After years in exile from the bookshelves, football was at last being taken seriously. Soccernomics (published in hardback as Why England Lose) by Financial Times journalists Kuper and Stefan Szyminski is about the most thought-provoking book about football written in recent years, full of bold polemics and counter-intuition, even if it is a rip-off of Freakonomics.

The Hunter Davies approach of sketching a year at a club has been repeated with varying success. Hollywood screenwriter Joe McGinnis' The Miracle of Castel di Sangro remains the most vivid, a magical and tragic life-cycle of a year with a small Italian club. Like McGinnis, Booker-shortlisted Tim Parks came to football from a different field and his novelist's eye produced A Season with Verona.

The recent growth area in recent football writing is in tactical analysis, promoted by Jonathan Wilson, editor of the excellent football quarterly The Blizzard and Michael Cox's website Zonal Marking. Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid is a fascinating history of the thinking behind the on-field moves.

One branch of football 'literature' I would prefer not to mention is the hooligan memoir, which I find depressingly neanderthal, with the exception of Colin Ward's 1981 Steaming In, penned with charm and a sense of humour utterly lacking in what followed in its wake.

A Cultured Left Foot by Musa OkwongaAnother stand-out book is Musa Okwonga's A Cultured Left Foot, which seeks to distill what makes a brilliant player.

Glanville was one journalist who crossed over into fiction with a number of football novels like Dying of the Light and Goalkeepers are Different, but in general this field remains to be tilled.

Yorkshire noir novelist David Peace has hopefully encouraged others with his outstanding reimagining of Brian Clough's 44 tempestuous days at Leeds in The Damned United, a historical novel so convincing The Times called it "the best book ever written about sport". Sadly the film version was a light-hearted buddy movie. The mesmerising Clough has spawned a library of titles, notably Duncan Hamilton's Provided You Don't Kiss Me, David Armitage's 150 BC and Clough Confidential and Jonathan Wilson's Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

Following football should not be serious all the time however, so after that list, relax with Harry Pearson's The Far Corner, a travelogue of the North-East of England via its football clubs, which had me in stitches.

England gave birth to the game but then rejected its child for decades, leaving other countries to develop and improve it. Growing up in Surrey in the 1980s, football was not mainstream culture. I thought it was a badge of the working-class identity I craved but couldn't quite attain, and being a fan felt akin to being part of a secret society.
Now everyone has jumped on the bandwagon I feel a little culturally disenfranchised, my loyalty during the dark years unrewarded by being priced out today, but I am relieved publishers have acknowledged the importance of the Beautiful Game at long last.

Twenty-three years since Fever Pitch, the rehabilitation of football in its homeland seems complete.



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