I watch and read about football a lot, lot more than I play it these days. Whether it’s watching Match of the Day on a Saturday night, searching for a stream of an Arsenal game that doesn’t break down every thirty seconds or reading endless match reports or football features online, what I lack in terms of playing time I think I more than make up for with the amount that I consume elsewhere. I also really enjoy reading football books. I remember in particular when I bought Roy Keane’s first autobiography in 2002, but only because I wanted to read the bit about when he nailed Alf-Inge Haland. Incidentally, when looking up Haland on Wikipedia I came across this little gem on the former Norwegian international’s entry: “Haland professes no lasting bitterness towards Keane, hoping only that Keane is different now, so that he can provide a better example to young people and the players he manages”. Hmm.
The Non-Flying Dutchman
I don’t read as many football books as I used to but over the years I’ve read a few that I think other people might be interested in. While I don’t remember that much about Keane’s book, one football autobiography that I did really enjoy was ‘Stillness and Speed: My Story’, co-authored by Dennis Bergkamp and David Winner. Yes, Bergkamp is my favourite player of all time and yes I support Arsenal, but what I really liked about his book is that it was only published some years after he’d finished playing. This means you look back at his career as a whole, tracing his development as a footballer in the youth ranks at Ajax right up to his final season with the Gunners. Many players these days release autobiographies only a couple of years into their career: look at Wayne Rooney, for example, who brought out the first of five planned autobiographies in 2006, just 4 years after he made his debut for Everton. For me this is much less interesting. Bergkamp’s book is also more of an extended interview with Winner than it is a traditional autobiography, and so is therefore more probing and also allows for insight from his former players and coaches. Winner also gingerly approaches the topic of whether Bergkamp really meant to score his amazing goal against Newcastle — of course he did!
Football in History
Sticking with the Dutch football theme, another book I bought a long time ago and really enjoyed is ‘Ajax, the Dutch, the War’ by respected football writer and journalist, Simon Kuper. This excellently researched and highly regarded book — the Guardian described it in a review as “passionate and moving” — uses the examples of Ajax and Sparta Rotterdam, amongst others, as touchstones to explore Dutch football’s reaction to the country’s occupation in World War II, the persecution of its Jewish citizens and the legacy of this disastrous period of modern history. Many years have passed since I read this engaging and brilliant book, but it is one of those that I have always meant to go back to and read again.
Much less serious but just as interesting and enjoyable was ‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’ by Joe McGinniss. When minnows of the lower league A. S. D. Castel di Sangro Calcio made it into the heady heights of Serie B for the 1996-97 season, American journalist McGinniss headed to the town to follow and write about their year. Rigged matches, players having affairs with other players’ wives, members of the squad dying — his account reads more like a bizarre soap opera than it does a tale about football. One of the highlights has to be the signing of a guy named Robert Ponnick, who was alleged to have been purchased from Leicester City. His ability being questionable at best, it quickly emerged that the chairman had staged the signing as well as an ‘exhibition’ match organised for the excited assembled media. McGinnis’ book makes for a thoroughly entertaining read but perhaps not one for the purists!
There was Life Before the Premier League
Those purists that do secretly read the book but feel a bit dirty afterwards should look no further than ‘The Ball is Round’ by David Goldblatt to make themselves feel better. Described by the Independent as the “definitive history” of the beautiful game, this exhaustive by hugely readable book comes in at a somewhat intimidating 900 pages — but don’t let that you put off. The book could easily be read in one go, but because Goldblatt writes so well, you can also cherry pick topics and chapters and not feel as though you’re missing out. Goldblatt really delivers on the book’s subtitle of ‘A Global History of Football’, covering such topics as African football between 1900 and 1974, football as empire in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries and a stinging appraisal of the emergence of FIFA and their well-documented control over the game.
This of course barely scratches the surface when it comes to good football writing, and I’m sure in due course I’ll be able to publish another post with more recommendations!Spanish Version