For many years the bibliography of football was regarded with derision by other sports fans. Cricket in particular has long been perceived as possessing a range of literature and calibre of writing that simply couldn’t be found in the world’s most popular game. Yet recent years have seen a host of excellent books released as well as a rediscovery among supporters of some of the great works of years gone by.
How though do you attempt to judge the greatest football books? Of course, it is an inherently subjective topic and nobody (certainly not myself) can claim to have read every book out there, nor to definitively state which one is the best. What this list aims to do then is set out some of the most influential, long lasting or simply enjoyable works that the game has produced.
In order to provide more variety in the list I have limited the selections to one book per author. Many of the writers listed have produced a number excellent tomes, but it would be a little boring to simply list one after the other. Furthermore I have excluded works such as the European Football Yearbook or the (long departed) International Book of Football which achieved excellence year after year but where it’s just not possible to pick a single best edition. Also missing out are purely statistical books (such as Romeo Ionescu’s stellar series of international and club line-ups).
20. Foul! (Andrew Jennings, 2006)
A constant thorn in the side of FIFA, investigative journalist Jennings follows up his phenomenal exposé of the IOC with a look into the murky world of football’s governing body. Salacious tales of corruption, mismanagement and dodgy dealings from Sepp Blatter, Joao Havelange and their coterie of acolytes ensure that the pages pack a punch. If there is a criticism to be found, it is that due to the information being so highly sensitive, Jennings gives no sources or references for his revelations. That point aside, the book is gripping from start to finish and leaves the reader in no doubt about the parlous state of affairs at the world’s most powerful sporting organisation.
19. McIlvanney on Football (Hugh McIlvanney, 1999)
It is difficult to find a modern journalist with the sheer gravitas of McIlvanney. Fifty years spent in the pressbox has provided a wealth of material on which to draw in this selection of the best articles from his illustrious career. Focusing on the great figures and games of his times it draws on his corpus of work from spells at the Scotsman, Observer and now at the Sunday Times. Recent illness has limited McIlvanney’s contribution to the game’s coverage but this book more than evidences why his peerless class has marked him out as the “Voice of Sport”.
18. My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes (Gary Imlach, 2005)
Among the most moving of books written on football is Gary Imlach’s tribute to his father. While it could be easy to slip into syrupy sentimentality, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year for 2005 rings true, has warmth and depth and ultimately leaves you with a feeling for the innate bond between father and son. One of the great strengths of My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes is the way that it places the reader firmly in the context of the time. In an era where footballers are popularly perceived as overpaid prima donnas, it is sometimes refreshing to be reminded of the realities of a bygone age of players as ordinary men.
17. The Football Business (David Conn, 1997)
As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in Soccernomics, football, despite what we are constantly told, is not big business. That doesn’t mean though that it isn’t an interesting business. Conn’s 1997 book kick started much of the current fascination with football finances and came as a wave of clubs (or rather their owners) sought to capitalise on the game’s popularity. Conn begins with the impact of Sky on the modern game before taking aim at “fat cat” chairmen and the increasing presence of agents in a polemic against the ever more commercialised nature of football. Reading the final chapter, in which Conn predicts an ever narrowing hegemony at the top of the game combined with higher and higher ticket prices, it is difficult to argue with his foresight.
16. The European Cup 1955-1980 (John Motson and John Rawlinson, 1980)
As Europe’s premier club competition it might be expected that there would be a raft of excellent books devoted to the European Cup and Champions League. Certainly Brian Glanville’s Champions of Europe and Keir Radnedge’s 50 Years provide thematic overviews and great memories of some notable events. None though has the depth or detail of John Motson and John Rawlinson’s tremendous work that charts the first 25 years of the tournament. Drawing on interviews held with the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Bela Guttmann and Paco Gento, the vivid prose tells the tale from the tournament’s inception to the emerging dominance of English clubs. If only there was a comparable book for the last 30 years.
15. Football Against the Enemy (Simon Kuper, 1994)
Frequently credited with inspiring a new generation of football writers, Football Against the Enemy has a special place in the pantheon of the game’s literature. Analysing the link between football and politics the book takes a journey across the world to stunning effect. As much a cultural study as a book on football, Kuper provides a fascinating series of insights in countries as politically and geographically wide ranging as Argentina, Cameroon and the former USSR. Nobody has combined the politics with football so well as Kuper.
14. Tor! (Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, 2003)
Along with Phil Ball’s Morbo, Tor! was one of a number of excellent books from When Saturday Comes that offered a different look at the world game. Hesse-Lichtenberger provides a fascinating journey through German football history and is able to escape the stereotypes of efficiency and discipline that so often plague discussions of the country. What arguably sets this apart from the many other books which cover a single nation’s footballing story (the superb Futebol by Alex Bellos and the less so Brilliant Orange by David Winner for instance) is his detailed knowledge of the game and the country, allowing him to pick some more obscure moments in the German game. Certainly it provides an enthralling read for anyone with a slight interest in German football.
13. Soccer Tactics (Bernard Joy, 1959)
Given the relatively recent surge in interest around football tactics it feel in some way strange that there should have been such a book in the 1950s. Although fairly brief, Joy (the last amateur to ever play for England) deals well with the early origins of tactics, from the passing game of Queen’s Park, to the infernal triangle of Buchan, Cuggy and Mordue, then on to Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal. The areas of real interest though are Joy’s focus on foreign teams with a chapter dedicated to the great Hungarians of the early 50s and analysis of the teams (such as Austria and Uruguay) who were still playing with an attacking centre-half while the rest of the world had moved to the WM and beyond. As with so many of these books the appeal of Joy’s writing is obtain a contemporary view of the state of the game rather than the distorted reflections we so often observe.
12. The Football Man (Arthur Hopcraft, 1968)
Another book that provides a unique insight into the context of the times. The 1960s witnessed huge changes across all spheres of life and football was no different in that respect. Hopcraft captures some of this spirit of change, but ultimately it is a book that (to this modern reader) feels grounded in the past. The Football Man displays an obvious and powerful love for the game and moreover recognises its importance within the national psyche. Few football books have endured as well as this.
11. Puskas on Puskas (Rogan Taylor & Klara Jamrich, 1998)
In an era where players write autobiographies before their 21st birthday it is refreshing to find one where the subject has lived a full and varied life. Few of course lived quite so significant a life in the story of football as Puskas, who enjoyed stratospheric success with Honved and Hungary before joining Real Madrid at 31 and proving himself all over again. As Taylor points out in his preface to the book there is more than enough material available to fill two volumes.
Given that the book is effectively the transcript of a series of interviews held with Puskas and other notable figures in football of the era it might be expected that the narrative flow might be hard to piece together. Yet Taylor skilfully weaves the thoughts of Puskas together to provide a fabulous journey through the life of “Ocsi”. While the football relates sections are themselves riveting, Puskas’ remembrance s of the political climate along with the drama of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution help to place his life within the wider historical context and, if anything, make his footballing achievements all the more remarkable.