Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The 20 Greatest Football Books - Part 2

10. Calcio (John Foot, 2006)

By breaking up the book into thematic chapters which are subdivided into further smaller sections one might expect the narrative flow of Foot’s reflection on the Italian game to be lost. Instead the structure of Calcio is ideally suited to conveying a vast amount of information in a clear and readable fashion. That arguably is one of the key differences between this and many other books based around football in a single country, the football is the focus rather than the author’s reflection on the cultural nuances of that land. Particular highlights include sections on Italian playmakers, scandals and the role of the referee. Few could come away from Calcio without learning something.   
9. The Glory Game (Hunter Davies, 1973)
Unquestionably one of the classics of football literature, The Glory Game offers a unique insight into the workings of one of the nation’s greatest clubs. As Davies spent a whole season with privileged access at White Hart Lane he was able to witness the detailed goings on that had never before been reported. In telling the tale of a Davies holds nothing back, but he lets the figures involved tell much of the story and their comments ring true. Perhaps then it is unsurprising that no club have chosen to repeat the experiment since. A fascinating snapshot of the era.
8. Garrincha (Ruy Castro, 2004)

In the contemporary football lexicon players who are referred to as a “character” or a “maverick” tend to be ones whose off-field antics compensated for a distinct lack of talent or those who failed to make anything of the gifts they did have. Garrincha was both a character and a maverick and yet precious few players in the game’s history could match his achievements. Castro’s book tells us much about the footballing abilities of the man who was known as “The Joy of the People”, how he came to become a two-time World Cup winner and his glorious years with Botafogo but what lingers in the memory are the unique anecdotes of Garrincha’s life. The tragedy of his drinking, the IQ test which should have barred him from representing Brazil and, yes, losing his virginity to a goat, all great stories are featured here. You can’t help but read this and reflect that there will never be another Garrincha.   
7. The Ball is Round (David Goldblatt, 2006)

A work of spectacular ambition, Goldblatt more than succeeds in his attempt to provide a truly global history of the game. Primarily a chronological journey through the story of football ,Goldblatt’s thematic approach provides a diversity to the book which few can rival. Happy to be discussing the architecture of Le Corbusier, the politics of South America and the increasing role of the media The Ball is Round ties all the threads together and demonstrates quite how far reaching the influence of the game is. This book is a genuine football epic. Breathtaking.   
6. Soccer Revolution (Willy Meisl, 1955)

Arguably the most prescient football book ever written. Meisl (the brother of Austrian Wunderteam coach, Hugo) charts the history of English football and studies the mistakes that led England to their 1953 humbling at the hands of Hungary. The changes advocated by Meisl, who saw himself as an adopted Englishman, were the same that now meet England’s biennial tournament disasters. Meisl is strongly in favour of improving the technical ability of English players and promotes the concept of the “whirl”, effectively “total football”, as the route to success. The fact that such flaws have gone uncorrected for almost 60 years only serves to underline the enduring resonance of this masterpiece.
5. Association Football and the Men Who Made It (Alfred Gibson and William Pickford, 1906)

The holy grail for any serious collector of football literature, this work is unrivalled in affording the contemporary reader a detailed understanding of the teams, players and administrators who dominated the game in the nineteenth century. Set across four volumes, the figures profiled inside are almost universally forgotten to modern football fans and yet the calibre of the writing within makes them come alive. Even though the game they played was markedly different to that of the current day, the vitality and energy of the era is clear. If you have upwards of £500 lying around you could do far worse than making an investment in this classic tome.
4. Inverting the Pyramid (Jonathan Wilson, 2008)

Although not the first man to attempt to chart a detailed history of tactics (as well as Bernard Joy’s Soccer Tactics, Andy Gray penned a useful volume prior to his Sky Sports disgrace) Wilson’s contribution to the field feels definitive. Succinct and elegant prose carries the reader from the game’s earliest years to the modern day and demonstrates a real understanding of why many of the most profound changes took place. It’s not perfect, changes in Sweden’s tactics are partially attributed to a failure to qualify for the 1970 World Cup (they actually topped their group ahead of France and Norway) but such gripes are few and far between. Where Wilson really excels are his forays into Eastern Europe as he details at length the contributions of Victor Maslov and Boris Arkadiev. A supreme contribution to the field.
3. All Played Out (Pete Davies, 1990)

Afforded a remarkable level of access to players and management before and during England’s Italia 90 campaign, Davies’  book stands out for the brutal honesty of those he speaks to. There is still suspicion among the players for the interloper among them, engendered by a deep mistrust for the “rotters” (journalists from the tabloids so many of them had contracts with), but Davies manages to get them to open up and speak frankly. While the text itself is punchy and memorable these unguarded comments from the players themselves are to be treasured. Immensely evocative,  All Played Out takes you back to what remains for many English football fans one of the most memorable summers of their lives.  
2. The Story of the World Cup (Brian Glanville, Various)

Unquestionably there are more comprehensive and detailed books about the World Cup (Cris Freddi and Terry Crouch’s efforts both offer more information, statistics and data) but none rivals Glanville for the majesty of his prose. His fabulous descriptions of key passages bring the games and tournaments to life in a way that no other writer has yet managed. In places it feels outdated (regular references to “negro” players stand out in 2011), but this reflects the fact that the book was first published following the 1970 tournament and has been reissued every four years with an additional chapter included. At its best Glanville’s lively and exhilarative narrative possesses the remarkable beauty that he is so proficient at describing.
1. Association Football (A.H Fabian and Geoffrey Green –Eds, 1960)

Simply staggering in the breadth of topics covered, the depth of the articles and the devotion of those who put together this classic work. Featuring contributions from players like Billy Wright and Stanley Matthews as well as journalists Bernard Joy and Willy Meisl, no football book has ever come so close to perfection. Every section is authoritative and comprehensively researched and many remain unsurpassed in the intervening 50 years. Obvious highlights include a review of football at the Olympics and a discussion between Danny Blanchflower, Ted Drake and Geoffrey Green of the development of the game in the twentieth century. If you only own one football book, make it this!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The 20 Greatest Football Books - Part 1

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.    

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 25

Benfica 4-3 Torino (3 May 1949) Estadio do Campo Grande, Lisbon

For all the disruption that affected English football during the war, the Italian game emerged relatively unscathed. Admittedly, the national team missed out on the chance to defend their crown at the “missing” World Cups of 1942 and 1946, and for two seasons the national league championship was cancelled, but it was a far cry from the near total club blackout that impacted the British Isles.

Arguably the greatest beneficiaries of this continuity were Torino. The club won Serie A in the 1942-3 season, before Italy’s involvement in the war finally put an end to the national football league for two seasons. When the league was re-established in 1945-6 they were again triumphant. The next few years would herald unrivalled dominance.

Italian football had in the 1930s proved itself to be the match of any country in the world. The arrival of the Oriundi combined with a burgeoning domestic game made Italy the envy of Europe. At a club level Juventus had proved themselves supreme in the early 1930s, as well as supplying the backbone for Italy’s 1934 World Cup winning team. By the time that the 1938 World Cup came along, Bologna and Ambosiana-Inter had brushed aside the Old Lady and taken on the mantle of Italy’s leading sides. As Italy entered the 1940s Torino were ready to reign.

The side that Torino built was not based on a revolutionary tactic or formation. It was not based on the acquisition of a band of foreign mercenaries. Instead it was based on the skill and work ethic of a group of men drawn remarkably close by the external events impacting Italy at the time.

Valentino Mazzola

The focal point of La Grande Torino and the man with whom the team will forever be most closely associated was Valentino Mazzola. A sublimely talented inside-forward he was capable of moments of true genius. Unrivalled for skill within contemporary Italy he possessed a rare balance allied with a range of passing that allowed him to find his teammates with unnerving accuracy. Perhaps his greatest quality though was his leadership. Mazzola was a man that others wished to follow, and the aura that surrounded him inspired loyalty and confidence in the rest of the team.

The partnership that Mazzola struck up with fellow inside-forward Ezio Loik was the team’s greatest strength. The two of them were a constant threat to defences and both were more than capable of scoring goals as well as creating them. The man who most frequently benefitted from the passes of Loik and Mazzola was striker Guglielmo Gabetto. Gabetto had begun his career with Juventus before moving across the city to Torino where he established himself as a prolific goalscorer for both club and country. 

Ezio Loik

Yet this was a team with quality throughout. When Italy beat Hungary in May 1947, an incredible 10 of the starting 11 were drawn from Torino. Never before (or since) had a single club provided such a concentration of stars for the Azzurri. When teams faced Torino they were often beaten before they started as they were simply in awe of the range of options I Granata possessed. In the instances where the opposition put up a fight, Torino almost invariably wore them down through their superior fitness, frequently grabbing games at the death.

The remarkable thing about Torino’s dominance was not just the consistency with which they beat opponents, but their margin in doing so. The team played with freedom and passion, and revelled in scoring goals. Almost 500 scored across their five title winning seasons was testament to that. Defensively too they were outstanding, and the completeness of their victories only served to underline the disparity between Torino and their opponents. 

In May of 1949 Torino travelled to Lisbon for a friendly with Benfica, a testimonial for Xico Ferreira. Benfica ended as victors in a pulsating 4-3 game, but the result of the match would soon pale into insignificance. On the return flight from Portugal the plane carrying the Torino squad crashed into the hillside at Superga, a town near Turin, killing all 31 passengers.

What followed was a period of national mourning as fans of the club struggled to come to terms with the disaster. The Torino team had embodied the vigour and vitality of youth. The way that they brushed aside their opponents made them appear to be supermen, invincible, yet the tragedy only proved that mortality is universal.

The wreckage following the crash

Over half a million mourners packed the streets on the day of the funerals, while the ceremonies received live coverage on the radio. Even in a country where the scars of war were still fresh, the emotional impact of the disaster could not be overstated. The attachment of the masses to La Grande Torino ran deep and to this day fans still make a pilgrimage to Superga each year to remember the team.

In respect of Italian football in general and Torino in particular the crash had a profound impact. Many feel looking back that with the Torino players participating Italy would surely have stretched their run of World Cup victories to three. Yet the form displayed by the Italians prior to the disaster did not hint at certain victory. In particular a 4-0 defeat at the hands of England in Turin threw doubts on the calibre of this vintage. Certainly the Azzurri would have been stronger in 1950, where they lost to Sweden and beat Paraguay en route to a first round exit, had the likes of Mazzola and Loik been available.

The impact on Torino was much longer lasting. The club did not win Lo Scudetto again until 1976 and have lived almost continuously in the shadow of neighbours Juventus. Indeed despite high points such as victories in the Coppa Italia and a narrow loss in the 1992 UEFA Cup final the team have never again hit the heights that their famous predecessors enjoyed.

For the club then it would almost be natural to view the disaster in pure footballing terms, to see what might have been, had the tragedy not taken place. The esteem in which the players were viewed though makes that impossible. The affection that pervaded the city of Turin for the lost players meant that it would always be a human tragedy, rather than just a sporting one. Furthermore the enduring memory of their greatness was why Italian journalist Giovanni Arpino could confidently say “That Torino team never died.” 

Monday, 5 December 2011

The 100 - Ten Years On

Last week, following IBWM's process of reviewing Don Balon's 100 best young players list, I posted up a similar list compiled by World Soccer in 2001. I thought it would also be useful to post the original list that Don Balon compiled that year as well, to see just how accurate their predictions of greatness were. As with World Soccer, some have more than delivered on heir early promise while others have failed to fulfill their huge potential. The list was taken from here and I have simply alphabetised it and provided the relevant nationalities in order to make it easier to cross reference the two.

Hassan Ahamada – France

Tuomas Aho – Finland

Serhat Akin - Turkey

Jeremie Aliadiere - France

Dean Ashton - England

Benjamin Auer – Germany

Milan Baros – Czech Republic

Gareth Barry – England

Dimitar Berbatov - Bulgaria

Derek Boateng - Ghana

Leandro Bonfim – Brazil

Matteo Brighi - Italy

Ramon Calliste – Wales

Daniyel Cimen – Germany

Michael Chopra - England

Djibril Cisse - France

Fabricio Coloccini - Argentina

Julio Colombo – France

Candido Costa – Portugal

Ricardo Costa- Portugal

Lourenco Da Silva - Portugal

Andres D'Allesandro – Argentina

Jermaine Defoe - England

Baldo Di Gregorio – Germany

Diego – Brazil

Bojan Djordjic - Sweden

Massimo Donati – Italy

Landon Donovan - USA

Emilliano Dudar – Argentina

Ednilson – Guinea-Bissau

Michael Essien - Ghana

Ewerthon - Brazil

Darren Fletcher – Scotland

Mark Fotheringham - Scotland

Gael Givet – France

Labinot Harbuzi - Sweden

Johnny Heitinga – Holland

Andreas Hinkel - Germany

Alexander Hleb - Belarus

Thijs Houwing - Holland

Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Sweden

Andres Iniesta – Spain

Marat Izmailov - Russia

Theo Janssen - Holland

Aldo Jara – Paraguay

Dulee Johnson – Liberia

Eddie Johnson - USA

Kaka - Brazil

Kim Kallstrom – Sweden

Azar Karadas - Norway

Keith Kelly - Jamaica

Erdal Kilicaslan - Germany

Chris Kirkland – England

Niko Kranjcar – Croatia

Anthony Le Tallec – France

Francesco Lodi - Italy

Jay Lucas - Australia

Alexander Ludwig - Germany

Maicon – Brazil

Shaun Maloney – Scotland

Carlos Martins - Portugal

Pedro Mantorras - Angola

Mourad Meghni – Algeria

Juan Andreu Melli - Spain

Philippe Mexes – France

Ahmed 'Mido' Hossam – Egypt

Johnnier Montano – Colombia

Fernando Macedo “Nano” - Spain

Marius Niculae - Romania

David Odonkor – Germany

Andreas Oliveira - Australia

Jermaine Pennant – England

Christian Petereit - Germany

Helder Postiga – Portugal

Christoph Preuss – Germany

David Prutton - England

Santino Quaranta - USA

Ricardo Quaresma – Portugal

Gatti Ribeiro – Bolivia

Kieran Richardson – England

Arjen Robben – Holland

Leandro Romagnoli – Argentina

Mauro Rosales - Argentina

Rubinho - Brazil

Cherno Samba - Gambia

Joaquin Sanchez – Spain

Leonardo Santiago - Brazil

Florent Sinama-Pongolle –France

Francesco Tarantino - Spain

Fernando Torres - Spain

Piotr Trochowski – Germany

Filip Trojan – Czech Republic

Johnny Van Beukering - Holland

Rafael Van der Vaart – Holland

Mika Vayrynen - Finland

Hugo Viana - Portugal

Gregory Vignal – France

John Welsh - England

Hassan Yebda – Algeria

Michael Zepek - Germany