World Football: 6 Books Every Fan of the Beautiful Game Should Read
Looking for something to read during the last couple weeks of the offseason? Well, why give up your obsession during the summer months just because footballers need a vacation?
The truth is, there are plenty of insightful reads available to the average fan, discussing a wide variety of aspects to the sport that perhaps you hadn't even thought of.
Whether you're looking to learn about football's history, the evolution of footballing tactics or how it affects the everyday life of fans and non-fans alike all over the world, there's a footballing book out there for you.
Here are six books that are all about football, each deserving of a place on any fan's top 10 list, and each relevant in its own right.
Read one, read them all, or browse through them at the library. In any case, they're all worth checking out.
Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby
Fever Pitch is the most insightful and well-spoken look into the mindset of the sort of football fan so obsessed with his club that it penetrates nearly every aspect of his life and consumes his thoughts nearly every waking moment. In other words, the sort of fan that many of us can very easily relate to and connect with on a personal level.
Nick Hornby identifies himself as an obsessed Arsenal fan early on in the tale, and tells a delightfully entertaining and often humorous story of how it affects his personal relationships, his inability to differentiate between his own successes and failures in life, and the achievement and downfalls at the club, and just how closely Arsenal's ups and downs correlate with his own in his life.
Most importantly, Fever Pitch reveals just how vital of a role football played in dealing with deep personal issues that came from life-changing events such as his parents' divorce and maintaining a relationship with his father in following years.
If you can relate to such things as constantly lying to those close to you when they ask "what are you thinking about" because you know it's just plain silly to always answer the question with "football," then you will love this book, no matter what club you happen to support (I support Tottenham and by default loathe Arsenal, but still found it relevant and entertaining).
Sometimes, when I let this dreamy state take me over completely, I go on and back, through Anfield '89, Wembley '87, Stamford Bridge '78, my whole footballing life flashing before my eyes.
"What are you thinking about?" she asks.
At this point I lie. I wasn't thinking about Martin Amis or Gerard Depardieu or the Labour Party at all. But then, obsessives have no choice; they have to lie on occasion like this. If we told the truth every time, then we would be unable to maintain relationships with anyone from the real world. We would be left to rot with our Arsenal programs or our collection of original blue-label Stax records or our King Charles spaniels, and our two-minute daydreams would become longer and longer until we lost our jobs and stopped bathing and shaving and eating and we would lie on the floor in our own filth rewinding the video again and again in an attempt to memorise by heart the whole the commentary, including David Pleat's expert analysis, for the night of 26th of May 1989 (You think I had to look the date up? Ha!) The truth is: for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron.
Also recommended: force-feeding Fever Pitch to your loved ones, so that they can more closely understand just what you're going though in your football-obsessed life, and perhaps be a little more cautious with you when your club inevitably endures another heartbreaking and trophy-less season that leaves you functionless for perhaps a bit longer than what's socially acceptable.
[Hornby, N. (1992). Fever Pitch. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.]
Football Against the Enemy, by Simon Kuper
Simon Kuper has been a central figure in football journalism for many years, covering major events for The Financial Times and The Guardian, and co-authoring Soccernomics with Stefan Szymanski. His first appearance on the bookshelves came in 1994, with his breakout hit about the social and political impacts of his favorite sport, Football Against the Enemy.
Kuper uses his platform to discuss major world events throughout modern history and relates them seamlessly to the sport. One notable example Kuper provides is the expression of post-war sentiments and relief felt by an entire nation when Holland defeated Germany in the 1988 European semifinal:
In the Leidseplein square, Amsterdammers threw bicycles (their own?) into the air and shouted "Hurray, we've got our bikes back!" The Germans, in the biggest bicycle theft in history, had confiscated all Dutch bicycles during the Occupation.
"When Holland scores I dance through the room," said Professor Dr. L de Jong, a small gray man who has spent the last 45 years writing the official history of the Netherlands in World War II in umpteen volumes. "I'm crazy about football," he revealed. "And what these boys have done! Of course it's got to do with the war. Strange that people deny that."
Kuper also relates football to South Africa's struggle with racism and apartheid, how it defines nationalism in so many nations, and how prominent of a tool it has been to certain world leaders who have learned that pouring money into football can be a very effective means of controlling public sentiment.
All in all, Football Against the Enemy may reach a bit far in its study of football's effects on culture and politics, but it never reaches so far as to become cheap, sensationalistic or unreliable. The arguments are sound, the histories are accurate, and you will truly learn how powerful football can be to everyday life, even the lives of those who don't care for the sport at all.
For the American football fan, Football Against the Enemy can be found in U.S. bookstores under the title (wait for it) Soccer Against the Enemy. You know, in case anybody missed the picture on the cover and thought this was a story about the NFL.
[Kuper, S. (1994). Football Against the Enemy. London, UK: Orion Publishing Group.]
Soccer in a Football World, by David Wangerin
The plight of the American "soccer" fan is a troubling one. We have a league that nobody pays much attention to and a national team that underperforms in nearly every competition. Many of us have learned to not even bother attempting to discuss our obsession with any of our friends or family. It never ends well.
All of these issues are ones that faced David Wangerin, as he attempted live his life as a quiet American football fan in the nation where the other football is king.
Aside from providing an insightful look into the heart and soul of the American soccer fan, Wangerin also provides one of the most complete and accessible histories available today of soccer in America, including the many peculiar tweaks we've made to the rules over the years, the evolution of the U.S. national team from a mostly underachieving squad of nobodies decades ago to a mostly underachieving squad of nobodies today, and the passionately outspoken football subculture that has permeated the sport since it first arrived in America.
Despite the grim state of soccer in the U.S., Wangerin also provides the average fan hope, with compelling arguments that there has never been a better time than right now to be a fan of the world's game in America.
Could soccer finally be beginning to succeed in America? Soccer in a Football World suggests yes, but also that it's always been succeeding on some level. Perhaps the measure of success is not the number of fans, but the quality of fans, after all.
In any case, if you're one of the many in America finally jumping on the world football bandwagon, you've got a lot of catching up to do. And no book will provide you as complete of an overview of what you've missed than this.
[Wangerin, D. (2008). Soccer in a Football World. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.]
Inverting the Pyramid, by Jonathan Wilson
A mix of football history and intellectually satisfying tactical analysis, Inverting the Pyramid is a must-read for anybody with even a marginal interest in more than final scores and who found the back of the net this week.
Jonathan Wilson takes the reader on a journey from the beginning of football's history (when tactical formations were essentially absent from the game and chaos ruled the pitch) to the intricacies of modern formations, and the variations within them. And this is not a book that just focuses on the history within England, either. Wilson takes us through the histories of each region of Europe, Argentina, Brazil and everywhere else that football has become a relevant aspect of everyday life. Each of these countries evolved their strategies by their own right, and they've all contributed in some way to the playing styles we see today.
Inverting the Pyramid is often touted as intellectual yet accessible, an opinion that I share with many who have read it. And it's delightfully well-written and entertaining, to boot:
In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analyzed it. It wasn't until the late 1920s that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to recognized or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgment that the arrangement of players on the pitch made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In its earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication.
Wilson makes no personal stands for one set of tactics over another; he just explains their histories and intricacies that only a truly knowledgeable football analyst could provide. Along with histories of our most-used formations today, you'll gain a particular grasp on where exactly football tactics might be heading in the future, as well.
At the very least, this book will give you the ammunition to keep up with your most obsessive of football-fan friends, and give you valuable insight into revolutions within the game that you quite possibly never even knew happened.
[Wilson, J. (2008). Inverting the Pyramid. London, UK: Orion Publishing Group.]
Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
First hitting the shelves in 2009, Soccernomics quickly became the must-read football book of the decade, taking a new approach to analyzing the sport and its impacts on the societies that cherish it the most: mathematically.
You'll learn the answers to your biggest questions:
- Why does England so consistently underachieve in international play (they don't)
- Why has Fernando Torres been such a disappointment at Chelsea (paying big money for big names rarely works and is mathematically unsound, at best)
- What is the true economic impact of hosting a World Cup (not much)
- Why do clubs intent on "running things like a business" tend to fail so miserably (footballing is a terrible business model)?
- Remember when your team suffered that blatantly incorrect penalty call that cost them the match?
- Why are penalties allowed to be such result-altering aspects of football? (they aren't, when all factors are averaged out in the long run)
Szymanski and Kuper make a point out of analyzing key factors, such as economic strength of each nation and population size, to determine which nations perform better than they should, and which are truly the most underachieving (hence the conclusion that England is doing just fine, comparatively).
But Soccernomics is not really about football. Or more accurately, it's not just about football. The sporting world as a whole can learn a thing or two from these two's takes on how football affects life and society. For example: Is there really a legitimate economic argument to building a new stadium in your city? (Answer: no) What effects can sports have on such things as national happiness quotients and suicide rates?
Soccernomics is the intellectual's guide to football, written for the layman. No matter what nation, club (or even sport, really) you support, you'll walk away from this book with an insightful new point of view that will cause you to never look at the game quite the same way again.
[Kuper, S., & Szymanski, S (2009). Soccernomics. New York, NY: Nation Books.]
Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story of Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United
This is the one title on this list that has not yet been released, but it's notable for a very good reason: It's authored by Bleacher Report's own world football team leader, Will Tidey.
A lifelong United supporter, Tidey relives the tale from a fan's perspective of one of the single most successful managers in the history of English football and the uncontested most successful manager in Premier League history.
While I've obviously been unable to read Tidey's book for myself (I'd love a free copy, Will), Tidey's success with ESPN, Soccernet and a variety of other sports news outlets makes this book a must-read for any Bleacher Report reader.
Look for Life with Sir Alex in October of this year.