‘The Hitler Trophy: Golf and the Olympic Games’ by Alan Fraser (2016)

When I went as a spectator to the Rio Olympics, golf was the one sport my wife refused to attend. Despite my protesting that the sports historic return to the Games was reason enough, she maintained that you only watch sports at the Olympics where it represents the pinnacle of that sport. Had I known golf and the Olympics had such an interesting history I might have been able to make a stronger case to go!

The Hitler Trophy tells two stories – one of a small golf tournament organised in Baden-Baden on the fringes of the Berlin 1936 Olympics and also the broader backstory of golf’s connection with the Olympics.

Golf’s official Olympic backstory is largely forgotten. The only two tournaments it appeared in, Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, were a total bust. Indeed in Paris, players were unaware that they were part of the 1900 Olympics and the first player awarded a gold medal for golf was unaware of that fact. The game quickly disappeared (officially) until its return in Rio. In The Hitler Trophy Fraser paints a vivid picture of these early tournaments and their colourful characters. Later in the book he also details the much more recent campaign which led to golfs successful reemergence as an Olympic sport.

The main focus of the book however is the little known Baden Baden tournament. Sanctioned personally by Hitler, the tournament had many of the trappings of an official Olympic event. Fraser recounts what details are known about the victory of two fascinating Englishman against a limited field. The highlight of the book is Fraser’s subsequent research tracing what happened next to the trophy and the cast of characters. Most intriging of all is his quest to determine whether Hitler really was in a car en route to present the trophy when it looked like the German team might emerge triumphant.

The Hitler Trophy is brilliantly researched and beautifully written. Fraser has spoken to probably every living descendant of the key figures. Full of fascinating characters and sprinkled with great wit throughout, it is a fascinating, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

‘Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion’ by Jordan Florit (2020)

Usually picking up a book is the start of a journey into a story. This book has been a little different with the actual book coming as the immensely satisfying end of a fascinating and enjoyable process. Author Jordan Florit launched a project on Kickstarter with a view to raising enough just money to fund this self-published book. Along the way he has kept his nearly 200 backers entertained, informed and eagerly anticipating the finished book.

Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion is a fascinating examination of Venezuelan football and its broader society. When thinking of South American football, Venezuela is probably the last country that comes to mind – off hand Salomón Rondón was the only Venezuelan player I could even think of. Despite a population 30 million people they have never qualified for a World Cup!

In his own words, Jordan chose Veneuela as his focus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, ‘the people’. Throughout the book, the warmth and kindness of the Venezuelan people shines through as Jordan shares stories from his travels, the games he saw and the people he met.

Secondly, ‘add something positive to the conversation on Venezuela’. Given the vast news coverage of poverty, desperation and corruption, its a real antidote to see the country presented in a different light.

Red Wine & Arepas is comprehensive, well-written and highly readable. I really like the approach chosen of telling the wider story tho of Venezuelan football through chapters that zoom in on specific subjects. Each chapter broadens the overall narrative while telling a fascinating vignette of the country and its football. The book also mixes these broader football stories with Jordan’s own personal travelogue expertly.

A special mention for the fact that Jordan also covers women’s football in the country. It’s an unusual and welcome addition which gives a more complete picture of the role the game plays in Venezuela.

As you read through the book, the central team of football as a religion emerges organically. Jordan clearly has an immense amount of faith that the country will come good, that it has too many good people not to. The faith of the Venezuelan themselves, in their own identity and their football has clearly rubbed off on him.

Jordan has done an incredible job. The book leaves you with a deep appreciation for the country, its culture, its football and its people.

Following the project through Jordan’s regular updates has been a joy. Jordan’s enthusiasm and passion for this project, and life in general, has been infectious. I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Red Wine & Arepas. Check out Jordan’s twitter feed @TheFalseLibero to find out how to do so.

‘State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation’ by Melissa Isaacson (2019)

As a kid, my entire week would be determined by how my soccer team did on Saturday. I lived for Limerick Schoolboy football . I still list being named the best player in my league at under-10 level as one of the top 5 moments of my life! I’m fully on board with the significance of school age sports!

There are some superb accounts of particular seasons of underage sports teams – The Miracle of St Anthony and Friday Night Lights remain two of my favourite books. Very few such books either cover women’s sports or offer a first person account of a writer’s own teenage sports career. State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation is Melissa Isaacson’s account of her high school basketball team – the 1979 Illinois State Championship winning Niles West High School team

Girl’s high school sport had only just started in the area as US law (Title IX) requiring equal treatment of girls in all school activity had passed 3 years previously. Isaacson’s compelling first-person account of a group of high school girls who came together to win a State championship really captures the time and place of that new dawn in women’s sport in the USA. It touches on gender discrimination, the struggle for equality and the particular challenges for girls discovering their athletic identity.

State is at its core a love-letter to team sports. It captures the hard work, the joy, the pain and the friendship that comes with playing for a team at a time in your life where it can matter more than anything. The book paints a vivid picture of the girls and their coaches. Isaacson draws the reader in and gives a real sense of who these people are and in particular what basketball meant to them. The writing puts you in the moment. At times the book gives a little bit too much on-court detail, but Isaacson’s fluid writing style ensures it never feels bogged down.

Isaacson became an award-winning sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covering the Chicago Bulls during their championship years. Many will have seen her as a talking head on the recent The Last Stand documentary. Isaacson spent years writing this story and this level of detail, attention and love, together with her quality in as a writer is clearly apparent in the book.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (2014)

Pele, George Best, John Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio. Some of the greatest player of all time and just a few of the superstar players to appear in the North American Soccer League.

The NASL was a professional soccer league in the USA and Canada which ran from 1968 to 1984. In true American fashion, it aimed not just to survive but to become the biggest league in the world. While it ultimately crashed and burned, the story of its rise and fall is a fascinating piece of football history.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a comprehensive, entertaining and brilliantly written account of the NASL.  Plenderleith avoids sensationalism and offers a fairly objective look at what went right and what went wrong as the league evolved. 

Some goals from the New York Cosmos

The structure of the book works really well. It’s real quality is Plenderleith’s ability to zoom in and out of the on-pitch action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task and he wisely avoids a chronological narrative. No one really cares who won championship, its about the surreal journey along the way.

By spreading the gospel of soccer and promoting it extensively in schools, the NASL arguably laid the foundations for the sport’s tremendous popularity in America today at grassroots levels. It’s fairly clear that the NASL expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money and most played in stadiums that were far too large.

One of the most interesting stories from the NASL was the variety of rule changes. Some things became widely accepted – especially the use of more substitutes, and moving to more points for a win.  Some of the interesting rule changes weren’t a failure but didn’t survive FIFA’s scorn – especially the penalty shootout and the 35 yard offside line.

George Best’s famous LA Aztecs wondergoal

You can’t discuss the NASL without mentioning the New York Cosmos, the undoubted superstar club of the NASL era.  Owned by Warner Communications, they invested mega bucks to bring Pele, Beckenbaur and other superstars to the club. They were the best team, with the biggest crowds but its not clear whether they were beneficial to the sustainability of the league.

Plenderleith is fairly dismissive of the documentary ‘Once in a Lifetime’ which paints a very glamorous picture of life at Cosmos.  He suggests its sensationalised and likely reflecting the agenda of the main participants rather than a more objective overview. I must admit I still think its a really enjoyable documentary!

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a really enjoyable read. Packed full of interesting anecdotes and first hand accounts this history is as entertaining as the subject it covers. Highly recommended.

‘The Second Life of Tiger Woods’ by Michael Bamberger (2020)

Tiger Woods is probably the most famous sportsman in the world. His fall from grace was one of the most watched, talked about and written about stories in sports.

From his car crash in 2009 which unleashed the floodgates, he continued to struggle until he hit a nadir on Memorial Day in 2017. Fresh from yet more spinal surgery, Woods was arrested for driving under the influence. It seemed inevitable that Woods’ life as a golfer was as good as over. How wrong that assumption proved to be.

In The Second Life of Tiger Woods, GOLF magazine senior writer, Michael Bamberger, draws upon his extensive contact book to document Woods fall from grace and subsequent triumphant return to win the 2019 Masters.

While the narrative jumps back and forward in time quite often, the main focus of the book is on the most recent few years of Woods’ life. Those who have followed Tiger’s closely will know a lot of what is written about his early years. The book is at its strongest when its detailing the incident around his DUI and his subsequent return to glory.

The book does take two remarkably long digressions on whether Woods had gotten away with rules infractions in breach of the spirit of the game and the difficult to cover question of performance-enhancing drugs. The rules infractions material is a overdone especially as I don’t buy into the sanctimonious “meaning of golf” stuff. It’s a game and all games have cheaters.

The material on PEDs is by necessity circumstantial. Bamberger investigates rumours and draws a connection between Woods and the people who helped Alex Rodriquez to dope. It’s hardly a smoking gun but its admirable that the book tried to cover a topic often left untouched.

Emotional scenes at the end of the 2019 Masters

The meat of the book is Tiger’s redemption story. It’s a story of overcoming injuries and personal struggles, of maturing and becoming a more rounded person both in and outside of work. Bamberger is wisely cautious though to warn that no one really knows Woods and we should be careful of too easily believing he is a changed man.

Bamberger has a fairly unique and colourful writing style and the book is often times a vehicle for his wit and insight as much as reporting of Woods’ life. This is understandable given Tiger didn’t agree to be interviewed for the book so it does unfortunately lack Tiger’s own perspective. I do think the book needed a tighter edit though with the quality writing and insight getting lost at times.

All in all its an entertaining and interesting addition to the ever growing library of books on Tiger Woods.

The 2019 Masters Official Film

‘Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?: The Full Story of Middlesbrough’s Unforgettable 1996/97 Season’ by Tom Flight (2020)

Just after winning the Champions League with Juventus in 1996, Italian international striker Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough, an unglamours club in the north of England.  Even at 12 years old this made very little sense to me but also seemed absolutely wonderful.

That signing was the icing on the cake of local businessman Steve Gibson’s project to reinvent the club. In 1994 Gibson had been appointed the new chairman of Middlesbrough. He quickly embarked on a plan to turn the club from also-rans into contenders. He appointed Manchester United legend Bryan Robson as player-manager, built a modern new stadium and sought to sign international superstars who could be lured by the growing salaries on offer in England.

International players arrived from around the globe, with Ravenelli and Emerson getting the most attention. But the heartbeat of the team was the Brazilian international Juninho. After Juninho single handedly destroyed his team, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson called Juninho “the best player I’ve seen in the Premier League this season” and that view was made official when he was named Premier League player of the season.

Every goal Juninho scored for the Teesiders

Middlesbrough’s 96/97 season was a roller-coaster of all roller-coasters with debut hat-tricks, Wembley Cup finals, contentious point deductions, relegation battles and so much more. The team went on runs of being totally unplayable and runs where it looked like they forgot how to play football. They played in a swashbuckling style, scoring for fun and having fun while doing it. It remains one of the most memorable seasons of any Premier League team and

Yer Joking Aren’t Ya brilliantly captures the sense of possibilities and excitement of that memorable season. Game by game, Flight game-by-game, Flight chronicles the season as it happened. Diaries of a season always risk becoming repetitive accounts of games and goals but Flight perfectly balances this, inter weaving background on the club and key characters throughout. The history is pitched perfectly for both those familiar with and those totally new to this era of English football.

What a great title!

The real joy of the book is how it captures something eternal about sports fandom. I often wonder how fans of mid-table Premier League teams find the energy to care about whether their team finishes 8th or 16th each season. Is ‘survival’ really an objective that can sustain interest year after year? That 96/97 season for Middlesbrough serves as a reminder that success is about so much than trophies, its about the memories, the moments, the highs and also the lows.

The book was simply a joy to read and a wonderful nostalgia trip. I would have devoured it in a day if didn’t keep going to YouTube to rewatch highlights of Juninho, Emerson and Co.

After you’ve read about, it watch every goal and key moment in this Season Review

Tom has published an article on the season which which you can check out here.

Read the Book, Watch the Documentary – Allen Iverson

  • Book – ‘Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson’ by Kent Babb (2015)
  • Documentary – ‘Iverson’ directed by Zatella Beatty (2014) 
  • Documentary – ‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’ directed by Steve James (2010)

Allen Iverson is the smallest player in history to be the NBA’s MVP – the best player in the league over an entire season. He is also a former Rookie of the year, no. 1 draft pick, an 11 time All-Star, 4 time top point scorer and 3 time steals leader among countless other accolades.

His cultural impact is arguably even greater than his on-court achievements. He was an icon for millions of young men, especially African Americans, for his refusal to compromise his image and ‘tone down’ his own personal style. His hairstyle and fashion choices were constantly scrutinised and his shoe line for Reebok is the no.2 all time best seller behind only Jordan’s Nike range.

Iverson’s story is easiest understood in three parts – his early years, his basketball career, and now his post basketball life.

The early years are covered in Not a Game and  in both documentaries. Iverson was nationally famous even before he played college basketball. Despite being only 6ft tall, as a sophomore he was the number 1 ranked high school basketball player in the US. He may also have been even better as a football player (covered in this fascinating VICE article).

He was catapulted to national attention however when he was tried, and ultimately convicted, for his part in a brawl at a bowling alley that left a number of people injured. The trial, conviction and frankly ridiculous 5 year sentence handed down to Iverson and his co-defendants was a huge story and an event that exposed damaging racial tensions in his community.

Kent Babb’s excellent book Not a Game focuses heavily on both the rise and fall of Iverson with chapters alternating between his early years in Virginia and his fall towards divorce and bankruptcy one his playing career ended. Babb extensively covers his difficult childhood, his phenomenal talents and of course, the trial which nearly ruined his career before it began.

not a game

As the subtitle suggests, No Crossover focuses heavily on the trial and the circumstances surrounding it. The central theme of the film is the role that race played in both the outcome and the perception of Iverson’s trial. Director Steve James grew up in the area and uses that local knowledge, and his late father’s contacts, to get people to open up on an issue many may have preferred to stay silent on. It’s a fascinating study on the difficult race relations in the community and America more generally.

Iverson covers similar ground to the other two in terms of Allen’s early years.  It’s noticeably very positive about the influence of Gary Moore, Iverson’s long time mentor and manager.   It must be noted that Moore is an executive producer of the documentary and Not a Game paints an arguably more objective view noting that Moore has benefited hugely financially from Iverson and that some of his advice to Iverson has been questionable at best.

Both films and the book cover similar ground in showing how Iverson, with the support of family and one incredibly kind-hardhearted teacher (who is strangely not mentioned in Iverson), put his time in prison behind him and became a basketball superstar first at Georgetown and then in the NBA.

Iverson’s actual basketball career is touched on fairly lightly in both the book and No Crossover.  Here Iverson is excellent as it includes brilliant footage of Allen using his remarkable incredible athletic gifts.

Arguably Iverson’s most famous play when he crossedover Michael Jordan

Not a Game however paints a picture of a player who was a nightmare for his coaches off the court despite being so effective every time he played. Iverson’s relationship with his 76ers coach Larry Brown is a fascinating central thread running through the book. Despite constant clashes, Brown clearly has a huge amount of fondness for Iverson as he continuously tried to help him later in his career both in finding a team and in making the US Olympic team.

No Crossover ends in 2009 as Iverson’s career is winding down. It touches on criticism of Iverson for his lack of involvement in his hometown while recognising the obvious reasons he feel less than positive about returning. I don’t think the director could have predicted how bleak the following few years would be for Iverson.

The grimness of Iverson’s post career life is however a key focus of Not a Game and the weakest part of Iverson.  In that film, and related media coverage of its release, Iverson addressed long-discussed rumours of financial struggles, denying any notion that he was struggling. “That’s a myth. That’s a rumor… The fact that I’m struggling in any part of my life”, he said.

With access to extensive court records generated by Iverson’s divorce, Babb paints a much bleaker, and likely more accurate, picture of a former superstar unable to adjust to a more modest (yet still substantial) income, and the fact that he was no longer considered good enough to merit an NBA contract (especially with the baggage he brought).

The book and films complement each other well. Not a Game is an impeccably researched, excellently written account of Iverson’s life. It tells the story of his cultural and sporting impact but also the impact his success had on him.

No Crossover zooms in on one of the key events of Iverson’s young life and tells a broader story about race in America. It also contains brilliant clips of a young Iverson that demonstrate just what a freakishly talented athlete he was.

The one weakness of both No Crossover and Not a Game is the refusal of Iverson to co-operate with either. While there is a clear attempt at objectivity in both, Iverson’s own voice is missing. His public comments are often contradictory leaving it difficult to ascertain his own thoughts and motives.  Iverson fills this gap, and while it lacks objectivity at times, its a good counter-balance to the other two.   While it touches on criticism, it’s clearly not a warts and all approach focusing heavily on his basketball career and cultural impact.

Iverson’s most famous press conference – We talkin’ about practice!

As for Iverson himself, I’m left with conflicted emotions. The very fact he achieved so much despite his upbringing and the scapegoating of his trial deserves enormous respect. He is clearly a charismatic and often likeable guy whose talent I greatly enjoyed watching throughout my childhood. The grim details of his post career fall and particularly the aggressive behaviour towards his wife detailed in Not a Game, paint a more complicated picture of a man not quite satisfied in himself despite his successes.

Together both films and the book provide a comprehensive look at all the stages of the life to date of one of the most interesting, exciting, controversial and talented ballers of modern times.

‘Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing’ by Carlos Acevedo (2020)

Sporting Blood is a collection of twenty-one essays by Carlos Acevedo looking, as the title suggests, at tales from the darker side of boxing.  The collection covers a range of fighters offering fresh perspectives on some well known names as well telling the stories of much less well remembered pugilists.

The hardest part of reviewing this book is trying not to copy the words of the great Thomas Hauser in his excellent forward to the book which sums up the power of Acevedo’s writing better than I ever could.

Acevdo is a sensationally good writer with some brilliantly memorable turns of phrase. Each essay packs a mighty punch and resonated with me long after I read it. It is a great collection to dip in and out of, to take your time over, to re-read and savour the writing and the imagery.   As Hauser says “each essay goes beyond the name of the fighter attached  to it to underscore a fundamental truth about, and capture the essence of, boxing.”  It’s hard to get a better endorsement.

As a whole, the collection paints a grim, sad portrait of a fighters life.  While the level of success reached might vary, the stories seem to very often end in tragically similar fashions with dementia, poverty, drug abuse and often murder playing an inevitable part in many of the fighters later years.

sporting blood

 

 

A series of articles by Acevedo are available at https://hannibalboxing.com/author/cacevedo/  and are also well worth checking out.

‘The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty’ by Ethan Sherwood Strauss (2020)

The rise of the Golden State Warriors from laughing stock to one of the all time great NBA teams is one of the most interesting sports stories of the 2010’s. They’ve crashed back to Earth in the current season, having won 4 of the last 6 NBA Championships, and gotten to the finals the other 2 years.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss is a reporter for the Athletic who has covered the Warriors throughout this period and is perfectly placed to tell the definitive tale of this rise.  While this is an interesting, insightful and highly-readable book, its probably easier to describe the book by what it isn’t. It’s not a detailed, year by year, account of the rise, success and fall of the Warriors. It doesn’t look in-depth at all of the key personnel with limited coverage of the likes of Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. 

The introduction of the book is simply fantastic.  A short, sharp, assessment of life in the NBA and the many factors that go into determining the success, or otherwise, of a player and a team.

In charting the rise of the Warriors, Strauss concentrates on the behind the scenes operations and business side of the game. The story begins with the change in ownership as Peter Guber and Joe Lacob took control of the team, against the odds, ahead of Larry Ellison, the Oracle billionaire. Strauss traces the draft picks, the trades that were and, maybe more importantly, the trades that weren’t as Lacob and General Manager Bob Myers put together a world class team.  Strauss also zooms in on a few key personnel – Lacob, Myers and coach Steve Kerr in particular – as the book develops.

More than anything, the book focuses on Kevin Durant, his importance to the Warriors, his relationships with the fans, the media and Strauss himself.  Durant’s signing turned the Warriors from best team in the NBA to one of strongest in history.  Strauss paints a picture of a disgruntled superstar, unhappy that anything he did at the Warriors was unlikely to earn him the love and plaudits enjoyed by arguably lesser players.  The recounting of Strauss’ own history with Durant drags a little as the book starts to feel more like a collection of anecdotes than a history of the team.

Throughout the book there is excellent, insightful writing and analysis. It gives a real behind the scenes look at the team, and the wider NBA that you won’t find in other books.  He covers the importance of a player’s relationship with his sneaker sponsor, the role of agents, the changing nature of ownership and a range of other broad, fascinating topics.

If you are a casual basketball fan however, and can’t say which years the Warriors won the NBA Championship, this book may leave you scratching your heads. There’s quite a lot of assumed knowledge which makes this a fascinating contemporary account but one that may not make much sense if read 10 years from now.

victory

The best books (I’ve read) on…. Spanish football

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  was suddenly exposed to a lot more coverage and commentary on Spanish football.   The addition of Beckham to the Galactico project made La Liga the hottest property in global football.  By the time Beckham left, Pep Guardiola and Leo Messi were on the rise, Spain would soon win Euro 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo would arrive the following year.  The Messi and Ronaldo era, combined with Spanish dominance in international football, saw a continued rise in the interest of the English speaking world in Spanish football.

The rise in interest in Spanish football was helped by, and also led to, an accompanying rise in the number of British and Irish writers living and working in Spain covering the local game.  Inevitably, and thankfully, many of them have written books.

The starting point for any reading list on Spanish football has to be Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football by Phil Ball (2003).  Morbo is a wonderful history of Spanish football but it is so much more than that.  A a fascinating introduction to Spanish history, politics and culture, Morbo really puts the game its broader societal context.  And there is nowhere where football is quite so entwined in politics, culture and identity as in Spain.

morbo

The majority of English language books on Spanish football understandably focus on Barcelona and/or Real Madrid, two of the most famous clubs in world football.

No club quite symbolises the connection between a Spanish club and its home town like FC Barcelona.  For those interested in a deep dive into Barça’s history, Jimmy Burns wrote the excellent Barça: A People’s Passion which provides everything you could want.  It is an incredibly detailed, extensively researched history of the club.  It’s particularly fascinating on the lives and careers of key figures throughout the club’s early years as well as the role the club played in the hearts and minds of Catalans during the Franco era.  It really places the team, and the city, in the broad social, political and cultural context of modern Spain.

For an in-depth look at Barça’s modern era, Graham Hunter’s excellent ‘Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’ is excellent. Hunter will be well known to many as one of the leading English language analysts of Spanish football.  The book is full of interesting anecdotes and Hunter’s passion for his subject shines through.  It is a detailed, well-written and entertaining account of the greatest team modern football has seen.  Highly recommend for anyone who fondly remembers those 4 years when every Barça game was must see TV and you knew as it happened you were watching something very special.

The chapters weave entertainingly between mini-biographies of the key figures in this great Barça side (Messi, Xavi, Puyol etc), detailed retelling of Guardiola’s first 3 seasons, the political machinations behind the scenes, the Cruyffian origins of this team and Frank Rijkaard’s role in laying the groundwork.  Hunter includes his own experiences and interactions with the team and the players which adds an additional layer of insight.

For a broader look at the wider legacy of the club, and especially of Johan Cruyff, look no further than ‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018).   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to date on either of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.  Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.

As for Barça’s great rivals, Real Madrid, the English language coverage of the club exploded after David Beckham signed.  Two excellent writers each published books in 2004 on Beckham’s time in Spain White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid and the New Football by John Carlin and When Beckham Went to Spain by Jimmy Burns.   Its been close to 15 years since I read these two books so a fuller review is beyond my powers of recall.  From memory, both books take a deep look at the Galactico project with a particular focus on Beckham’s early years.   Burns book looks a bit more broadly at the historic position Madrid has played as the club supported by the Castillian establishment.  If I recall correctly, Carlin is definitely more a Madridista than Burns, a lifelong Barça culé. 

Another book from a similar era which gives an inside account of the Galactico era Madrid is the enjoyable ‘El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid’ by Steve McManaman and Sarah Edworthy (2004).  

El Macca is a detailed look at the 4 years McManaman spent at Real Madrid. His first year was incredibly successful as he became a regular starter in a Champions League winning side and scored a spectacular volley in the final against Valencia.  Following the instalment of Florentino Perez as Real President, McManaman found himself sidelined as the club looked to get him off the wage bill to pave the way for the Galactico era – the plan of Zidanes & Pavons – that proposed to combine global superstars with youth team graduates.

The book provides a really interesting insight to an era of change at the biggest football club in the world.  Every player at the club was a household name and the very biggest names in the game found themselves all in the same team at Madrid.   All the players come across quite well with Figo and Hierro standing out as interesting characters who got on very well with McManaman.  After he left the club, it would take another 12 years before they managed to win another Champions League and complete La Decima.

For a more recent, gossipy and entertaining look at a modern version of Madrid, I enjoyed The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho by Diego Torres, a book from which no one emerges with much credit. 

A whole other category of books exists which focus on both Real and Barca and the immense rivalry of El Classico.  While there are a fair few books that fall into this category, I particularly like El Clasico: Barcelona V Real Madrid: Football’s Greatest Rivalry by Richard Fitzpatrick (2012) and Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (2012). 

As interest in Spanish football has broadened in the English speaking world, a number of writers have looked outside of the top two.  Euan McTear’s first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and his second book, Hijacking LaLiga is a comprehensive look at the origins and modern history of Atlético who have achieved remarkable success under manager Diego Simeone.  McTear traces the history of the club, highlighting the key moments the enabled to club to survive and thrive through the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating history but less politically charged that those of Barça and Real.   There is also really interesting details on the chaotic reign of Jesús Gil, the President who somehow seized ownership of the club away from the fans.

The main focus of the book is on the period since Atheli’s relegation in 2000 and how the club rebuilt to break the seeming impenetrable duopoly of Barca and Real.  McTear credits a number of factors – the first Europa League triumph shattered the myth that Athleico were cursed, better TV deals improved their financial ability to compete, the combination of youth team products like Koke, tough battling players like Diego Godin and superstars like Costa and Greizmann proved ideal, and above all the coaching of Diego Simeone and his staff was the perfect match for the players and the club.  The book provides a very interesting and detailed insight into the most interesting story in modern Spanish football.

Robbie Dunne gives similar treatment to Madrid’s third side in his 2017 book Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano, Madrid’s Forgotten Team.  It’s an interesting history of the club, their fans and their left wing anti-establishment ethos.

The Seville based clubs are profiled extensively in Colin Millar’s recent book ‘The Frying Pan of Spain: Sevilla v Real Betis, Spain’s Hottest Football Rivalry’.  It traces the origins, history, key personality and modern development of both football clubs.  In doing so, it also tells the story of the city and its evolving place in Spanish life. The dual-biography nature of the book works quite well.  It is fascinating how often the fortunes of the clubs rose and fell in contrast to the other.  It’s a relatively long book, but a very easy read.  Full of fascinating insights into the city – its politics, its people and its football – it’s a book that is a very welcome addition to the growing library of great English language books on Spanish football.

Lastly, it would be impossible to ignore the Spanish national team and in particular the 6 years where they were undeniably the best team in the world.   Here I return to two authors mentioned earlier.   For a wider lens, I love La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World by Jimmy Burns (2012).  This goes much wider than the national team and, a bit like Morbo, looks at the history of the game across Spain as a whole.   For a more focused look at the national team, look no further than Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble (2013) by Graham Hunter.  Hunter was working for FIFA and UEFA during the tournaments and was  inside the dressing room as the players celebrated after the finals of the World Cup and Euro 2012. The book has significant unique material thorough Hunter’s own accounts and access to the key figures.

I suspect there is a whole host of books on Spanish football I’ve not read, or heard about.  As always, I’d be delighted to hear any recommendations.