‘Lionel Messi and the Art of Living’ by Andy West (2018)

Every book has a target audience.  For sports books, it’s always a question as to what ‘fandoms’ the book will appeal to, what’s the Venn diagram of people who would like this.  Do you have to follow the sport? Do you have to be a fan of that team? Would a non-sports fan enjoy it?

About half-way through reading Lionel Messi and the Art of Living, I realised that, for this book, the target audience is me.  I love Messi, I’ve read plenty of philosophy, and plenty of pop social-science books.  I read the book during my commutes to and from the office during the toughest week in work I’ve ever had.  I read it while also in a very reflective mood having spent the weekend buying baby clothes for the first time (my wife is heavily pregnant with our first child).  I’ll never be in a more receptive place for some insights into how to live and never more willing to learn than from the greatest footballer of all time.

Did I mention that I love Messi?  I’ve loved him from the first time I saw him play. I sound like one of the 5 million Liverpool fans who claim to have been in Istanbul but I was boring enough to have watched almost all of the U20 World Cup in 2005 when he first emerged.  My brother’s childhood sweetheart had just broken his heart the day we both finished undergrad and, being freshly graduated and jobless, I spent 6 weeks trying to cheer him up with a diet of rented movies and sport on TV.  I probably don’t love Messi as much as my friend who has ‘Messi 10’ tattooed on his arse, but for me, he is the footballer that defines the last 10 plus years of my enjoyment of the game.

Returning to the book, it is very hard to categorise.  It’s part biography, part philosophy, part self-help book, part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In some ways it could be read as the foundational book for the Church of Messi – a New Testament built around our one true saviour (from the evils of CR7).  But that may just be by me.

A more balanced, less emotional, review it’s that the book is an interesting approach to examining the factors that breed success in life – by whatever metric you judge that.  West seeks to examine Messi’s football career as a potential guide for how to live – he explores the characteristics which Messi displays and are essential to his success and, by analogy, to success in life in general.

West took the approach of interviewing just 7 people – some in football, some who knew Messi and others with interesting things to say.  Each chapter interweaves these interviews with a study of how Messi demonstrated one of the key characteristics needed to be successful.   The format works really well, the writing is very readable and it’s a book you could easily dip in and out of.

If you want a flavour of what the book is about, West has a great twitter thread (@andywest01) that gives a summary of each chapter.  If you like the sound it from that summary, you’ll love the book.  While I think the overall approach of the book might alienate some readers looking for something more traditional, West has gone for something different and he executes his vision brilliantly.

In summary, I loved it.  You might not like it quite as much but you should definitely give it a shot.

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‘The European Game: An Adventure to Explore Football on the Continent and its Methods for Succes’ by Dan Fieldsend (2017)

The European Game is a journey behind the scenes of  how European football operates.  Fieldsend, formerly a staff member at Liverpool, spent three months travelling to the best and most famous football teams across Europe learning along the way about the club’s history, key figures, tactical developments, and place in their society.

It’s a book that celebrates the uniqueness and specialness of every football club which shifts between understanding why how clubs impact their environment and how environment’s shape their clubs.  It’s part exploration of what makes a club successful and part exploration of what makes a club magical.

The book can be dipped into chapter by chapter which each adventure heavily shaped by the people Fieldsend was able to meet and interview.  Overall, the cast of characters is suitably diverse and interesting to ensure that the book avoids repetition.   Some chapters have a heavy travelogue feel as Fieldsend connects with the people and the place as much as the football club.  At times the book suffers from a slight identity crisis as it shifts between very different types of stories.

It merits some comparison’s to the peerless Inverting the Pyramid or the excellent Football Against Enemy – a very different book from those but one that contains a similar desire to understand football at a deeper level.

It is clear the book is a real labour of love.  While some of the chapters contain fairly familiar material, overall it me feeling I understood more about some of the major European clubs and kept me entertained and engaged throughout.  Some tighter editing of slightly flowery prose wouldn’t have gone a miss – but I can’t begrudge the author attempting to show a bit of literary flair at times.

Overall, highly recommended for those who haven’t devoured countless books on European football while still worth a read for those among us who like to reread Inverting the Pyramid every summer!

Frankly Speaking by Frank Stapleton (1991)

Published in 1991, Frankly Speaking is a (kind of) autobiography of former Arsenal, Man Utd and Ireland striker Frank Stapleton.

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Stapleton seemed to be coming to end of his career when the book came out and his international career was over having been on the fringes of the squad during Italia ’90 having previously captained the team during Euro ’88.  He ended up playing four more years in the English lower leagues.

The book feels like half of an autobiography – it covers his football career with each season covered in a chapter and his club and international careers covered in separate halves of the book.  It’s focus is on entirely on Stapleton’s football career with almost no discussion of his life outside of football. The version of the book I found in the library has no summary on the front or back cover, no forward, no acknowledgements or any scene setter at all.  It just goes straight into his first few years at Arsenal.

One of the striking things is the amount of focus on the FA Cup over the team’s performance in the league.  This seems to be partly because the FA Cup still maintained its elevated status in the game and partly because Stapleton played in five Cup finals but never in a team that competed for the league title right to the end of the season.  The amount of replays in the cup is also striking.  You can see why penalties were eventually preferred to so many extra games.

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Stapleton rarely expresses his opinion on the various people he played or worked with outside of commenting on what they added to the team.  Ron Atkinson, his manager at United is the clear exception with Stapleton being pretty critical of Big Ron’s ego, love of the media, and lack of tactical nous.  His biggest praise is for coach Don Howe – a figure who seems to pop up in any biography of footballers who played in England in the 80’s and 90’s.

The material on Ireland was definitely the most interesting for me.  Stapleton gives a bit more background colour on the Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 campaigns and a decent sense of Jack Charlton’s management style.  I’d actually read all the most interesting bits before in the excellent ‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

It’s a quick and easy read that has some interesting bits for any Arsenal, United or Ireland fan.  It feels like a book from a bygone era and was designed to be read at the time, when any reader would have none the main people mentioned. It’s also the first book I’ve reviewed that I couldn’t find on Goodreads (until I added it), giving some sense of how obscure it is at this stage!

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‘Touched By God: How We Won the Mexico 86 World Cup’ by Diego Maradona (2017)

You always assume books by footballers have ghostwriters.  While Daniel Arcucci is named on the book, I hope he was only a translator and that no one who calls themselves a writer put their name to this book.  Touched by God reads like a 3 or 4 hour long stream of Maradona’s consciousness as if someone asked him an open-ended question about the 1986 World Cup.

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Maradona’s telling of this story is designed to big up his friends in the team and downplay the role of manager Carlos Bilardo who he fell out with when Bilardo criticised Maradona as Argentina manager in 2010.  Considering almost all football fans acknowledge Maradona won the cup largely single-handed, its amazing he sees the need to be so critical and dismissive of Bilardo.  Mardaona claims that the players, and himself, deserve almost all the credit for the team being well prepared and for their fitness levels by actively railing against Bilardo’s original plans.

Maradona’s personality certainly shines through – ego, craziness and an amazing ability to hold a grudge.  At times it feels like half the book is score settling with Bilardo and former captain Daniel Passeralla – with a little bit of spite left over for ‘that heartless turkey’ Platini. He has some kind words for certain teammates in particularly Brown and Ruggeri.

Probably the biggest flaw in the book is that it makes so many assumptions that you know who and what Maradona is talking about.  If you don’t already know a huge amount about Maradona, Argentina, the players of that era and the ’86 World Cup you will be totally and utterly lost for the first chunk of the book.

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The book rambles around a lot at times covering random bits of Maradona’s life and a decent bit of detail about his time in Napoli where he was playing during the ’86 World Cup. He drops in complaints about Fifa, his love of Pope Francis and the bits of advice he gave Messi when he was Argentina manager.

There are interesting bits, some entertaining anecdotes and bits of genuine insight into the mindset of a great player as he faces the most important games of his life and plays at a level beyond compare.  However, the decent bits are totally drowned out by the terrible writing and rambling style.  You could read the section on the World Cup final and still have no idea what happened in the match bar Argentina winning, such is the rambling style.

Overall, I recommend giving this book a miss.  It’s almost as poor as his first memoir El Diego, poorly written, rambling and hard to read.  For a genuinely great book on Maradona, I’d recommend seeking out Hand of God by Jimmy Burns.

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‘Garrincha: the triumph and tragedy of Brazilian’s forgotten footballing hero’ by Ruy Castro & translated by Andrew Downie (2004)

“The most amateur footballer professionial football ever produced”

Garrincha was the epitome of the flawed sporting hero – the genius player whose personal demons led to an early death. Garrincha, the book, details his life from his childhood in Pau Grande through the length of his career and his eventual death from alcholism.  It captures his amazing talent, his playful charisma, his colourful personal life and his unique place in the hearts of Brazilian football fans.

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Born with crooked legs, he defied all expectations and became one of the most successful players in international football history, winning two World Cups and only once losing in a Brazilian shirt in 60 appearances.  Winning two world cups he became a cult legend in Brazil.

His life was incredible.  He lost his virginity to a goat, slept with hundreds of women and sired at least 14 children – his affair and subsequent marriage to the singer Elza Soares that caught the imagination of a nation and led to them both being vilified.  He was profligate with money, uninterested in football that he wasn’t playing in and totally incapable of being faithful.

By the age of forty-nine, Garrincha was dead, destroyed by the excesses that made him such a fascinating figure.  His downfall makes for depressing, but gripping reading.

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There is something that draws us to those genius sports stars who can’t conquer their demons and don’t get the change to live the post-retirement life they deserve.  Their flaws make them more relatable and more human. As an Irishman, you read the book feeling like its an alternate world story of George Best’s life or even how the great Paul McGrath’s life may have gone had he been born in Brazil.

Ruy Castro has written a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating biography which is excellently translated by Andrew Downie.  It is a brilliant and detailed insight into a fascinating life of a genius player.  It is a comprehensive and worthy tribute to a footballer who had he played a few years later in the television era would be remembered as one of the all time greats.  The only downside for me was the lack of more detail on the social and cultural environment in which Garrincha lived – I feel I learned an incredible amount about Garrincha, but less than I expected about the Brazil of the 50’s and 60’s.

I first the read the book when the English translation came out in 2004 and I thoroughly enjoyed this reread.  I highly recommend it for any football fan and is a great companion book for watching Russia 2018.

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‘Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend’ edited by Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich (1997)

“Virtually his entire playing career – over twenty years – was spent not just at the top, but at the very top of his profession.  He never stepped down from that summit.  And whatever he touched in the footballing world turned to gold”. 

Ferenc Puskas sits alongside Alfredo di Stefano in being widely regarded as the best player in the pre-Pele football era.   His achievements were remarkable – as well as being a top player right up to his 40th birthday, he played in two of the most famous (non-World Cup) matches ever to take place on British soil, captained arguably the greatest international football team never to win a World Cup (Cruyff might have disagreed) and even coached Panathinaikos to the European Cup final. Add in 83 goals in 84 internationals, an Olympic gold medal and the fact that the FIFA Goal of the Season award is named after him, and you get some sense of his accomplishments. puskas 1

Puskas on Puskas is an oral history of Puskas’ career, told mainly in his own words.  Taylor and Jamrich supplement Puskas’ own memories with those of his contemporaries – players, coaches, administrators, and journalists.  These reflections are supplemented by the editors providing an overview of the times Puskas lived and played in.  It’s an interesting and informative approach to telling the story of Puskas, the Golden Squad and Hungary under Communist rule.

Puskas comes across as a lively, charming and determined figure. Away from football Puskas was a master smuggler, political rebel and not afraid to speak his mind. On the field he was not just a world-class player but also a charismatic leader, a committed team-mate and a tactical innovator.

Puskas starred in some of the most famous matches in history beginning with the England-Hungary 6-3 match of 1953 that is often (wrongly) portrayed as England’s first ever defeat on home soil (that honour goes to Ireland following a 2-0 win in 1949).  He also played in the controversial 1954 World Cup final (the so-called Miracle of Berne) where West Germany improbably inflicted the only defeat Hungary would suffer over a 6 year period with some help from the British ref and linesman.  If that wasn’t enough for one man, he scored 4 goals in the famous 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow, which saw Real Madrid beat Eintract Frankfurt 7-3 to win their 5th straight European Cup.

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The book, brings to life not only the achievements of the players but also the tactical innovations of the Hungarian team and the challenges of the totalitarian regime that controlled the country.  Puskas recognised and exploited the power he had, certainly before the 1954 World Cup, in a team which the Communist authorities were eager to use to demonstrate the superiority of the “Socialist Man”

There a few hints that we don’t see every side of the man – certainly some of the British players interviewed suggest he may have had a wandering eye.  But the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive biography – rather is an oral history told mostly in the great man’s own words.

What makes the book a real treasure is the lack of other English language comprehensive books on Puskas – Taylor and Jamrich did a superb job in capturing the great man’s memories and using them to pull together an entertaining, informative book that is a fantastic read.

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‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

The Team That Jack Built was first published in 1994 shortly following Ireland’s second appearance in the World Cup finals – a level Ireland have only once returned to.

This isn’t a book about Ireland’s performances in the three major tournaments that the team played during Jack Charlton’s reign.  Indeed, the actual games at Euro 88 are covered in less than a page. Instead is about the how – how did Ireland go from nearly-rans to qualifying for back to back World Cups.  The book is all the better for the focus on the off-field aspects.  The team that jack

Rowan recounts the series of managers who had led the Irish team prior to Charlton’s appointment and this third of the book was really interesting for me as someone who was too young to remember any of the pre-Charlton era. Rowan also entertainingly details the backroom shenanigans in the FAI.  The constant jolies to Poland, the bizarre voting process and the battles with the players over money and endorsement rights.   Rowan paints a picture of the FAI that is not flattering and will be depressingly familiar to Irish fans of any era.

The highlight of the book is when Rowan lets Charlton describe his tactical approach in his own words – its a great, simple overview of the style which brought great success while boring the rest of the world.

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The main issue addressed in the book is FIFAs laws of eligibility -allowing non-Irish-born players to qualify for the Irish team because Ireland was the birthplace of a parent or grandparent.  Rowan addresses the conflicting views that Ireland had (and largely still has) about our relationship with the Brits and the Irish diaspora that identifies as both British and Irish.  He doesn’t come down on either side – but it is interesting to see how open many of the players were about England being their first choice.  It remains a highly relevant issue when we see players like Jack Grealish switch back to England, and fans fretting over whether Declan Rice would follow suit.

Overall, The Team That Jack Built is a hugely interesting, entertaining and well written account of the Irish football team in the 30 years leading up to 1994.  Its the off-field story of how a team built around the Irish diaspora came together under a charismatic manager to really shake ’em up.

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