‘The Away Game: The Epic Search for Football’s Next Superstars’ by Sebastian Abbot (2018)

I’m not sure spoilers are a thing for non-fiction books, but this review feels a bit spoilerish to me.  Ultimately, it’s impossible to talk about the book without reflecting on what happened the young players in broad terms.  If you want to read the book with absolutely no knowledge of what happens, just know it’s well-written and tells an important story.  Well worth picking up.

The Away Game tells the story of an attempt by Qatar to undercover the next Leo Messi by searching for hidden gems of potential in Africa.   In 2007, Josep Colomer, a former youth coach at Barcelona, was hired to organise trials for 13 year old boys across Africa in what the book describes as the largest sports talent search in history.  Those successful at trials would be brought to Qatar to train in the Aspire Academy with the ultimate aim of becoming a professional footballer.

Abbot zooms in on a few select players with seemingly endless potential and details their journey from local trial, to the Aspire Academy and beyond. At first glance, it appears to be a story of hope and opportunity.  Abbot lure the reader in with this hope, and almost expectation, given how talented the players appear.  Unfortunately, it soon emerges that this isn’t a story with happy endings.  Initially, I felt annoyed that the book had led me on, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice to mirror the journey the players and coaches travelled of unrealistic hope ultimately being crushed by the realities of life and modern football.

So why did it not work out?  Most obviously, the players simply were much older than they claimed and therefore not phenom 13 year olds but decent 17 or 18 year olds.  Secondly, the inability for the Qatari’s to use the players in their national team following FIFA rule changes, clearly dampened some enthusiasm for the project.  The ends arguably no longer justified the means for the Qatar backers if it couldn’t ultimately bring glory to the state.

I really enjoyed the book and it tells an important story about exploitation in youth sports on a global level.  Abbot presents these young men as individuals with their own personalities and dreams whose  own happiness matters, not just pawns in the global business of football.  Ultimately, they all take different paths with various degrees of heartbreak along the way.

The coaches and others who run the Football Dreams aren’t painted as villains however.  They seem to believe in their mission and are passionate about developing players. I felt Abbot may have been a bit gentle on the ultimate backers of the programme (the Qatari state) but that may been journalistic reserve to not infer negative motivations that aren’t provable.

The Away Game is  well written and highly readable.  There is probably a bit too much repetition of the players backstory each time they are reintroduced which is unnecessary if you read the book in a reasonably short period of time.  Notwithstanding this, it grips you from beginning to end as you root desperately for the players despite knowing ultimately the Dream is unlikely to come true.

The Away Game

‘In Sunshine or in Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles’ by Donald McRae (2019)

A new book from Donald McRae is always something to celebrate.   If that new book is about boxing, then all the better.  Locate that book in Ireland and it jumps straight to the top of my want-to-read list.

McRae is one of the truly great interviewers working in sports media.  He has published over 1,000 interviews with the great and not-so-great of the sporting world for the Guardian and I’m yet to find one I didn’t enjoy.  His books have spanned a wide range of topics from sex work, to the trials of Clarence Darrow, to the South Africa he grew up in.  But he is never better than when writing about boxing with his book Dark Trade among the seminal works on the sport.

In Sunshine or in Shadow examines boxing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that deeply sad period when violence was a regular occurrence on the streets and over 2,000 lives were lost.  The book chronicles the lives of four boxers from different communities and, in particular., boxing coach Gerry Storey.

Storey is a remarkable man.  An incredibly successful boxing coach, his real greatness lies in his ability to operate across community lines during the Troubles.  He coached and developed young men regardless of their background and steered many away from getting involved in political violence.  He gained such respect from all sides that he had virtual immunity to cross community lines and put on boxing shows.  No story better illustrates this than the period he spent coaching both nationalist and loyalist prisoners in the same prison.

Storey rivals any coach of young men you can think of, both in terms of his sporting success and the uniqueness of his accomplishments given the environment in which he operated.  When asked why he turned down the chances of fame and fortune abroad, Storey asks what would have happened if all of the good men left the North.  Storey however is not merely a good man, but rather a great one who made a significant and lasting difference in the lives of many people.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on former world champion Barry McGuigan.  While McGuigan’s story will be better known than most of the others covered in the book, it remains remarkable.  Born in the Republic, McGuigan fought predominantly in Northern Ireland and represented the North in the Commonwealth games and the all-Ireland team at other international events.  This led to an unprecedented cross-border and cross-community appeal that stood as a beacon of hope for a brighter, less violent, future for the island.

The book also serves as a broad history of the key incidents during the troubles.  Ever person in the book had their lives significantly impacted by violence in some way, usually through the death of a friend or family member.  It serves as a stark reminder of the horrific role played by the British state and security services during this bleak time.  As Brexit rushes closer and the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland looms large, the story feels even more poignant.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’ by Wright Thompson (2019)

Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports.  His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely in Ireland at least.  It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unravelled until the excellent  ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published last year.

The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving success.  The stories collected here are mostly about the off pitch lives of those involved in sports.  It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil.  The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the ugly time of de-segregation in US education.

Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years.  Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.

The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of on of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid.  He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written.  As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner worlds of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.   

Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out.  I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:

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‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World’ by Nicholas Griffin (2014)

Governments have long used sport for political purposes.  Famously, the Berlin Olympics attempted to whitewash the emerging Nazi regime and the Argentinean ’78 World Cup was presented as proof of the virtues of military dictatorship.   Even now,  Qatar and others see football as a way to “sportswash” their own troubling reputations.  But, surprisingly, no sport was arguably ever as pivotal to global politics as table tennis – or Ping Pong as many know it.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy is structured in three parts – firstly it tells the life story of  Ivor Montagu and his development of Ping Pong as a global game.  Montagu was a British aristocrat and an active Soviet spy who grew table tennis internationally while also grasping its potential as a tool of spreading Communism globally.    A fascinating man that seems like a character from an old adventure novel, Montagu was remarkably successful in spreading table tennis to the East.

Secondly, it tells the story of just how quickly the game spread and established in both post War Japan and newly Communist China.  Within China, Communist leaders quickly adopted the game and when they came to power it became the national sport.  For the Chinese, Ping-Pong ultimately became a political tool to be used as part of Mao Zedong’s foreign policy.

Finally, the book details the use of table tennis by the Chinese regime to open up relations with the USA.   It details how, in 1971, a US table tennis team was invited behind the Bamboo Curtain and surreal nature of the experience for both sets of players.  This invitation played a significant role in the eventual opening up of China to the West and the establishment of bilateral relations with the US.

At its best, the book provides a fascinating look at Mao’s long reign through the prism of a special class of Chinese citizens – Ping Pong players.  They were the most famous sportspeople in China at the time and were treated exceptionally well.   Mao used international tournaments to distract from the mass famine associated with the Great Leap Forward.  However, even famous players found they easily fell foul of the cultural revolution and the ping pong team was attacked as a symbol of the Communist Party old guard and the players suffered greatly.

The book is exceptionally readable and Griffin’s skills as a writer shine through.  Key characters are vividly painted, none more so than Montagu himself.  Thoroughly researched, at times funny, at times deeply sad, Ping Pong Diplomacy is a great read.  It shines a fascinating light on a time when sport truly helped change the world.

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‘University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education’ by Joshua Hunt (2018)

Having read ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight and ‘Bowerman and the Men of Oregon’ by Kenny Moore, I have a good understanding of the Nike origin story. One thing that always struck me was just how comfortable Phil Knight was with taking risks and with screwing over business partners.

University of Nike shines a light on the dark side of Nike’s growth – the money it pumps into US schools and universities to ensure that the Nike brand is closely associated with collegiate sports. Hunt uses the relationship between Nike, Knight and his alma matter, the University of Oregon, to shine a light on the troubling commercialisation of public education in the US.

Hunt traces the rise of this commercialisation back to the reduction in public funding in US academic institutions. Unsurprisingly corporations began to fill the void but the money often comes with strings attached. Some of the background to corporate influence in US education is shocking. Hunt highlights, in particular, stories of school districts signing exclusive deals with Coke or Pepsi which rewarded the school district for every drink sold on their premises.

Knight made huge personal donations to the University of Oregon to build a wide range of facilities – both academic and sporting. Nike also provided huge resources in terms of PR and marketing to building the Oregon Ducks brand. It appears that the line between the University and Nike often became quite blurred.

Oregon used the money to build their sporting profile. They then used sporting success as a brand builder to encourage out of States students to apply to study there as such student pay more in tuition than Oregon native students pay.

Hunt outlines the downside of this commercial support. In a sporting sense, the aims of the University became twisted towards sport rather than learning. In non sporting situations limits can be placed on the publication of research that doesn’t align with the interests of corporate donors. This ultimately calls into question the very essence of what a public university should be. Additionally, Hunt shows how unforgivable behaviour by student athletes can be swept under the carpet to avoid embarrassment being caused lest the money tap be turned off.

University of Nike is a well researched, well written and extremely interesting read. Hunt has done an excellent job in highlighting really serious issues that go well beyond sporting concerns.   This book is an excellent case study in the need for public funding of public goods – of which education may be the most important.

univ of nike

‘Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream’ by H.G Bissinger (1990)

Permian football had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children.  That was the nature of sports in a town like this.  Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery.  It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves”. 

Friday Night Lights likely needs no introduction for anyone who would read a blog about sports books.  H.G. Bissinger chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas.  The book spawned both a movie and a very successful TV show and the phrase ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become synonymous with the idea of high school football in the USA.

Often proclaimed the greatest sports book of all time, Friday Night Lights is that rare book that fully lives up its praise.  It is also a book that is just as rewarding when read for the second or third time – the tension about how the team will perform is reduced, and the broader story Bissinger sets out to tell comes even more into focus.

Bissinger zooms in on the lives of 6 team members – some black, some white, some poorer than others.  Around these narratives he tells the story of the town – its schools, its history, its people, its politics and its prejudices.

Aside from the gripping football narrative – will the team make it to State – there a number of underlying stories that Bissinger focuses on.  At its core, Bissinger wants to talk about the idea of worshiping high school sports and athletes and the damage that can be caused.  But he cannot resist the allure, the passion and the drama that results from a town putting kids playing football at the very centre of civic life.  Bissinger openly admits that the games he attended remain his happiest sporting memories.

Reading this book in 2018, it’s impossible not to have today’s political environment in mind.  Many books have tried to chronicle the factors that led to Trump’s election, to capture the ‘Real America’, but reading this account from 30 years ago gives you more insight than any of the recent books.   Replace Reagan’s name with Trump and the social commentary could easily have been written today – it’s eye-opening how consistent the issues, concerns and arguably prejudices of everyday working class American’s have been over the 30 year period.

Fundamentally we see a society where life hasn’t lived up the hopes and dreams of many. Bissinger talks about how the town “absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined” – it’s easy to see Trump as the darker side of that same impulse, rather than helping people forget their problems by imagining a better future, Trump gives his supporters a licence to blame those problems on ‘the other’ – liberals, elites, Mexicans, globalists etc. etc. etc.

Above all, this book is superbly written. The descriptions of the matches are intense, the imagery is vivid and the heartbreak and joy feels very very real.  It’s a gripping, entertaining and simply wonderful book.

FNL

‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

st nation