‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’ by Joe McGinniss (2000)

(This review is a bit spoilery so avoid if you are sensitive to such things – even for non-fiction books).

When asked to name my favourite football book, I immediately jump to 4 or 5 books I read in my late teens or early twenties – Football Against the Enemy, The Hand of God, Brillant Orange, Morbo, or The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.  These were among the books that opened my eyes to the joys of great sports-writing that went beyond players autobiographies and told you as much about a time or a place as they did about the sport/player.

I first read The Miracle of Castel di Sangro in 2002 in the booze filled summer between finishing school and starting university.  I was totally captivated by the story and devoured the book, reading it twice within a couple of weeks and recommending it to everyone I could think of.  I’ve hesitated to reread it in recent years due to a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t live up to my memory.

Re-reading it now, 16 years later, I still found the story as wonderful, absurd and brilliant but found myself disliking McGinniss, the author and narrator, who sets himself right at the centre of the story.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro tells of the story of the 1996/97 Serie B campaign of tiny Castel Di Sangro after they had achieved an unexpected promotion (the ‘Miracle’) to the second division in Italian football.  McGinniss, a successful American writer in his 50’s, spends the season with the team sharing their meals, the dressing room and eventually their secrets.   McGinniss was a recent convert to football (soccer) having fallen in love with the game during USA ’94 and developing an obsession with the Divine Ponytail Roberto Baggio.  He also goes to great lengths to highlight his lack of Italian, while it was seemingly of a high enough standard that he was reading Italian newspapers from the very beginning.

Castel di Sangro is a tiny town in the Abruzzo region with a population of just 5,000 people among whom reside all of the traditional Italian stereotypes – the shady businessman, the playboys, the matronly restaurant owner etc.

The story that unfolds over the season is truly remarkable – deaths, arrests, drug scandals, corruption and all the more usual drama that football brings.  McGinniss really draws the reader in and creates a clear portrait of the players, the manager and the rest of the supporting cast.  He also captures well the frustration of the fanatic – each game feeling like life or death, the entire mood of a week being set by what happens over 90 minutes.

Eventually however McGinniss began to irritate me – his tactical analysis and player evaluations would be a lot more convincing had he been watching football for more than two years.  While he makes fun of his own attempts to influence team selection, he seems to still believe he knew better than the manager.  In many ways he plays up to the boorish American stereotype – throwing tantrums at the club officials and the manager and picking fights with the local mafia boss (we assume) for no apparent reason.

Ultimately the book runs into the issue of what obligation McGinniss has to tell the whole truth or whether he should keep certain things he sees out of the book.  When I first read the book, I shared McGinniss’s outrage at certain events but reading now in my mid-30’s with a bit more life experience, I found McGinniss to ultimately be disloyal and duplicitous.   If this had been an objective chronicle of the season, I would understand the obligation to expose everything he saw but that isn’t what this book was.  McGinniss became a central part of the story, turning players into close friends and being their confidant – trying to do both things at once leaves a sour taste.

Even with his choice to expose certain things at the end of the book, McGinniss does so in a self-centred and frankly childish manner.  He acts as the victim of some grand injustice when someone with a bit more empathy would clearly have focussed on the impact on the players and the town of living in the shadow of corruption.  Rather than look to explain things he doesn’t like, McGinniss acts like a spoiled child.

The ending is more McGinniss-centric than you would expect from a sports story, and in some ways explains why so much of the book centres on the author.  But it doesn’t justify the excessive indulgence of McGinniss focusing so much of the narrative on himself and not on the team.

Despite that serious flaw, I still love the book.  It’s a brilliant story and written in a gripping and engaging manner.  McGinniss is a quality writer and uou get caught up in his passion and develop a real affection for the players and the town.  It’s deservedly a classic but rereading it now I can’t help but feel there was an even better version that sadly ended up buried under the author’s ego.

miracle

‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018)

In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends.  Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else.  I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.

More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s.   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 present on any 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).   Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.

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.

I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.

Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is.  I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers.  Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.

What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff.  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.  I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian.  If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you.  If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!

One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained.  I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!

The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book.  An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers.  Hopefully something that catches on.

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‘Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football’ by Rob Smyth (2018)

With some books you need just to look at the cover and you know you will love it.   ‘Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football’ immediately ticked all of my boxes – a great writer telling an interesting story I knew very little about.

Rob Smyth is a really good sports writer whose minute-by-minutes are always a treat and his previous book Danish Dynamite is a brilliant look book at the Danish Golden Generation of the late 80’s.

As for the story, well where to begin.  Carlos Henrique Raposo, known to all as Kaiser, is a legendary figure in Brazilian football.  Legendary for his stories and his off the pitch exploits rather than anything on the pitch – because he never actually played a professional game.

Kaiser, which he was named either after Franz Beckenbauer or after an overly round beer bottle, enjoyed a lengthy “career” as a professional footballer at all of Rio’s top clubs, as well as teams in France and Mexico. Or at least he might have.  While some of his stories check out – and he had contracts with many teams – many of his tales may exist only in his own imagination.  What is clear is that Kaiser managed to get on the books of teams and use that status to the absolute maximum benefit.

Rob Smyth had quite a difficult job trying to corroborate Kaiser’s tales.  Kaiser – it feels wrong to call him by his real name – is allowed to tell his own story throughout the book and he proves just as unreliable as a narrator as he was a footballer.  Even those stories that at first appear corroborated by other players seem to ultimately be false.

It is a frankly almost unbelievable biography of a life that could only have been lived before the internet.  It’s full of great anecdotes from footballers of the time as they remember Kaiser’s antics fondly.   None top the tale of how Kaiser avoided being brought on as a sub by starting a fist fight with spectators.  He then saved the day by telling the club owner that the fan had been insulting the owner’s honour and Kaiser felt compelled to defend his good name.

At times the book deviates from the main story to discuss Brazilian football more generally – partly to fill out the book, partly because the 80’s is one of the most interesting periods of Brazilian football history with some of their greatest ever players yet no World Cup wins. I think the book is better for giving the wider picture and setting Kaiser’s story in the broader context of Brazil at the time.

Overall, it’s a book that any football fan will enjoy.  Part biography, part football history, part Catch Me If You Can style fantastical tale, Kaiser is an entertaining and brilliant read.

The book has been published in conjunction with a documentary which I’m yet to see but hoping to watch soon.

Kaiser

‘Keeper Of Dreams: One Man’s Controversial Story of Life in the English Premiership’ by Ronald Reng & translated by Shaun Whiteside (2002)

Ronald Reng will be best known to English readers for ‘A Life Too Short’ his excellent and heart-breaking biography of the late Robert Enke.

Keeper of Dreams is his much lesser known first book (first translated into English at least) about the brief professional career of Lars Leese, a German goalkeeper who was catapulted from lower league German football to become a Premier League goalkeeper during Barnsley’s one season in the top flight.

Lesse looked like he had missed his chance to be a professional before, at the age of 26, getting taken on as Leverkuson’s third choice goalkeeper.  A bit of luck and the right connection resulted in a surprise transfer to Barnsely where Lesse briefly became a starting Premier League goalie in only his second year as a pro.

Barnsley’s year in the top flight was in 1997/1998 – when I was 13 and utterly obsessed with football and Championship Manager.  That obsession can only explain why I have vivid memories of that Barnsely team and of Lars Lesse when I can barely remember matches I watched last week.

lars

Leese was something of a celebrity in Barnsley as the town went football crazy.   In the book he is very candid with his opinions on British life and Reng captures the bemusement of a foreigner in a British town as Lesse and his wife come to really enjoy their lives there.

Keeper of Dreams is ultimately the story of a dream temporarily lived and the frustration of coming to terms with the reality that the dream ended all too soon.  After eventually securing a starting spot and playing fanstically to secure a famous win at Anfield, Lesse lost his place due to illness and couldn’t get back into the team due to David Wagner’s great form.   As Barnsley dropped to Division 1, John Hendrie took over from Danny Wilson and Lesse found his face no longer fit with Hendrie’s plans for the club.  Released after his second year, Lesse struggled in vain to find a new club before eventually seeking normal work and stability back in Germany.

Reng is excellent at capturing the more difficult side of life in football – the personal struggle players experience behind closed doors.  It is impossible to read this book now without seeing the writing of this story as part of Reng’s development as a writer and his experiences with Reng can only have helped him to so brilliantly capture the tragic story of Robert Enke in his universally admired A Life Too Short –  a book I thought was just superb but am hesitating to reread and review given the sad subject matter.

Keeper of Dreams is a pretty quick and easy read that captures a fairly unique football journey and an interesting and honest character in Lars Lesse.  Well worth picking up.

keeper

 

 

One career, Two books – Roy Keane (2002 and 2014).

Reviews of Keane: The Autobiography by Roy Keane with Eamonn Dunphy (2002) and The Second Half by Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle (2014)

 

Whenever I read a sportsman’s second autobiography (usually published a bit after they have retired), I always like to reread their first one (usually published at peak of their carer).  It can be fascinating to see how the same events or relationships are told differently with the benefit of more experience or changed dynamics.   I hope to reread and write about some of my favourite double autobiographies.  First up, the Manchester United and Ireland legend, Roy Keane!

Roy Keane had an exceptional playing career which combined huge achievement with equal amounts of controversy.   It’s impossible to have followed English football in the 90’s and naughties and not have a strong opinion either way.  For an Irish fan, it’s even harder to not to love or loathe him.

Rereading Keane: The Autobiography (2002),  I’m struck by just how good the book is. It is sometimes forgotten just how good a writer the ever controversial Eamonn Dunphy is and his talents are in full display here as he captures what feels like Keane’s voice.   The book was first published in August 2002 shortly after the infamous Saipan incident where Keane left the Irish team just before the 2002 World Cup and divided Ireland, and football fans, into pro and anti-Keane camps.  (I was very much Team Roy).   Three years on from the 1999 “Treble”, and fresh from Saipan, Keane was one of the biggest names in world football and his book garnered huge attention.

Soon attention focused heavily on a passage about Keane seeking revenge on Alfie Inge Haaland which ultimately got Keane a suspension – reading the offending passage now it would be fairly easy to overlook it, had Haaland’s career not been cut short due to the injury he suffered.  By the time the second edition was published in 2003, Keane had agreed to rewrite the passage in later editions as part of his punishment from the FA.

Keane’s own rise was meteoric once it got going, progressing from playing in the 2nd Division in Ireland with Cobh Ramblers to starting in an FA Cup Final for Nott’s Forrest within 12 months.  It likely took a genius like Forrest manager Brian Clough to see Keane’s true potential and throw him straight into the Forrest line up as a starter at 19.

The book paints a picture of Keane as a hard-working, hard-drinking player who couldn’t always control his temper but always gave his all on the pitch.  His tolerance for anything that didn’t meet his standards was incredibly low – yet slightly hypocritical when his own drinking had to be having a damaging impact on his own game.  Ultimately Keane’s year out with a cruciate ligament injury combined with growing older helped to temper his drinking and the Roy we meet in the second book has become a health freak.

Keane charts the progress of the Utd team as Fergie’s first great team merged into his second and the Class of ’92 (what an irritating brand that is) integrated with the likes of Keane and Schmeichel to form the team that would dominate English football and secure the long-awaited Champions League victory. Keane is full of praise for the talent of Giggs, Beckham and co. but by the time the second book is published he seems to also have become sick of the branded Class of ’92 with his comments on them as a collective much less warm.  For any Utd fan during the 90’s the book shines an interesting light on the internal dynamics of the team and Keane is fairly open in his views on the various characters he has played with.

It also covers his Ireland career and unsurprisingly gives his version of what happened in Saipan when he left Ireland’s world cup squad just before the 2002 tournament kicked off.  Probably the most criticised figure is former Ireland manager Jack Charlton (and his assistant Maurice Setters) who Keane resents for both his style of play and his self-promotion.  Unsurprisingly given the timing of the book’s publication, Mick McCarthy (the Ireland manager during the Saipan incident) doesn’t fare much better.  Keane at times seems to be a contradiction between a man proud to play for his country but overly loyal to his club who pay his wages, mirror his professionalism and treat him very well.

Keane’s second book The Second Half (2014) was published after Keane had begun his role as Ireland’s assistant manager.  It picks up from where the first book left off and covers the remains of his playing career, his exit from United and his management days.

The insights into how he left United are interesting – it was such big news at the time.  Similarly, as someone who attended a few Sunderland games during its “Irish” era, I enjoyed the behind the scenes look at his incredibly succesful first year in management.

Overall, the Keane we encounter in book 2 is more reflective and self-critical.  It’s the book of someone who has struggled in their second career to match the highs of their first.  It’s much less about titles and victories and more about aging, starting again and trying to build a new career.

The second book also shows that Keane now questions some of the belief’s he had throughout his earlier career and that jump out in the first book. In particular, he seems to have realised that playing through injuries was more stupid than heroic.  While the second book is less effusive in its praise for Sir Alex Ferguson, Keane never lets any animosity he may feel about his exit from Man Utd impact his earlier assessment of Fergie’s greatness as a manager.

(It now seems somewhat hypocritical for Keane to fall out with Irish players for not training when injured after making these comments in the second book.  One thing is for certain is that as long as Keane is in the public eye controversy will follow him).

Roddy Doyle is a great writer and, like Dunphy he also captures Keane’s voice well.  It takes a few chapters to adjust to the subtly different style compared to the first book, but both feel like authentic Keane.  A few anecdotes are repeated but mostly its fresh material.

Reading the two books together definitely gives a truer and more complete picture of Keane than taking either book in isolation.  The energy or drive remains obvious but 2014’s Roy Keane is understandable a bit wiser and probably a bit more cynical.  Overall the story is of a fascinating life of a determined figure whose achievements have been matched by controversies caused largely by the same determination and qualities that led to his success in the first place.

Both books are really well written and entertaining reads.  Given my fascination with Keane I’m not the most neutral of judges but I’d highly recommend both books for any fan of football during Keane’s heyday.

‘Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession’ by William Skidelsky (2015)

For the first time on this blog I genuinely don’t know what to make of a book I’ve just read.  Federer and Me defies categorisation. It’s part memoir, part love letter, part history of tennis’ tactical evolution, part travelogue, and part essay on the various forms ‘beauty’ can take.

The book traces Skidelsky’s obsession with Roger Federer.  In late 2006 / early 2007, Skidelsky went from being a lapsed fan of tennis generally to being a devoted fan of Roger Federer.   It’s an obsession in a mild sense not the ‘abandon your family to go see every match’ type.  Instead paying £800 to see Federer play the Wimbeldon final seems to be the main case of his fandom over ruling his common sense.

The book is Skidelsky’s attempt to trace this obsession that came on in his 30’s and examine why he loves Federer and why the love arose at this point in his life.

Bits of the book really work for me.  I quite enjoyed the tennis material – as a non-player but someone who watched a lot of tennis in the 90’s but now only ever really watches a bit of Wimbeldon, I was fascinated by Sikidelsky’s account of how the game evolved from the serve-and-volley error to today’s baseline based sport.

Some parts of the book however left me skimming through the pages waiting for the chapter to end.  In particular I could have done without the exploration of beauty which felt out of kilter with the rest of the book.

It feels like a very honest book and I suspect writing it served as a form of therapy for Skidelsky who is admirably candid about his own failings and the challenges he has faced.

Overall, the book is an interesting look at the concept of fandom – about how we form deep attachments to sportspeople who don’t know we exist.  The book made me reflect on my own childhood and teenage love of Roy Keane – so much so that I’m now rereading his two autobiographies.   Skidelsky’s descriptions of the pain of watching your chosen hero lose rings very true.  However, the sinking feeling of loss and despair is probably a lot more common for those of us whose main sporting love is Ireland’s international football team than those who follow the world’s greatest ever tennis player!

I like Skidelsky’s writing style a lot and found it a very quick and easy read.  I know I will definitely give a copy to a friend who played competitive tennis and loves Federer.  Outside of that niche however, I find it impossible to predict whether other readers will like it.

So overall an interesting, well-written, book that will work for some but may fell too self-involved and at times to esoteric for others.

Federer

‘Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub’ by Uli Hesse (2016)

When I first started reading sports books that weren’t just focused on Irish or British stories, Tor!: The Story of German Football was one of the first that opened my eyes to the wider world of sports writing.  A detailed and engrossing history of German football, it’s definitely one for the sports history nerd rather than the casual premier league fan (needless to say I loved it).

Surprisingly, Uli Hesse didn’t publish his next book on German football for 13 more years.  Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub tells the history of Bayern Munich, the undisputed biggest club in Germany and one of the true global superclubs that competes for the Champions League (almost) every season.

The club’s origin story is interesting and well-told.  Disgruntled players broke away from the local gymnastics club to ensure football got the attention they felt it deserved.  Of most interest is the clubs early openness to foreigners and its Jewish connections which saw it suffer during Hitler’s reign.  This could have been covered in more detail – especially as it’s not a short book.  Hesse alludes to mixed views on whether Bayern were victims or not and I would definitely like to read more about that period in the clubs history.

Its remarkable to think that Bayern weren’t invited into the inaugural Bundesliga in 1963 but within 10 years had won it 3 times and be about embark on an incredible run of 3 successive European Cups.

Throughout the book, Hesse tracks the key figures who helped turn the club from a normal Bavarian team into a global institution – players, coaches and administrators, and the likes of Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer who played multiple roles with such impact.

One fact that jumps out from the book is the relatively small impact that individual managers/coaches have had on Bayern’s historical development and achievements than players and administrators have had.  For instance, no-one would consider 2 time European Cup winner Dettmar Cramer in the same category as Brian Clough, Pep Guardiola, Alex Ferguson or Arrigo Sacchi – all fellow 2 time European Cup winners who had much greater personal influence and impact on the clubs that they managed.

Hesse approaches the book with the stated aim of being dispassionate about a club that German football fans either love or hate.  He definitely achieves this, and a lot more.  Bayern is meticulously researched and packed full of detail.  It’s a really interesting and enjoyable read.  Like Tor! however it may too full of detail for many readers (and incomprehensibly detailed for those without any past knowledge of Bayern).  Some readers may find there is too much emphasis on match report style recounts of long forgotten matches and others may wish there was more coverage of the recent era.  However, I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes a bit of football history.

Hesse’s latest book, Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund was just published (in English at least) this week and is one I’ll be picking up. 

Bayern