Year in Review – 2022 in sports books ⚾⚽🏀🏈🚴

As the year comes to a close and people are shopping for Christmas presents for the sports book lovers in their lives / themselves, it’s a good time to look back at the year in sports books.

It’s been an incredibly strong year for sports books, especially biographies across a wide number of sports. Below I talk about my favourite books published this year and some recommended by you guys. Also included a list of some of those sports books I haven’t managed to read yet but have been highly recommended.

Let me know your own thoughts in the comments or on twitter. Happy reading.

⚾🏈🏅Multi-sport icons

This year saw two fantastic biographies of iconic figures who excelled in more than one sport. Bo Jackson and Jim Thorpe came from very different eras but both achieved remarkable cultural status as a result of their unique sporting success.

🏈⚾The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson by Jeff Pearlman. Through extensive research and interviewing hundreds of people Pearlman brings to life Bo’s various triumphs and failures as well as capturing the lingering sense of what might have been. This is such an entertaining read I cannot recommend it highly enough. Check out my review.

🏅⚾🏈Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe by David Maraniss. The great biographer has taken a subject who is vaguely known by most Americans and brought him to life in vivid, fascinating detail. Thorpe is presented as both a fabulous athlete and a real person grappling with fame without the financial reward modern superstars enjoy today. An immersive, readable, book on a fascinating, complex and talented sportsman. Check out my review.

🏅Gems you might have missed

Some books are less obvious and visible when not about a popular player or team. Here are two books I really loved this year that aren’t easily categorised but deserve a wide audience.

🚣‍♂️Flares Up: A Story Bigger than the Atlantic by Niamh McAnally. Flares Up is the story of two ordinary men taking on an extreme challenge to row across the Atlantic Ocean. As an account of an interesting challenge undertaken by two relatively ordinary men this is a very good book, but as an examination of life it is a special one. The honesty of the book results in it being an incredibly gripping reflection on fatherhood, on marriage, on motivation and on passion. On who we chose to spend our time with and why we chose to do so. I can’t recommend this highly enough for anyone looking for a gripping, moving, exciting read. Check out my review.

🏅Unsung: Not All Heroes Wear Kits by Alexis James. Very interesting look at some of the behind the scenes roles that allow elite sport to take place. Captures the enthusiasm, passion and professionalism of some very fascinating people. From kit designers to athletics starters and makers of artificial snow, each chapter is fascinating by itself. Together they show just how much dedication and sacrifice is required by those outside the limelight to allow great sporting moments to happen. Unsung is a really well written and enjoyable book. Highly recommend it.

⚽Football

Another year with plenty of great football books. My personal favourites this year were:

⚽ Scheisse! We’re Going Up! The Unexpected Rise of Berlin’s Rebel Football Club by Kit Holden. Scheisse is an absolutely brilliant book. It tells the history and uniqueness of Union Berlin through the eyes of its fans. It captures the very essence of why sport matters, the importance of recognizing that clubs are more than simply entities to be commercialized, and the often overlooked fact that change, while inevitable, does not have to mean the loss of that which was special about what already existed. Check out my full review here

⚽ 1999: Manchester United, the Treble and All That by Matt Dickinson. Recounts Man Utd’s remarkable season in 1998/99 and the thrilling Champions League victory. Dickenson covered the team as a beat reporter that season and has spoken to most of the players again for the book. A really enjoyable read that gets behind-the-scenes and packed with plenty of great anecdotes.

⚽ Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC by Martin Calladine and James Cave. OwnaFC promised to allow football fans the chance to become part owners of a club and have a genuine say in running it for a small up front cost. Sounds too good to be true, because it was. The OwnaFC fraud, and the story of how the authors tried to expose it, frame a broader reflection on the concept of owning a community institution like a football club and the failings of the powers that be, both sporting and political, to protect the interests of fans. This is a brilliant, important book on the value of clubs to their fans + community and the dangers posed by the variety of people seeking to exploit fans.

⚽ Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two Goats, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game by Jonathan Clegg & Joshua Robinson. Above all this book is exceptionally readable. While many of the broad strokes will be familiar to long time football fans, there is enough insight and new reporting here to interest anybody. Highly recommended for anyone looking to relive their glory days during and after their swansong World Cup. Check out my review.

Other 2022 football books well worth checking out:

⚽How Not to Run a Football Club: Protests, Boycotts, Court Cases and the Story of How Blackpool Fans Fought to Save Their Club by Nathan Fogg

⚽USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game by Matthew Evans. Read my review here.

⚽How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers by Chris Evans. Read my review here.

⚾ Baseball

Still sad about the Phillies falling short in the World Series but no better season to remind me how gripping the game can be. Three baseball books really stood out for me this year.

⚾💉Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever by Dan Good. A brilliant account of Caminiti’s compelling, tragic life – a wonderful, heart-breaking, unputdownable book. Made me question how we should consider the lives and legacies of athletes who take PED. Full review here.

 Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original by Howard BryantDefinitive biography of Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, baseball’s epic leadoff hitter and base-stealer. A simply fantastic book.

⚾ Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs by Jason Cannon. Story of the the ebullient and mercurial owner of this historic franchise from 1905 through 1914 during which the Cubs won two World Series. A fascinating biography of Murphy and baseball in the early 1900s.

Other 2002 baseball books well worth checking out:

Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played by Jeff Fletcher. Check out my review.

The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Sam McDowell by Sam McDowell with Martin Gitlin. Check out my full review.

🏀Basketball

It was an exceptionally strong year for basketball books this year. I’ve picked three favourites but plenty of great books that just missed the cut.

🏀 The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and the Meaning of Life by Thomas Pletzinger. Pletzinger, a German novelist and sportswriter, traveled with the Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki for seven years, seeking the secret of his success and longevity. This is a special book. A really great read that captures the uniqueness of Nowitzki, his impact on basketball & Dallas and the sacrifice & dedication required to play at the top level for so long. It works not just as biography but as a story of sporting fame and fandom. Of the symbiotic relationship between a superstar and his city, country and the broad range of people touched by his feats of sporting greatness. A masterpiece of sports biography. Check out my review.

🏀Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks by Chris Herring. Tells the story of the Knicks from the arrival of former Lakers coach Pat Riley in 1991 to the departure of coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2001. Herring brings the central cast of players, coaches, and executives to life in vivid detail but also builds the wider picture of a club, an organization and a wider league. The book strikes a perfect balance of insight, anecdote, game action, and narrative. Check out my review.

🏀Barkley: A Biography by Timothy Bella. As one of the more iconic figures in basketball both during and after his career, Charles Barkley has fascinated, entertained, annoyed and informed generations of basketball fans. This book is packed full of interesting anecdotes and insight and delicately balances the dual aims of being short enough to remain entertaining while also being long enough to capture the fullness of Barkley’s life. Check out my review.

Other 2022 basketball books well worth checking out:

🏀The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality by Mike Sielski. Reviewed here.

🏀Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski by Ian O’Connor. Reviewed here.

🏀The Last Enforcer by Charles Oakley (with Frank Isola)

🏀Muggsy: Life from a Kid in the Projects to the Godfather of Small Ball by Muggsy Bogues (with Jacob Utitti)

🏈 NFL / American Football

🏈Walking Alone: The Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington by Dan Taylor. Kenny Washington is most famous for breaking the unofficial colour barrier in the NFL as the first black player to play in the league in 13 years. Walking Alone is a comprehensive and excellent biography shining a light on remarkable talent and the impact Washington had. Read my full review here.

🏈 Hometown Victory: A Coach’s Story of Football, Fate, and Coming Home’ by Keanon Lowe with Justin Spitzman. The story of a remarkable young coach who channeled his own grief into helping an underfunded, disadvantaged, high-school football team to find hope and purpose on the playing field and in life. A very enjoyable, inspiring book. Check out my full review here.

🏈Seventeen and Oh: Miami, 1972, and the NFL’s Only Perfect Season by Marshall Jon Fisher. Fifty years on from the Miami Dolphins historic perfect season, Fisher has recounted the story of the season, the players, the coach, the city and the country. Seventeen and Oh is a very enjoyable, entertaining read – sports writing at its very finest. Highly recommend it for any NFL fan. Check out my full review here.

Other American Football books well worth checking out:

🏈 Freezing Cold Takes: NFL: Football Media’s Most Inaccurate Predictions—and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them by Fred Segal. Reviewed here.

🏈 The Rise of the Black Quarterback: What it Means for America by Jason Reid

🏈 Spies on the Sideline by Kevin Bryant.

🥊 Boxing

Boxing, with its cruel, brutal, beautiful nature, lends itself to great writing. My favourite boxing books this year were:

🥊The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison by Carlos Acevedo. Morrison may be best known to many as the guy who played Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. Ultimately, Morrison’s life and career would twist and turn is ways both unexpected and tragic. The Duke is above all an exceptional work of biography. Acevedo’s achievement is to tell the story in a way that is riveting but not lurid, gripping but not eulogizing. The Duke is unputdownable in a way non-fiction rarely is. It grips you and submerges you in a narrative that is riveting, comic, and ultimately tragic. Check out my review here.

🥊Muhammad Ali: Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness by Dave Hannigan. A brilliant look at Ali’s post-boxing life. Captures both his unique fame and his charisma and courage in the face of declining health. The third of three great books on Ali by Dave Hannigan. Full review here.

🥊Fighting for Survival: My Journey Through Boxing Fame, Abuse, Murder, and Resurrection by Christy Martin with Ron Borges. A passionate, heartbreaking and compelling autobiography from the pioneering boxer. Much like Martin’s fighting style, ‘Fighting for Survival’ is powerful and holds nothing back. She writes as she fought – by laying all her cards on the table and scoring a knockout success. Full review here.

🥊 Warrior: A Champion’s Incredible Search for His Identity by Tris Dixon. A biography of boxer Matthew Saad Muhammad by the author of the excellent Damages. I’ve only just started this but I’m confident enough in it’s quality already to include it in the list.

🚴Cycling

Two cycling books really stood out for me this year (and are reviewed in more detail here).

🚴Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was by Daniel Friebe. Ullrich may be best remembered these days as the guy who kept finishing second, usually to Lance Armstrong, on the Tour de France. This is a comprehensive, gripping biography of a fascinating athlete. Friebe has gotten as close as possible to presenting a comprehensive portrait of an athlete and a man who, despite his flaws, has always been compelling and strangely likeable. The Best There Never Was is an exceptionally good biography and a very enjoyable read for any cycling fan.

🚴Le Fric: Family, Power and Money: The Business of the Tour de France by Alex Duff. An entertaining and comprehensive history of the Tour’s ownership, its business model, and the family that controls it. Le Fric is a fascinating work of history but it is also strong when reflecting on more modern changes to the Tour as a business and wider, so far largely unsuccessful, attempts to reform cycling’s structure more generally. An excellent addition to any fan’s cycling library.

⛳ Golf

⛳ ‘Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar’ by Alan Shipnuck. Packed full of anecdotes which present two contrasting sides of Mickelson – money obsessed yet incredibly generous, trash talker yet supportive of new pros, self-obsessed yet capable of great empathy. Overall ‘Phil’ is a very entertaining and enjoyable read.

Books I haven’t managed to read yet but I’ve heard are great

Sadly even I can’t read every sports book I want to in the year. Here are a bunch of books that I haven’t gotten to yet but have heard great things about. Most are on the Christmas book wish list.

⚽ Johan Cruyff: Always on the Attack by Auke Kok. The first comprehensive English language bio of the legendary Dutchman since his death.

⚽ Two Brothers by Jonathan Wilson. A dual-biography of Jack and Bobby Charlton, World Cup winning brothers in the 1966 England team.

The Game: A Journey Into the Heart of Sport by Tadhg Coakley. A reflection on the importance of sport and its’ pervasive influence, good and bad, on humanity. Hugely positive reviews from readers whose taste I trust very much.

🏈 Moving the Chains: The Civil Rights Protest that Saved the Saints and Transformed New Orleans by Erin Grayson Sapp. The untold story of the backroom deal that gave rise to the New Orleans Saints.

⚽ When Two Worlds Collide: The Intercontinental Cup Years by Dan Williamson. Book on the annual match between Europe and South America’s champion football teams by the author of the excellent Blue and Gold Passion.

⚽ When the Circus Leaves Town by David Proudlove. A look at the what happens when football teams move. Most recommended by my twitter followers.

🏉 Unforgettable: Rugby, Dementia and the Fight of My Life by Steve Thompson. A lot of love for this book on my twitter feed.

🚴‍♂️God is Dead: The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke by Andy McGrath. Story of the handsome mercurial Belgian cycling prodigy Frank Vandenbroucke who won a number of prestigious races but ultimately lived faster than he raced.

🏅Running and Jumping: Three Olympics, Two Men, One Rivalry by Steven Kedie. Fictional account of two athletes rivalry.

Hope the list has given you some good reading suggestions / Christmas present ideas. Let me know in the comments what your favourite 2022 sports books were. Happy reading!

World Cup books

I tweeted last week about my lack of enthusiasm for the 2022 World Cup compared to previous iterations of the tournament and the responses I got made it pretty clear lots of you guys will be feeling a bit ‘blah’ about it too. Between the horrific treatment of workers, the corruption, and the winter timing it just feels off. So… I figure it’s a good time to seek out some World Cup related books and rekindle that joy! What follows is a fairly unstructured list of World Cups worth seeking out.

I hope to put out my list of sports books coming next year within the next week or two. It’s always my most popular post each year so keep an eye out for that. Happy reading!

Tournament specific books

We all have a favourite World Cup. Usually you were 10 years old or your country did really well (or both). Either way, why not relive it with a great book on the tournament (or a specific team at the tournament) and a YouTube deep dive. Here are some books on individual World Cups that are worth checking out.

1950 – The Game of Their Lives: The Untold Story of the World Cups Biggest Upset by Geoffrey DouglasThe story of the ragtag group of players on the US team that shocked the world by beating England at the 1950 World Cup. Interesting read.

1954 – While not specifically on that tournament, the best material on the remarkable German victory is in Uli Hesse’s superlative Tor! The Story of German Football. An updated version of this wonderful book was published this year by Polaris Press.

1958 – Spirit of ‘58: The incredible untold story of Northern Ireland’s greatest football team by Evan Marshall (pub. 2016). Really enjoyable team about the team led by Danny Blanchflower and includes interviews with interviews with all the surviving players.

1962 – While not specifically about the tournament, it’s a handy way for me to recommend Garrincha: the triumph and tragedy of Brazilian’s forgotten footballing hero by Ruy Castro & translated by Andrew Downie (pub. 2004). One of the best football biographies ever and gives good insight on the 58 and 62 World Cup winning Brazilian teams.

1966 – Surprisingly, there isn’t a definitive book on the 1966 World Cup or maybe as an Irishman I just couldn’t bring myself to read too much about England winning it! A lot of the players have written autobiographies that cover this of course, and Bobby Charlton wrote a book specifically about the tournament.

1970 – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Inside Story of the Legendary 1970 World Cup by Andrew Downie (pub. 2021). This is a fantastic history of arguably the greatest team ever to play in a World Cup. Downie, author of the excellent Dr. Socrates book, uses new interviews and deep research to tell the story of the tournament in compelling detail. Really enjoyable book.

1974 – Beautiful Bridesmaids Dressed in Oranje: The Unfulfilled Glory of Dutch Football by Gary Thacker (pub 2021). A really enjoyable look at the great Dutch teams who lost the finals in both 1974 and 1978.

1978 – Blood on the Crossbar: The Dictatorship’s World Cup by Rhys Richards. The story of Argentina’s hosting of the 1978 World Cup while ruled by a military dictatorship and the protests that accompanied. Pretty relevant this year given this year’s host. On my reading list for the next few books but have heard great things.

1982 – 1982 Brazil: The Glorious Failure by Stuart Horsfield. The story the of the (arguably) best side not to win the World Cup. The book traces the development of the team from the 1970 winning team through Pele’s retirement and the preparations for the tournament. As much as it is about the 1982 Brazil team though, it’s also very much about the author’s personal experience of watching them as a young lad. Horsfield captures the magic, the awe, the sheer giddiness of the World Cup seen through a young fan’s eyes.

1982 – We Made Them Angry: Scotland at the World Cup Spain 1982 by Tom Brogan. Scotland’s third time in a row qualifying for a World Cup – but it still didn’t go very well!

1982 – Out of the Shadows: The Story of the 1982 England World Cup Team by Gary JordanAn in-depth look at England’s return to the tournament after shockingly missing out on the 1974 and 1978 tournaments.

1986 – In the Heat of the Midday Sun: The Indelible Story of the 1986 World Cup by Steven Scragg. This is on my reading list for the next few weeks. Scragg’s other books on European Club competitions are great so I’ve no hesitation recommending this one without having yet read it.

1986 – Touched By God: How We Won the Mexico 86 World Cup by Diego Maradona (pub 2017). 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. Half the book is score settling with former Argentina coach Bilardo and former captain Daniel Passeralla – with a little bit of spite left over for ‘that heartless turkey’ Platini.

1990 – Days of Heaven: Italia 90 and the Charlton Years by Declan Lynch (pub 2010). Captures so much of what it means to be an Ireland fan –  the dread, the worry, the hope and the brief unbelievable moments of joy. Lynch also captures the Ole Ole nature of away trips where its as much about the journey and the story as it is the football – although he is probably more critical of such jollies than I am.

1990 – All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ’90 by Pete Davies. Davies spent 9 months with the England team and gives a first hand-account of the tournament. A sensational book.

1990 – World in Motion: The Inside Story of Italia ‘90 The Tournament that Changed Football by Simon Hart. It zooms in on interesting aspects and stories form the tournament to explore the full global impact of the 1990 World Cup.

1990 – New Kids in the World Cup: The Totally Late ‘80s and Early 90s Tale of the the Team that changed American Soccer Forever by Adam Elder. Recently published book looking a the USA’s team in 1990. Really detailed and enjoyable read.

1994 – USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game by Matthew Evans (pub. 2022). I found this book to be a very enjoyable nostalgia trip. It was a tournament of great number 10’s – Baggio, Hagi, Stoichkov, Brolin – of great defenders – McGrath, Baresi, Maldini – and of great goals. Its key moments are burned into my memory from countless replays of All the Goals of USA 94 on VHS. To relive them in this enjoyable, informative and well written book was a real pleasure.

1994 – Andy’s Game: The Inside Story of the World Cup by Andy Townsend with Paul Kimmage (pub. 1994). A contemporaneous account of Ireland’s tournament.

1998 – Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France by Laurent Dubois (pub 2010). A look at France’s success in 1998 and the significance of it’s team being made up of the descendants of immigrants to France. Zooms in on Zidane and Thuram in particular.

2006 and 2010 – I’m not aware of any particular books looking at these tournaments in detail. Let me know if I’m missing out on any!

2002 – When Asia Welcomed the World: The 2002 World Cup Revisited by Danny Lewis. A look back at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea (I’ll always maintain Ireland could have won it!). On my reading list for the next few weeks.

2014 – Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World. A really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  It looks behind to scenes to identify how German football changed from a defensively minded game to the remarkable attacking football that led Germany to the 2014 World Cup.   The book gives fantastic insight in the philosophical debate for the soul of German football that was sparked by terrible tournaments in 1998 and 2000 and led to a revolution in youth coaching. 

2018 – Sacre Bleu: From Zidane to Mbappe– A Football Journey by Matthew Spiro. A really great book tracing the period between France’s two World Cup wins, 1998 and 2018.

2018 – How Football (Nearly) Came Home: Adventures in Putin’s World Cup by Barney Ronay. Ronay’s account of covering the World Cup in Russia and England’s surprise trip to the semi-finals.

Books on FIFA corruption:

Some very good books have helped expose the rot at the heart of the game’s global governing body.

  • Foul!: the Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals by Andrew Jennings. Jennings has been the most consistent voice attacking FIFA for years – Foul came out in 2006!
  • Fall of the House of FIFA: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer,” by David Conn.
  • Red Card: FIFA and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports by Ken Bensinger
  • The Ugly Game: The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup by Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake

Other World Cup reads

  • The Story of the World Cup by Brian Glanville. The definitive book on World Cup history for me. The great Glanville covered so many tournaments live and a great starting point for a World Cup reading journey.
  • The Nearly Men: The Eternal Allure of the Greatest Teams that Failed to Win the World Cup by Aidan Williams. A look at those teams that lived in the memory if not the record books.
  • How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers by Chris Evans (pub 2022). A broad look at some of the highs, lows and adventures of managing in the international game. The book is a study in how to manage an international team, a history of some of the World Cups more interesting moments but also a reflection on why international football is so special.
  • Men in Blazers Present Gods of Soccer: The Pantheon of the 100 Greatest Soccer Players (According to Us). A fun list of the all time greats from the popular US soccer podcast and TV hosts.
  • Dark Goals: How History’s Worst Tyrants Have Used and Abused the Game of Soccer by Luciano Wernicke (pub 2022). Deeply researched, packed with interesting insight, and full of sources not typically seen in English language football books.
  • Incredible World Cup Stories: Wildest Tales and Most Dramatic Moments from Uruguay 1930 to Qatar 2022 by Luciano Wernicke. A really enjoyable collection of world cup stories and anecdotes. On it’s 3rd edition now.
  • World Cup Nuggets: Everything You Need To Know About The World Cup by Richard Foster.
  • Against All the Odds: The Greatest World Cup Upsets – a compilation of articles with contributions from some fantastic writers.
  • No Longer Naïve by Ibrahim Mustapha. A really enjoyable read on how African team’s have performed in World Cup finals.
  • The Voyageurs: The Canadian Men’s Soccer Team’s Quest to Reach the World Cup by Joshua Kloke. One to read for this tournament as it looks at the current Canadian team and their successful qualifying campaign.
  • Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup by Fernando DuarteVery enjoyable history of Brazilian football. Examining the most successful team in history by focusing on their lowest moments, Durate paints a convincing narrative of the impact each of these games had on shaping the team.

This should be enough books to keep you busy for the month! Let me know of any I missed or your own favourites. Happy reading!

‘How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers’ by Chris Evans (2022)

I love international football. Champions League and Premier League may often see a higher standard of play, and some of the qualifying games can be boringly one-sided, but for me the international game will always trump club football. It is also fundamentally different in terms of the challenge it poses coaches and managers compared to the club game. How to Win the World Cup examines the sport through the experiences of those drawn to this challenge and this challenge has attracted a vast array of people – from globe-trotting unknowns to high profile names.

How to Win the World Cup is a broad look at some of the highs, lows and adventures of managing in the international game. It poses a simple question – what does it take to be successful in managing an international team at every level up to and including reaching the very pinnacle and winning the World Cup.

Evans has spoken to an impressive and eclectic cast of characters with vast experience in the international game. The quality and calibre of those who offer their perspectives in the book really make it stand out, It captures the dedication, commitment, creativity and sheer bloody-mindedness needed to make a proper go of managing an international team. By weaving their insights and anecdotes with countless stories and scandals it serves as a study in how to manage an international team, a history of some of the World Cups more interesting moments but also a reflection on why international football is so special.

For those who, like me, are less enthusiastic than usual about this morally compromised winter World Cup, the book is a fun way to immerse yourself in memories of previous tournaments

‘Barkley: A Biography’ by Timothy Bella (2022)

Sometimes a new sports bio comes along and you wonder how come a great bio of that athlete hasn’t appeared yet. As one of the more iconic figures in basketball both during and after his career, Charles Barkley has fascinated, entertained, annoyed and informed generations of basketball fans. While he wrote an autobiography, Barkley has admitted to never reading it and even claimed he was misquoted in his own book! This book is the biography that such an interesting figure merits.

Barkley (the book) is a conventional biography that explores its’ subject’s life in detail. The book is at its most interesting in telling Charles’ childhood and college days and the struggles he overcame to find his purpose through basketball. It presents a balanced reflection of Barkley, the good and bad and looks at his career both on and off the court. It’s packed full of interesting anecdotes and insight and delicately balances the dual aims of being short enough to remain entertaining while also being long enough to capture the fullness of Barkley’s life.

Bella, a deputy editor at the Washington Post, was also the lead researcher for hugely successful biographies from from Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict – the excellent “Tiger” and “The System. Those books both stood out through the meticulous amount of research that went into them. Bella has clearly adopted a similar approach and I can’t think of better praise than saying the book ranks alongside those other two as a really enjoyable sports book.

‘Messi Vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game’ Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson (2022)

Everyone knows Messi and Ronaldo. Most readers of this review will know their origin stories, their achievements and their legends. Many, like me, will have been fortunate to see them both play in person. Some will have read bios of both or even previous dual-bios of the pair (like the enjoyable 2018 book by Jimmy Burns).

Given all that, I was a little hesitant to pick this up, but did so based on the quality of Clegg and Robinson’s previous book The Club which examined the business story behind the founding and success of the English Premier League. I hoped they would take a similar approach to examine the impact of Messi and Ronaldo on the sport off the pitch as much as on it and I was not disappointed. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read.

Messi v Ronaldo avoids retelling the details of the players careers in any level of detail. Instead it tells their story with a focus more broadly on how football and individual clubs evolved both as a sport and a business during their careers. It zooms in on the key actors – Jorge Mendes the agent, Messi’s own father Jorge, and Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez especially – looking at how they shaped the changing football landscape and how these changes arose because of, or were shaped by, Messi and Ronaldo themselves. Of most interest is the behind the scenes insights into how certain transfers happened or how people reacted to well known events.

Clegg and Robinson ultimately present the two players as hugely powerful entities in their own rights who impacted the entire operations of the clubs they played for. While they won buckets of trophies, the ultimately didn’t leave clubs in positions of long term strength and their enduring legacy may be their part in the rise of the idea that a superstar can be bigger and more powerful than any one club in the social media age.

The strength of the book is the author’s journalistic talents and their eye for telling a compelling story. It is clear a vast amount of research went into the book which ensures it is packed with insight. The ability to zoom in on specific moments or trends helps the book to avoid being a conventional (dual) biography.

Above all the book is exceptionally readable. While many of the broad strokes will be familiar to long time football fans, their is enough insight and new reporting here to interest anybody. Highly recommended for anyone looking to relive their glory days ahead of their swansong World Cup this winter.

‘The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson’ by Jeff Pearlman (2022)

Some books you just know are going to be great. Every sports book by Jeff Pearlman is a must-read for me ever since first picking up ‘The Bad Guys Won’ years ago. Pearlman writes as only a great storyteller can – witty, funny, informative, and always insightful. Ever since watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary You Don’t Know Bo I have wanted to find a great book on Bo Jackson. Combine great writer and great subject and you get a book even better than expectations. It is quite simply a joy, as entertaining and enjoyable a sports book as you will find.

For those of us too young to have seen him play, Bo Jackson is a figure who is shrouded by mystery. An athlete of near unlimited potential, college football superstar whose pro-career in both baseball and football lives on more in memories and snippets than in medals and trophies.

Pearlman has captured Bo through the eyes of those who witnessed his sporting feats. Through extensive research and interviewing hundreds of people he brings to life Bo’s various triumphs and failures as well as capturing the lingering sense of what might have been. Pearlman leans in on the semi-mythological nature of Bo’s lingering fame – the fact that so many of his most outlandish moments came before the age when everything was recorded. While we video of so many of Bo’s enough remarkable feats to athleticism, the highlights of the book are those that only a lucky few saw and decades later still recall with awe.

The Last Folk Hero also captures Bo’s status as a pop culture icon. The level of fame he reached outstripped his achievements as a pro and his less charismatic personality. His uniqueness as an athlete capable of moments of unrivalled athletic ability created an aura and enthusiasm that

Bo himself remains something of a mystery. Unlike some bio’s this isn’t a forensic investigation of who Bo is a person. Instead it’s a retelling of the legend of Bo Jackson the athlete, the pop culture sensation, the icon. The parts of Bo we do see present a balanced view of a man living an extraordinary life. Pearlman captures moments of great heart and humanity as well as moments of arrogance and ego.

This is such an entertaining read I cannot recommend it highly enough. It captures something wonderful about why we watch sport and why mere mortals want to see feats of seemingly superhuman athleticism. Read it, enjoy it and fire up YouTube along the way.

🏅⚾🏈’Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe’ by David Maraniss (2022)

How comprehensive should a biography be? How much detail is needed and desired to get a full picture of someone’s life and impact? I fall on what I’d call the Robert Caro side of the fence – if someone’s life is worthy of study and is told by the right biographer, more detail can only enrich the book. David Maraniss is unquestionably a master biographer who ranks up there with Caro as a perfectionist who turns extensive painstaking research into exceptional biographies. When Pride Still Mattered, Maraniss’ biography of the great Vince Lombardi is, for me, the gold standard of the sporting biography.

In Path Lit by Lightning, Maraniss has turned his pen to Jim Thorpe, arguably the legendary figure in American sports history. Olympic decathlon gold medalist, All-American college football star, Hall of Fame pro-footballer, you’d be forgiven for forgetting he also played Major League Baseball. He was a man so talented that he would help to launch the NFL and make those who piggybacked on his talent, like Carlisle coach Pop Warner, famous in the process.

Thorpe’s life however was far from straight forward. He suffered the indignities common to his fellow Sac and Fox Nation members, dealt with the deep racism of his time, and was unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals for the crime of playing minor league baseball. After his stint at Carlisle industrial school, Thorpe spent most of his life shuttling from from town to town to join various teams in different sports or to escape one failed business ventures after another past. He endured, and his legacy has survived even more so.

Like the best biographies, Path Lit by Lightning is also the story of the era in which Thorpe lived. It captures many of the challenges faced by Native Americans, even the most famous of them all. It is a damning history of the sports establishment of the time, the industrial school approach towards Native Americans and the hypocrisy of the Olympic movement.

Maraniss has taken a subject who is vaguely known by most Americans and brought him to life in vivid, fascinating detail. Thorpe is presented as both a fabulous athlete and a real person grappling with fame without the financial reward he would enjoy today. Path Lit by Lightning is a fantastic edition to any sports library, an immersive, readable, book on a fascinating, complex and talented sportsman.

⚾’Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played’ by Jeff Fletcher (2022)

There is something that is intensely appealing about sportsmen and women who are world class at such different things to be able to play two sports or two wildly different positions at a high professional level. Like a goalkeeper taking free kicks in soccer, a pitcher who can bat with the best of the sluggers thrills the inner child in every sports fan. Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, the Japanese player who can bat and pitch at an All-Star level is therefore a player I can’t help but love.

Sho-time tells the story of Ohtani’s life and career so far tracing his early days in Japan, his injury troubles and his remarkable 2021 season. The book faces two challenges in telling Ohtani’s story – he rarely speaks about himself and he is still only 28 and therefore has many years ahead of him. Fletcher overcomes these obstacles by having exceptional access to the Angels front office and details the story behind his signing and the competition to get him with interesting insider information.

Fletcher also expands the books scope to examine broad topics which Ohtani personifies – the history of dual position players, the changing nature of the game, and the broader link between Japan and Major League Baseball. These aspects of the book were particularly interesting to me.

The definitive book on Ohtani will be written when his career is over and the impact of his remarkable talent is clearer. For now, Sho-time is a very enjoyable look at the origins and initial impact of this singular player.

🏈’Walking Alone: The Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington’ by Dan Taylor

Kenny Washington is most famous for breaking the unofficial colour barrier in the NFL as the first black player to play in the league in 13 years. Walking Alone is a comprehensive biography of Washington which demonstrates how that achievement, impressive as it was, barely scratches the surface of Washington’s remarkable talent.

Washington grew up in LA and was a phenom at both football and baseball. He became a legendary tailback at UCLA (at a time when there were only 25 black players in college football) as well as a leading baseball player for the Bruins. Many believed he was an even better ball player than his teammate Jackie Robinson, including Robinson himself, and could easily have been the first, and almost was the second, player to integrate baseball. He was 27 and injured by the time the LA Rams signed him in 1946, but given his talent, had he been able to play sooner, he may have gone down in history as one of the the greatest professional footballers of all time. He was also a movie star appearing in a number of movies both before and after his time in pro football.

Most remarkable is just how talented Washington was. His performances, combined with a winning personality, gave him a huge following and fanbase at UCLA and beyond. His superiority and popularity was so great that the the racism he faced could only hold him back but not fully defeat him. The absurdity of the best player in the sport having to play in minor leagues was a major factor in the NFL finally lifting its unofficial ban on black players. His example helped embolden other US sports to follow suit and integrate.

Dan Taylor has written a comprehensive and excellent biography shining a light on remarkable talent and the impact Washington had as well as the challenges and racism he overcame. It brilliantly captures the American sporting landscape of the late 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and the difficulties of black athletes at the time. Walking Alone is well researched, well written and an enjoyable engaging read.

🏈🕵️’Spies on the Sideline: The High Stakes World of NFL Espionage’ by Kevin Bryant (2022)

Two of the qualities that are most noticeable in sports books are the depth of research carried out and the passion of the author for the subject. On both of these qualities Spies on the Sideline scores incredibly highly. The book is a detailed, well-researched look at how NFL teams gather information through both conventional and unorthodox means. Bryant is a former Special Agent with decades of experience collecting and safeguarding information for the Department of Defense. He has combined his professional experience with a passion for American football into a very interesting book.

The book presents the myriad ways in which NFL teams seek to gain intel and seek to prevent other teams from doing the same. Bryant recounts countless anecdotes gleamed from a tremendous volume of research as to just how far teams, coaches, owners and others are willing to go to get even a tiny edge to win football games. Most fascinating is how far back many of the stories go, showing the determination to win at all costs existed long before NFL became a multi-billion dollar business. Stories about the Bears v Packers rivalry, Al Davies’ many antics, and the Patriots under Belichick (obviously) are plentiful in particular.

While the book provides a fascinating insight into what modern scouting and analysis entails, unsurprisingly it is at its most interesting when discussing the less legitimate ways teams gather information. As well as telling countless stories, Bryant analyses and brings his own expertise and that of industry professionals in highlighting the steps taken by teams to counter intelligence gathering efforts.

Bryant’s passion for the subject shines through on every page. It results in a fascinating book that provides a unique angle on an aspect of professional football that typically goes undiscussed (until the next time the Patriots get caught!).

Spies on the Sidelines is published by Rowman & Littlefield on 13 July 2022.