‘1982 Brazil: The Glorious Failure’ by Stuart Horsfield

What is success in football? It seems that there is an obvious answer. Winning. But if this book was titled 2002 Brazil I wouldn’t have felt the giddy anticipation when beginning it. The 1982 Brazil side didn’t even make the World Cup semi-final. Yet, despite the fact I didn’t arrive in the world until 2 years later, they hold a mystique and allure for me that their more successful successors lack.

1982 Brazil tells the story the of the (arguably) best side not to win the World Cup. This is a definitive account of a team stocked with legendary players who captured the world’s imagination if not its ultimate prize.

The detail is fascinating and Horsfield brilliantly sets the broader context of Brazilian football and society at the time. He traces the development of the team from the 1970 winning team through Pele’s retirement and the preparations for the tournament.

If that was all this book was it would still be a really good read. The book stands out however for the personal context in which it is set. Because as much as it is about the 1982 Brazil team, it’s also very much about the author’s personal experience as a young boy of watching them. Horsfield captures the magic, the awe, the sheer giddiness of the World Cup seen through a young fan’s eyes. All football fans have the first World Cup they truly remember experiencing. It usually happened around 8 to 12 years old when, for 3 or 4 weeks, you got to experience the indescribable magic of watching the best footballers play in a competition which meant more than anything else you could imagine. Very few writers have the skill to capture that magic in the way Horsfield has.

1982 Brazil is simply a joy to read. Packed with nostalgia, insight, and trivia, it fully lived up to my exceedingly high expectations. Beware the list of YouTube links at the end of the book though. Click just one highlights video and it sucks you in and consumes hours and hours and hours!

Also worth a mention that Horsfield is a senior writer for These Football Times, a website and magazine I absolutely love. On moving country recently I left my collection of their magazines with a friend and I really miss them!

Magical

‘From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football’s Nearly Men’ compiled and edited by Adam Bushby and Rob MacDonald (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

As with every other aspect of life, 2020 refuses to follow the normal rules. So it’s only fitting that this year should see the publication of a football book celebrating those occasions when great teams fell short of their ultimate ambitions whether by bad luck, bad planning or because the team ceased to exist!

From the Jaws of Victory is a collection of essays from a variety of excellent football writers each one focusing on particular team which fell short of their ultimate goal. The essays range in style from deeply personal reflections to historical inquiry and wistful thoughts of what might have been. They range in time from Bolton Wanderers in 1953 to Steven Gerard’s slip for Liverpool in 2013/14.

I particularly enjoyed the essays that looked beyond British football including a very personal piece on the Fiorentina 98/99 team (glorious memories of Football Italia), the treble runner-up’s Bayer Leverkusen team of 2001-02, the Romanian team of USA 1994 (Hagi!) and my favourite essay on what may have been had Yugoslavia remained a single country until after USA ’94.

The quality of the writers shines through and like the best collections, the sum of the book is even greater than its parts (a testament to the editors, who are the team behind @magicspongers on twitter). Overall, this is a very enjoyable read that collectively captures some of the magic of football. As an fan of the Ireland football teams knows, its those moments of hope, just as much as the exceedingly rare moments of actual joy, that keep us coming back for more.

This is also a great companion piece to a separate essay collection published this year, Losers, which reflected on the meaning of defeat in sport.

Don’t worry it’s not just about England 🙂

‘The Breath of Sadness: On Love, Grief and Cricket’ by Ian Ridley (2020)

I genuinely do not know how to review this book.

The Breath of Sadness is a book about grief. While it’s also about country cricket – the domestic multi-day format of cricket which has been gradually declining as shorter forms gain in popularity – it is mostly about Ian Ridley dealing with the loss of his wife Vikki Orvice, a talented and much loved sports writer.

Ostensibly the book is about the role cricket played in Ridley trying to deal with his grief. As the book says, attending the sport gave Ridley a destination, an activity, a peaceful place where he could grieve. As he put it, it allowed him to be “in solitude with but humanity still at hand. If I wanted, I could be distracted by the game going on in front of me, by its subtleties unfolding”.

Mostly however the book is a love letter to Ridley’s wife Vikki. I have to confess not being hugely familiar with her work (I don’t read the Sun newspaper which she worked for). While reading the book I regularly searched for previous pieces of her work and it is clear that the tributes she was paid for her writing talent are thoroughly deserved. It’s also clear from Ridley’s words that she was even more remarkable as a person.

I really feel I’m not doing the book justice here. It brought tears to my eyes at least 3 times while reading it. More than once I had to put it down. It is raw in the truest sense of the word. It is raw in a way that is difficult to read at times but written with a style and a talent that makes you eager to continue. It is also honest in a way that is as rare as it is refreshing.

We read books for lots of reasons – entertainment, light relief, intellectual curiosity and so much more. It is a rare book that makes you look at your loved ones a little differently, makes you appreciate them that little bit more, makes you grateful for them that little bit more.

The Breath of Sadness is not the type of book I normally read. While it captures something special about the shared experience of sport it is much more than that. It’s a heartbreaking book but a remarkable one.

‘Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties: The Life and Times of a Boxing Icon’ by Thomas Myler (2020)

Despite reading a (possibly worryingly) large number of boxing books, the life of Jack Dempsey was one I hadn’t read about in any great depth. While the name is intimately to familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in boxing, the details of his life and career are likely less well known.

In Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties Thomas Myler recounts Dempsey’s story. It really is a remarkable tale with Dempsey beginning as a homeless bar fighter traversing the country by railway. Eventually he would punch his way to the top of the sport and become an iconic figure at a time when the heavyweight champion of the world was one of the most famous men alive. As the title suggests, the book does a superb job of placing Dempsey in his time and place and brings both the era and the man vividly to life.

Myler is a well-known and talented boxing writer and historian who has interviewed pretty much everyone there is to interview in boxing. What makes this book a great combination of subject and writer is that Myler had the privilege of interviewing Dempsey before he died which adds an authenticity to the book which is rare in one looking back so far into the past. Many of Dempsey’s fights are subject to conspiracy theories and rumours, none more so than his first title fight in 1919 and his last fight against Gene Tunney. Myler does a great job in separating fact from fiction and presenting Dempsey’s story as he sees it. A fine addition to any boxing fan’s library.

‘The Man of All Talents: The Extraordinary Life of Douglas Duggy Clark’ by Steven Bell (2020)

Outside the realm of die-hard rugby league and wrestling history buffs, Duggy Clark is an unknown figure. Within the history of those sports in Britain Clark is a legend. He was among the pioneers of rugby league, championships with Huddersfield and England, and earning a place in the sports Hall of Fame. He was also a champion wrestler (the grappling kind, not the WWE kind!).

Steven Bell, a Huddersfield native, has colourfully and entertainingly brought Clark’s remarkable story to life. The level of research is remarkable, including significant contemporaneous sources and Clark’s own diaries and memoirs. Bell paints a colourful story piece by piece while also placing events in their historical context.

The writing style is unusual for non-fiction, often reading in the style of historical fiction rather than a classic biography. At times I did find myself wondering where the line between pure history and creative licence was exactly but this does nothing to take away from the enjoyment of the book.

Overall this is a fascinating, unique book with a particular appeal to fans of both sports in which Clark excelled. More broadly however it is also a fascinating story told in a captivating manner.

I haven’t read Bell’s previous sports book From Triumph to Tragedy: The Chapecoense Story, about the Brazilian soccer team left devastated by a plane crash, but am definitely adding it to the to read pile!

‘The Greatest: The Times and Life of Beryl Burton’ by William Fotheringham (2020)

Beryl Burton is undoubtedly the greatest cyclist I had never heard of. Her palmarès is up there with anyone else and includes 7 world championship gold medals. (As an aside, I absolutely love that when you google palmarès the first link is to Sean Kelly’s wiki page). Other ridiculous achievements including breaking the men’s 2-hour time trial record and basically every women’s record you can think of.

William Fotheringham’s work will be well known to any fan of cycling books (along with his brother Alasdair). Two of his earlier books, Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson and Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi remain among my absolute favourites.

The Greatest is therefore that brilliant combination of the perfect biographer for a fascinating subject. Fotheringham tells the full story of Burton’s life in detail for the first time. She emerges as incredibly driven and forthright – someone who wanted to compete against and to beat all comers, whether that be men or her own daughter! She managed to overcome a serious childhood illness and compete at the highest level despite holding down a job that required hard manual labour.

Like all of Fotheringham’s biographies, The Greatest is exceptionally well researched and paints a clear, uncompromising picture of its subject and the times she lived in. He also covers the sexism Burton and any other female cyclists faced during the time.

Ultimately, The Greatest is an attempt to give Burton the historical recognition she deserves. It’s highly readable and a welcome collection to any cycling fans library.

The greatest cyclist you’ve never heard of

‘Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Laker Dynasty’ by Jeff Pearlman (2020)

A new Jeff Pearlman book is always something to savour. I really enjoyed his various biographies, especially his recent Gunslinger on Brett Farve. However, his in-depth deep dives into iconic sports teams (both on and off the field of play) are among the very best sports books.

Pearlman previously chronicled the Magic Johnson / Pat Riley led LA Lakers in the excellent Showtime. It’s the definitive book on the Showtime Lakers era.

Three-Ring Circus sees Pearlman return to familiar territory of an LA Lakers championship winning team. The book tells the story of next 1996 to 2004 Lakers as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson combined to create a 3 time champion team.

Shaq of that era emerges as a loveable figure both in the public imagination, to strangers and to anyone who showed him love and respect. The book is full of stories of Shaq’s remarkable kindness but it also paints a picture of a man who knew his own value and for whom being loved / respected was all important.

Jackson remained steadfastly himself during his time in LA, a character familiar to anyone who remembers his remarkable achievements with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He was an unorthodox coach, unloved by his fellow coaches and unafraid to hustle for jobs that weren’t vacant. He was also an incredibly successful man-manger and possibly the only coach who could have wrangled Shaq and Kobe into working together for the benefit of the team.

While all three men share central billing, inevitably, due to his fame, personality and talent, Kobe Bryant sits firmly at the centre of this story. Pearlman pulled no punches in presenting Bryant how his peers experienced him during this time. The Kobe Bryant portrayed in Three-Ring Circus is deeply unlikeable yet also admirable in his determination and work ethic. A man you wouldn’t want to spend time with but one who was destined to be successful.

It’s clear throughout the book that most of Pearlman’s interviewees spoke to him before Bryant’s tragic death. It’s a little jarring to read such an honest and unflattering portrait of someone so soon after they died. Pearlman goes into a fair bit of detail on the serious rape allegation that overshadowed Bryant’s early successes and mentions the oft-forgotten fact that Bryant all but accepted the young lady didn’t consent to their encounter when apologising after charges were dropped. It makes for difficult reading having consumed months of glowing memorials to Bryant’s legendary career since his death.

Shaq and Kobe 1 on 1

As Pearlman says in the introduction, however, the Kobe of then is not the Kobe of post 2005. Its easy to judge someone who experienced an unimaginable life lived in the public eye since he was a teenager. I’m not sure how well I (or anyone) would come across in a book detailing their life between 17 and 25.

The book doesn’t neglect the other important personalities and Pearlman’s tireless research ensured he got fascinating insights from lots of other players who helped to make the Lakers championship teams. As he says in the book, people seemed to really enjoy talking about this team and their experiences which is reflected in how enjoyable it is to read about them!

Despite the Lakers remarkable success with 4 final appearances and 3 championships in 5 years, and some remarkable runs of form, the team seemed to constantly be on the verge of falling apart. It is testament to both the players’ overwhelming talent and Jackson’s remarkable ability to manage superstars that they achieved such success. This was a dynasty that was never going to last however. Neither Shaq or Kobe could ever be happy in the others shadow, both needed centre stage and the adulation that came with being the dominant player on a championship team.

Three-Ring Circus is a fascinating slice of basketball history. A must for any sports book library.

Shaq and Kobe: Dynamic Duo Documentary

‘Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype’ by Todd Snyder (2020)

My favourite book of the year. I’ve struggled to finish this review because I’m trying to capture the book and not just gush with praise. Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them away, and it deserves to be considered among the very best biographies.

Muhammad Ali is possibly the most written-about sports figure of all time. I’ve already written a post on the best books I’ve read on Ali. Throughout every book, film, documentary on Ali, Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown hovers in the background as a mysterious, often thinly drawn, character whose importance is undeniable but whose contribution, and very essence, appears unknowable. I’ve always been fascinated by Bundini yet unable to picture who he was and sort between differing depictions of a quasi-mystical sage and a drug addled thief.

Bundini is best know for penning the immortal line ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’. He was a corner man, a hype man, a philosopher, a friend, a confidant, a spiritual guide and a hundred other things for two of the greatest boxers of all time – Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. But none of that captures the unique contribution Bundini made to their careers and indeed the lives of those around him.

Trailer for the book

I’ve written this paragraph 5 times trying to capture my own take on Bundini but I think it’s best to leave it to George Foreman who the book quotes as saying ‘Bundini was the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit’. Bundini was no saint and had plenty of flaws but he was a man full of love. He was one of those rare people who have an energy about them, who have charisma and colour and vibrancy. I am very much not that type of person myself but I am very drawn to those who bring a passion, a love and an uncontrollable energy to the world and those around them. That these gifts are often accompanied by demons, addictions and personal flaws makes them all the more compelling.

Snyder has done an incredible job in capturing Bundini. Both his magic and his flaws. The heart of the book is Bundini’s son, Drew ‘Timothy’ Brown, a man whose own life story merits a biography. As Synder sets out in the introduction, this book is a much the story of a father through his son’s eyes as it is an objective biography.

Patrick Green produced an excellent documentary based on the book available above on YouTube

Great biographies need both a compelling subject and the right biographer. Robert Caro’s masterful series of books on Lyndon Johnson would not have reached the same heights if not written by a writer with as a keen a fascination of the workings of power. The years Caro spent writing The Power Broker shaped his future work on LBJ.

Similarly, Snyder is the perfect person to capture Bundini’s life. An incredibly talented writer, the son of a boxing trainer, and a professor of rhetoric and hip-hop, it’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit.

As an aside, the book also made me realise that Muhammad Ali’s old training camp has been opened to the public and is less than an hour drive from my in-laws in Pennsylvania. I absolutely cannot wait to visit!

‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard’ edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.

The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.

The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.

Losers is published August 18 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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