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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Away Game

‘Hijacking LaLiga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoloy on Spanish Football’ by Euan McTear (2018)

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  became exposed to a lot more coverage and commentary on Spanish football.   The addition of Beckham to the Galactico project made La Liga the hottest property in global football.   By the time Beckham left Leo Messi was on the rise, Spain would soon win Euro 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo would arrive the following year.  The Messi and Ronaldo era, combined with Spanish dominance in international football, saw a continued rise in the interest of the English speaking world in Spanish football.

Once consequence of this greater interest has been the proliferation of English language books on Spanish football.   A number of great English language books on Spanish football do predate the Beckham era – most notably for me, Barca by Jimmy Burns and Morbo by Phil Ball.  But the majority of such books in recent years focus especially on Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Euan McTear has wisely decided to look elsewhere in the fascinating landscape of Spanish football.  His first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and this book, Hijacking LaLiga focuses on the rise of Atlético Madrid in recent years.

Hijacking LaLiga is a comprehensive look at the origins and modern history of Atlético who have achieved remarkable success under manager Diego Simeone.  McTear traces the history of the club, highlighting the key moments the enabled to club to survive and thrive through the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating history but less politically charged that those of Barca and Real.   There is also really interesting details on the chaotic reign of Jesús Gil, the President who somehow seized ownership of the club away from the fans.

The main focus of the book is on the period since Atheli’s relegation in 2000 and how the club rebuilt to break the seeming impenetrable duopoly of Barca and Real.  McTear credits a number of factors – the first Europa League triumph shattered the myth that Athleico were cursed, better TV deals improved their financial ability to compete, the combination of youth team products like Koke, tough battling players like Diego Godin and superstars like Costa and Greizmann provided ideal, and above all the coaching of Diego Simeone and his staff was the perfect match for the players and the club.

The book provides a very interesting and detailed insight into the most interesting story in modern Spanish football.  It’s well written and an enjoyable read.  My only compliant is that it jumps around in time and topic quite dramatically at times and a cursory knowledge of the timeline of events is a big help as you read – I kept forgetting which year they won which tournament and was left slightly confused as the narrative jumped between different seasons.

Overall highly recommended and great to see English language books focus on the wider story of Spanish football.

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‘How to be a Footballer’ by Peter Crouch (2018)

I don’t think there’s a more likeable footballer in England than Peter Crouch.  Immediately memorable as, at 6’7, he towers over any other Premier League player, Crouch went from early ridicule to broad recognition as a pretty talented player.   He holds the record for most Premier League headed goals, he appeared in Champions League final for Liverpool, scored at the World Cup finals for England and has an impressive 22 goals in 46 England international appearances.  He is also very very funny as his twitter usage and widely quoted one-liners reveal.

Likeable as Crouch is, I’m not sure I’d want to read his autobiography (turns out he published one at age 26 in 2007!).  The USP is that he is really tall and got some stick until he proved he’s actually quite a good player – not the stuff of a bestseller.  Wisely, Crouch has written a very different book to the standard footballers fare.  How to be a Footballer is a wide lens look at the game from a multitude of angles – the dressing room, transfers, agents, etc.  Crouch dips into his vast stock of anecdotes to illuminate life behind the scenes in the Premier League.

It’s an entertaining read that any fan of English football will enjoy.  The jokes work, the anecdotes are never too cruel, and there’s plenty of the self-depreciating humour you’d expect from the man who famously answered the question of what he would be if he wasn’t a footballer with the answer “a virgin”.  It’s light, informative and very funny.  An ideal Christmas present for any football fan.

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‘Tackled: The Class of ’92 Star Who Never Got to Graduate’ by Ben Thornley & Dan Poole (2018)

Ben Thornley was a professional footballer who played for the same Manchester United youth team as the fabled Class of ’92 – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville etc.

With Beckham-esque looks and Giggs-esque skill, Thornley was tipped for greatness by many. However, a horror tackle in a reserve game, just weeks after his first team debut, severely damaged his knee and ultimately his chances of making it to the very top.  Thornley recovered and played for a number of years but was never able to fulfill his vast potential.

Tackled tells the story of Thornley’s life in football.  The book jumps back and forward between the time before his injury and the time afterwards.  The earlier periods are told through many voices including his family members the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes etc.  The later periods are told in a more orthodox autobiographical style.

The format works very well.  The book feels really genuine and the style captures the interaction among friends and family really well.   There is a lot of humour in the banter among friends and many of the anecdotes may not have been told to a more traditional biographer.

Thornley is pretty open about his own failings in particular his fondness for booze and his constant cheating on his partners.  At times the stories are a bit laddish – and Thornley seems to relish the retelling of some of his less than polite behaviour.  However, the telling of his off-field life while a player is necessary to fully appreciate how difficult it must have been to come to terms with his reduced status in the game.

The attitude to booze is interesting.  Thornley is open about enjoying a drink but there isn’t a close look at whether he might have had addiction issues – overall the treatment of booze leans more to the “pints are great fun” direction (which they are) than the role booze likely played in hampering Ben to do as well as he possibly could post injury. I’m conscious I’ve just hit a year without a drink so my attention naturally more drawn to boozy stories.

Football wise, the book contains some interesting insights into the English game of the late 90’s.  In particular Thornley was fairly scathing of the short-lived Lilleshall model which saw the FA try to mimic the French Bluefontaine academy with very little success.  Most of all, it gives quite a lot of insight into the Man Utd set up at the time, with a particular focus on the youth coach Eric Harrison.

Thornley is not the first or last footballer to have his potential cut down by injury.  Thornley’s association to the famous Class of ’92 – that remarkable generation of players to come through the ranks at Man Utd at the same time – helps add some glamour and celebrity to the story.  There is something about the fact that the players have developed their own group brand annoys me no end, but it’s good to see one the less successful members able to cash in on it.

You might find yourself wondering why bother to read an autobiography by a player whose career highlight is winning an underage tournament.  But any sports book is never solely about the results on the pitch – Thornley shows a different side of the game, the side of potential unfulfilled, of hopes dashed and the challenges of nonetheless building a life.  It is a very honest and candid account of the life of the superstar that never was.

Thornley comes across as a likeable guy (unless you were his ex girlfriend) who has matured and come to appreciate what he achieved rather than what he didn’t. Overall Tackled is an enjoyable read and one that Man Utd fans in particular would enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lionel Messi Art of Living FC 1500px

‘The Binman Chronicles’ by Neville Southall (2012)

I’ve always liked Neville Southall – the legendary Everton and Wales goalkeeper who played into his 40’s.   By the time I was a football obsessive 8 year old, he was already in the later years of his Everton career and the team were a long way away from the League and FA Cup winning teams of the mid-80’s.  Southall appeared to be a throwback to an earlier era as football became increasingly commercially driven.

The Binman Chronicles is a fairly standard ex-footballers autobiography.  It follows an old-school format of focusing heavily on his playing career and, after covering his early years and how he got into professional football, chronologically detailing season-by-season.   The book reads in Southall’s voice but the book could have done with tighter editing with a bit too much repetition – every off-season was boring, he doesn’t like holidays, just loves playing football etc.  It feels too much like interviews with Southall were transcribed directly rather than a ghostwriter editing to capture Southall’s voice and story.

While the book can at times be a bit bland, Southall himself is an interesting character – as anyone who follows him on twitter will know.  Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world during the mid-80’s, he never pushed for big money or a glamours move abroad. A tee-totaller but a piss-taker, he seems to have somehow been both a loner and a senior figure in the Everton dressing room.  Never one to follow the crowd, Southall wears his differences as a badge of pride and seemed to have totally resisted any pressure/temptations to be ‘one of the lads’.   There is a limited amount of detail on his own personal life – apart from his love of Wales and his daughter – but he is ultimately open about his failings and his affairs during his first marriage.

From a footballing perspective, any Everton or Wales fan will be fascinated by the insights into those teams at the times Southall played.  He is open in both his praise and criticism for coaches and fellow players – he has warm words for Howard Kendall and Joe Royle despite some pretty negative experiences with both them, bit is damning in his criticism of Mike Walker’s ill-fated time as Everton manager.   For those who are too young to have experienced English football in the 80’s, the book paints an interesting picture of Everton’s rise to rival Liverpool without really detailing what exactly led to the remarkable improvements during Kendall’s first spell in charge – it seems simply have been better players and good man-management.

I would have enjoyed more about his present work which involves teaching troubled young people.  His own early struggles in education seem to help him build relationships with those who are struggling to find a place in society.  It’s clear that Southall has found a passion that rivals football and is committed to helping.

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