‘Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion’ by Jordan Florit (2020)

Usually picking up a book is the start of a journey into a story. This book has been a little different with the actual book coming as the immensely satisfying end of a fascinating and enjoyable process. Author Jordan Florit launched a project on Kickstarter with a view to raising enough just money to fund this self-published book. Along the way he has kept his nearly 200 backers entertained, informed and eagerly anticipating the finished book.

Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion is a fascinating examination of Venezuelan football and its broader society. When thinking of South American football, Venezuela is probably the last country that comes to mind – off hand Salomón Rondón was the only Venezuelan player I could even think of. Despite a population 30 million people they have never qualified for a World Cup!

In his own words, Jordan chose Veneuela as his focus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, ‘the people’. Throughout the book, the warmth and kindness of the Venezuelan people shines through as Jordan shares stories from his travels, the games he saw and the people he met.

Secondly, ‘add something positive to the conversation on Venezuela’. Given the vast news coverage of poverty, desperation and corruption, its a real antidote to see the country presented in a different light.

Red Wine & Arepas is comprehensive, well-written and highly readable. I really like the approach chosen of telling the wider story tho of Venezuelan football through chapters that zoom in on specific subjects. Each chapter broadens the overall narrative while telling a fascinating vignette of the country and its football. The book also mixes these broader football stories with Jordan’s own personal travelogue expertly.

A special mention for the fact that Jordan also covers women’s football in the country. It’s an unusual and welcome addition which gives a more complete picture of the role the game plays in Venezuela.

As you read through the book, the central team of football as a religion emerges organically. Jordan clearly has an immense amount of faith that the country will come good, that it has too many good people not to. The faith of the Venezuelan themselves, in their own identity and their football has clearly rubbed off on him.

Jordan has done an incredible job. The book leaves you with a deep appreciation for the country, its culture, its football and its people.

Following the project through Jordan’s regular updates has been a joy. Jordan’s enthusiasm and passion for this project, and life in general, has been infectious. I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Red Wine & Arepas. Check out Jordan’s twitter feed @TheFalseLibero to find out how to do so.

‘Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?: The Full Story of Middlesbrough’s Unforgettable 1996/97 Season’ by Tom Flight (2020)

Just after winning the Champions League with Juventus in 1996, Italian international striker Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough, an unglamours club in the north of England.  Even at 12 years old this made very little sense to me but also seemed absolutely wonderful.

That signing was the icing on the cake of local businessman Steve Gibson’s project to reinvent the club. In 1994 Gibson had been appointed the new chairman of Middlesbrough. He quickly embarked on a plan to turn the club from also-rans into contenders. He appointed Manchester United legend Bryan Robson as player-manager, built a modern new stadium and sought to sign international superstars who could be lured by the growing salaries on offer in England.

International players arrived from around the globe, with Ravenelli and Emerson getting the most attention. But the heartbeat of the team was the Brazilian international Juninho. After Juninho single handedly destroyed his team, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson called Juninho “the best player I’ve seen in the Premier League this season” and that view was made official when he was named Premier League player of the season.

Every goal Juninho scored for the Teesiders

Middlesbrough’s 96/97 season was a roller-coaster of all roller-coasters with debut hat-tricks, Wembley Cup finals, contentious point deductions, relegation battles and so much more. The team went on runs of being totally unplayable and runs where it looked like they forgot how to play football. They played in a swashbuckling style, scoring for fun and having fun while doing it. It remains one of the most memorable seasons of any Premier League team and

Yer Joking Aren’t Ya brilliantly captures the sense of possibilities and excitement of that memorable season. Game by game, Flight game-by-game, Flight chronicles the season as it happened. Diaries of a season always risk becoming repetitive accounts of games and goals but Flight perfectly balances this, inter weaving background on the club and key characters throughout. The history is pitched perfectly for both those familiar with and those totally new to this era of English football.

What a great title!

The real joy of the book is how it captures something eternal about sports fandom. I often wonder how fans of mid-table Premier League teams find the energy to care about whether their team finishes 8th or 16th each season. Is ‘survival’ really an objective that can sustain interest year after year? That 96/97 season for Middlesbrough serves as a reminder that success is about so much than trophies, its about the memories, the moments, the highs and also the lows.

The book was simply a joy to read and a wonderful nostalgia trip. I would have devoured it in a day if didn’t keep going to YouTube to rewatch highlights of Juninho, Emerson and Co.

After you’ve read about, it watch every goal and key moment in this Season Review

Tom has published an article on the season which which you can check out here.

‘Europe United: 1 football fan. 1 crazy season. 55 UEFA nations’ by Matt Walker (2019)

I love going to random football matches whenever I’m abroad.  It has always been hard to explain that the real highlight of a 2 week holiday in Eastern Europe was the 0-0 Champions League second qualifying round 1st leg match between Ferencváros and Sparta Prague.  Little did I realise there is a huge football subculture of ground-hoppers who travel the world solely to go to football games of teams they have no particular connection to.

Matt Walker, a British civil servant, took the idea of ground-hopping to a whole new level and spent a year travelling Europe to attend a league game in all 55 UEFA nations.  Why, you ask?  Why not!  As soon as I saw the book I was immediately jealous and curious to see how he got on.

Europe United is Walker’s account of his travels.  Essentially it’s the story of more than 70 different random football matches in 55 different countries.  As a statistician Walker couldn’t help but keep detailed notes of every game, goal, yellow card etc.  But the heart of the book is the conversations he had along the way.

Walker managed to drum up some media attention for his adventure which led to meeting local fans in almost every destination to share the journey with.  He met a variety of different people along the way all united by their passion for their local team. The book therefore becomes a love letter to football’s place in communities across Europe. Each of the teams he watched are a significant part of their many fans’ lives.  Each game matters to a select group of people who share a common, irrational but wonderful love of their football team .

There is always a risk of a book like this getting repetitive as games and countries blend into each other.  Wisely, Walker broke up the chapters with general collective observations from his travels.

Overall, I really loved this book.  The football team in my hometown folded very recently (RIP Limerick FC) and football more widely in Ireland is on the verge of financial collapse amid corruption and incompetence. If ever a reminder was needed of the importance of the beautiful game, Europe United provides it.

Europe United

‘The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind’ by Ryan Baldi (2019)

Every football fan remembers those prodigies they pinned their future dreams on only for their apparent potential to never be realised.  As an Ireland fan, I was overly excited when Anthony Stokes scored nine goals in just four games for Falkirk and again when 16 year old Terry Dixon was called up to the senior Ireland squad.  Even now I can’t resist getting giddy at the potential of young strikers Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly all of whom I’ve barely seen play yet whom I am certain will be world beaters.

So while we are all familiar with the hope, hype and unrealised dreams, little consideration is given by most to the fact the the young men who don’t make the big time have to find a way to get on with their lives. The Next Big Thing tells the stories of 15 highly-touted players who never quite reached the levels that was once predicted for them.  Some enjoyed decent careers, others were out of the game by the end of their teens.  The book covers a fascinating mix of players including Championship Manager legend Cherno Samba, Dutch international winger Andy Van der Mede and one time Beckham-rival Ben Thornley.

Baldi conducted interviews with the 15 players profiled and many others who knew them or coached them during their formative years.  Each one brings an interesting perspective as to why they didn’t quite make it at the highest (or in some cases, any) level.  The reasons range from injuries to changing managers, from ill-advised transfers to simple bad luck, from addiction to poor attitude.  Each player is fairly forthright and honest in accounting for their failures (to the extent that not making it against ridiculously long odds can actually be considered a failure!).  There may be some self-selection to this – those willing to talk to the author for a book like this may be those who have best been able to come to terms with how their career panned out.

Each chapter would work well as a stand-alone article as each is an entertaining and interesting story in its own right..   The book broadly lets the stories stand on their own with some attempt to tie the pieces together in the concluding chapter.  If, like me, you read the book over a very short space of time it can get a little repetitive but that in itself is indicative of how similar the players’ stories ultimately are.  It think it may work best as a book to dip in an out of and read a chapter at a time.

The book ultimately serves as a reminder of the perils of forgetting that young footballers are children or young adults first and footballers second.  It also suggests that, while improvements have definitely been made over time in how clubs treat their youngsters, a lot of care is needed to ensure that the end of professional football career does not result in significant life problems.  Overall, The Next Big Thing is well written, well researched and a welcome addition the English football library.

Baldi

 

‘Done Deal: An Insider’s Guide to Football Contracts, Multi-Million Pound Transfers and Premier League Big Business’ by Daniel Geey (2019)

Done Deal is an interesting, comprehensive and well written overview of the business and legal side of the beautiful game.  Its author Daniel Geey is a lawyer and a regular online commentator on the legal side of the football business.  It covers contract deals, television rights negotiations, club takeovers, and all the legal and commercial sides of football.

It’s clear that Geey is very knowledgeable and experienced in his field.  The book also shows he is an excellent communicator as he presents what can be dry or technical information in a very clear and engaging manner.

For the nerdier among us who regularly read about the business side of sport or who regularly read blogs like the excellent Swiss Ramble, a lot of the material in the book will be quite familiar.

Overall, Geey does a very good job of communicating a lot of information.  However, it’s easy to imagine that a lot of readers will ultimately find the in-depth nature of some of the subject matter boring or uninteresting.   It’s not a book to read through in a few sittings but rather one worth dipping into chapter by chapter.   What is clear is you won’t find a better book on the finer details of the commercial and legal aspects of professional football.  An interesting and informative book.

done deal

 

‘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.

athleti

 

 

‘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.

EDIT:  I’ve also just read the follow up book “I, Robot, How to be a Footballer 2”.  It’s equally as entertaining  as the first book.  Wouldn’t recommend reading them back to back as the anecdotes all merge together in memory.  

 

crouchie

‘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.

FNL