The best books (I’ve read) on…. Spanish football

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  was suddenly 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, Pep Guardiola and Leo Messi were 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.

The rise in interest in Spanish football was helped by, and also led to, an accompanying rise in the number of British and Irish writers living and working in Spain covering the local game.  Inevitably, and thankfully, many of them have written books.

The starting point for any reading list on Spanish football has to be Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football by Phil Ball (2003).  Morbo is a wonderful history of Spanish football but it is so much more than that.  A a fascinating introduction to Spanish history, politics and culture, Morbo really puts the game its broader societal context.  And there is nowhere where football is quite so entwined in politics, culture and identity as in Spain.

morbo

The majority of English language books on Spanish football understandably focus on Barcelona and/or Real Madrid, two of the most famous clubs in world football.

No club quite symbolises the connection between a Spanish club and its home town like FC Barcelona.  For those interested in a deep dive into Barça’s history, Jimmy Burns wrote the excellent Barça: A People’s Passion which provides everything you could want.  It is an incredibly detailed, extensively researched history of the club.  It’s particularly fascinating on the lives and careers of key figures throughout the club’s early years as well as the role the club played in the hearts and minds of Catalans during the Franco era.  It really places the team, and the city, in the broad social, political and cultural context of modern Spain.

For an in-depth look at Barça’s modern era, Graham Hunter’s excellent ‘Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’ is excellent. Hunter will be well known to many as one of the leading English language analysts of Spanish football.  The book is full of interesting anecdotes and Hunter’s passion for his subject shines through.  It is a detailed, well-written and entertaining account of the greatest team modern football has seen.  Highly recommend for anyone who fondly remembers those 4 years when every Barça game was must see TV and you knew as it happened you were watching something very special.

The chapters weave entertainingly between mini-biographies of the key figures in this great Barça side (Messi, Xavi, Puyol etc), detailed retelling of Guardiola’s first 3 seasons, the political machinations behind the scenes, the Cruyffian origins of this team and Frank Rijkaard’s role in laying the groundwork.  Hunter includes his own experiences and interactions with the team and the players which adds an additional layer of insight.

For a broader look at the wider legacy of the club, and especially of Johan Cruyff, look no further than ‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018).   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to date on either of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.  Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.

As for Barça’s great rivals, Real Madrid, the English language coverage of the club exploded after David Beckham signed.  Two excellent writers each published books in 2004 on Beckham’s time in Spain White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid and the New Football by John Carlin and When Beckham Went to Spain by Jimmy Burns.   Its been close to 15 years since I read these two books so a fuller review is beyond my powers of recall.  From memory, both books take a deep look at the Galactico project with a particular focus on Beckham’s early years.   Burns book looks a bit more broadly at the historic position Madrid has played as the club supported by the Castillian establishment.  If I recall correctly, Carlin is definitely more a Madridista than Burns, a lifelong Barça culé. 

Another book from a similar era which gives an inside account of the Galactico era Madrid is the enjoyable ‘El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid’ by Steve McManaman and Sarah Edworthy (2004).  

El Macca is a detailed look at the 4 years McManaman spent at Real Madrid. His first year was incredibly successful as he became a regular starter in a Champions League winning side and scored a spectacular volley in the final against Valencia.  Following the instalment of Florentino Perez as Real President, McManaman found himself sidelined as the club looked to get him off the wage bill to pave the way for the Galactico era – the plan of Zidanes & Pavons – that proposed to combine global superstars with youth team graduates.

The book provides a really interesting insight to an era of change at the biggest football club in the world.  Every player at the club was a household name and the very biggest names in the game found themselves all in the same team at Madrid.   All the players come across quite well with Figo and Hierro standing out as interesting characters who got on very well with McManaman.  After he left the club, it would take another 12 years before they managed to win another Champions League and complete La Decima.

For a more recent, gossipy and entertaining look at a modern version of Madrid, I enjoyed The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho by Diego Torres, a book from which no one emerges with much credit. 

A whole other category of books exists which focus on both Real and Barca and the immense rivalry of El Classico.  While there are a fair few books that fall into this category, I particularly like El Clasico: Barcelona V Real Madrid: Football’s Greatest Rivalry by Richard Fitzpatrick (2012) and Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (2012). 

As interest in Spanish football has broadened in the English speaking world, a number of writers have looked outside of the top two.  Euan McTear’s first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and his second book, 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 Barça 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 proved 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.

Robbie Dunne gives similar treatment to Madrid’s third side in his 2017 book Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano, Madrid’s Forgotten Team.  It’s an interesting history of the club, their fans and their left wing anti-establishment ethos.

The Seville based clubs are profiled extensively in Colin Millar’s recent book ‘The Frying Pan of Spain: Sevilla v Real Betis, Spain’s Hottest Football Rivalry’.  It traces the origins, history, key personality and modern development of both football clubs.  In doing so, it also tells the story of the city and its evolving place in Spanish life. The dual-biography nature of the book works quite well.  It is fascinating how often the fortunes of the clubs rose and fell in contrast to the other.  It’s a relatively long book, but a very easy read.  Full of fascinating insights into the city – its politics, its people and its football – it’s a book that is a very welcome addition to the growing library of great English language books on Spanish football.

Lastly, it would be impossible to ignore the Spanish national team and in particular the 6 years where they were undeniably the best team in the world.   Here I return to two authors mentioned earlier.   For a wider lens, I love La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World by Jimmy Burns (2012).  This goes much wider than the national team and, a bit like Morbo, looks at the history of the game across Spain as a whole.   For a more focused look at the national team, look no further than Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble (2013) by Graham Hunter.  Hunter was working for FIFA and UEFA during the tournaments and was  inside the dressing room as the players celebrated after the finals of the World Cup and Euro 2012. The book has significant unique material thorough Hunter’s own accounts and access to the key figures.

I suspect there is a whole host of books on Spanish football I’ve not read, or heard about.  As always, I’d be delighted to hear any recommendations.

‘Cristiano and Leo: The Race to Become the Greatest Football Player of All Time’ by Jimmy Burns (2018)

Unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of biographies and books written about both Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, the two greatest footballers of the modern era.  I’ve never been tempted to read any of them.  Both players are so familiar, their back stories widely reported, their playing highlights both vividly memorable and re-watchable.

I picked up Cristiano and Leo purely because it was written by Jimmy Burns.  Hand of God by Burns was the first football book I became obsessed about.  Having generally only read player autobiographies till then, I was blown away by the warts-and-all depiction of Maradona’s flawed genius.   The only book that rivalled it for me was Burns other book Barca, which I devoured when it was published in 1999.

A dual-biography, Cristiano and Leo details the background and career of the two best football players in the world.  Their childhood is explored as Burns builds a picture of the key influences on their lives and the experiences and family dynamics that helped shape both men.   There are no surprises and both men come across broadly similarly to their public persona – Cristiano as vain, selfish, but determined to work harder and better than anybody else, Mess as less interested in publicity but unafraid to exercise his own considerable power.

The strength of the book is Burns’ own reporting. Burns interviews a vast number of people getting fascinating insight from big names like Florentino Perez, but also from people who knew both men during their childhood.  Burns own analysis is interesting and adds some colour to what is generally a fairly conventional biography (albeit a dual one).

The book suffers from being a bit too detailed about games, seasons and goals which many readers will be intimately familiar with.  It’s a peril of any biography of a player who is still active and even more so when it’s covering the two most watched players in the world.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book and Burns’ insights, interviews and analysis.  I suspect the book will age well and is one I’ll enjoy even more many years from now when I want to reflect on how privileged I am to have been able to see both Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi play live in person and 100’s of times on TV.

Crstiano and leo