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.

The best books (I’ve read) on German football

For those who just want a list:

While beloved of football hipsters, the Bundesliga has always lacked a landmark English language TV show to really generate significant interest in the UK and Ireland.  Serie A had Football Italia in the ’90s, La Liga had Revista on Sky Sports combined with the appeal of Messi and C. Ronaldo but the Bundesliga was usually restricted to clips of goals on Eurosport.

German football has however been incredibly well served by the quality of the books about it either written or translated into English.  In particular, Uli Hesse, Raphael Honigstein and Ronald Reng have brought the story of German football to English readers.

The obvious place to start is Tor!: The Story of German Football by Uli Hesse.  First published in 2002, Tor! is a detailed and engrossing history of German football from it origins to the Champions League Era.  Tor! covers a vast amount of detail, covering the often complex origins of modern clubs, the remarkably late professionalisation of the game in West Germany, and the challenges football faced in East Germany under Communism among many more topics. Throughout the book, football is set in the context of Germany’s turbulent 20th Century history, never more powerfully than when retelling the story of the 1954 World Cup and the Miracle of Berne where a the national team helped drag Germany out of it’s post-war shame.  For many readers, the detailed recounting of the evolution of the German national team may be of most interest and Tor! excellently balances the twin tales of how football developed for both clubs and country.

One of the challenges that Tor! faces is telling 100 plus years of history in just one book.  Thankfully Hesse returned more recently with two comprehensive books on the history of Germany’s two best well known clubs – Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub and Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund.   Both books trace the origins of the clubs from their first steps to the modern day.  Both are meticulously researched and packed full of detail and insight.  Hesse seems to have spoken to every key figure for both clubs you can imagine.

Bayern tells the story of how a fairly normal Bavarian team, who weren’t even invited to joint he first Bundesliga, grew to become a global institution.  At times it contains a little bit too much detail on long-forgotten matches but remains immensely readable.

Building the Yellow Wall has a more personal feel.  The book is packed full of nuggets of history and trivia about Borussia Dortmund that you are unlikely to find anywhere.  Hesse grew up in Dortmund but also interviews a wide range of players, club officials and ordinary fans.  This book has less match report style recounts of long forgotten matches than the earlier book on Bayern and instead wisely focuses more on the cultural impact of Borussia for its fans, its city and football in general.

For a closer look at the development of the Bundesliga, we have Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga by Ronald Reng.  Reng is best known as the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke which I discuss later.

Reng’s second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but undoubtedly a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld. Most interestingly, Reng uses Hoher’s career to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.  All round it is a really enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read. The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

For a more modern look at how the German national team evolved we turn to Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World by Raphael Honigstein. Honigstein, who has recently joined the Atheltic UK’s exciting new football site, is undoubtedly the current English language expert on all things German football.  Das Reboot is 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.  The impact of Jürgen Klinsmann and Jogi Löw in enhancing the professionalism of the national team is fascinatingly told and the story of that incredible 2014 World Cup winning campaign is brilliantly told.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a slightly confusing manner but that is a very minor quibble.

Michael Cox’s superb new book Zonal Marking makes a convincing case that during 2012 to 2016, German football was at the forefront of tactical innovation in European football.  As well as the national team’s success covered by Das Reboot, Jurgen Klopp’s development of gegenpressing at Dortmund and Pep Guardiola’s tactical evolution at Bayern helped to shape tactical thought across Europe.  Luckily, there are two excellent English language books which shine a light on both of these periods.

Klopp: Bring the Noise by Raphael Honigstein is a fun and detailed biography of the most charismatic manager in football – Jurgen “Kloppo” Klopp.  Honigstein details the key influences on Klopp’s career including his own limitations as a player and his one-time coach Wolfgang Frank.  Klopp comes across in the book in the same way he does on TV.  He clearly has a huge work ethic and builds a very  strong connection with his players.  The access that Honigstein had to so many people close to Klopp at different times of his life and career gives a great insight into his tactics and his management.  A clear pattern emerges – builds a fantastic team with meagre resources, performs well above expectations only to see a decline – either due to star players being headhunted or the rest of the league adopting his tactics.

Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich by Martí Perarnau is a remarkably in-depth look at Guardiola’s attempts to evolve the tactics of reigning Campions League winners Bayern Munich for the 2012/2013 season.  The level of access granted to Perarnau is extraordinary and he recounts in detail the tactical moves which Guardiola used to ‘reprogramme’ his players.  The book goes in to great depth on how Guardiola prepares his team for every game and overall how he adopted his footballing approach for the differences between German and Spanish football.

Perarnau followed this up with a second book Pep Guardiola: The Evolution covering the rest of Pep’s time at Bayern.  The second book is less in diary format but contains the same fascinating detailed explanations of the tactics used in various matches.  There is quite a bit of repetition about Pep’s broad philosophies and at times, like the first book, it borders on hero-worship.   Together however the two books provide a remarkable insight into not just Pep but also into the inner workings of Bayern.

Some less well known German football figures have also been the subjects of two books by Ronald Reng.  Best known is his heart-breaking, exceptional book A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke.  German international goalkeeper, Enke died by suicide in 2009 at age 32.  He had played across Europe at club’s like Benfica and Barcelona and appeared outwardly to have a fantastic life.  Reng sensitively examines the darker story as Enke struggled badly with depression and mental health issues.  Reng, who considered Enke a friend, paints a picture of Enke as a person, rather than a footballer.  I’ve never read anything so powerful at asking us to look behind the curtain of celebrity and consider the human side of professional athletes.   It’s a spell binding, heart-breaking, incredible book that rightly won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

Reng’s other, less well known, book is Keeper Of Dreams: One Man’s Controversial Story of Life in the English Premiership which was published in English in 2002 (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Keeper of Dreams is about the brief professional career of Lars Leese, a German goalkeeper who was catapulted from lower league German football to become a Premier League goalkeeper during Barnsley’s one season in the top flight. Lesse looked like he had missed his chance to be a professional before, at the age of 26, getting taken on as Leverkuson’s third choice goalkeeper.  A bit of luck and the right connection resulted in a surprise transfer to Barnsely where Lesse briefly became a starting Premier League goalie in only his second year as a pro.  

Barnsley’s year in the top flight was in 1997/1998 – when I was 13 and utterly obsessed with football and Championship Manager.  That obsession can only explain why I have vivid memories of that Barnsely team and of Lars Lesse when I can barely remember matches I watched last week.    Keeper of Dreams is ultimately the story of a dream temporarily lived and the frustration of coming to terms with the reality that the dream ended all too soon.  Reng is excellent at capturing the more difficult side of life in football – the personal struggle players experience behind closed doors.   Keeper of Dreams is a pretty quick and easy read that captures a fairly unique football journey. 

I suspect there are other great English language books on German football and footballers that I’ve not yet read and would love to be pointed towards some.   Mensch: Beyond the Cones by Jonathan Harding seems like an interesting read and one I’m hoping to pick up soon.