You won’t find Among the Thugs, the brilliant account of Bill Buford’s time with a Manchester United firm in the 80’s, here simply because I’ve spoken of it recently, and he really doesn’t need any more press. You also won’t find Nick Hornby’s excellent Fever Pitch, a must for anyone who’s felt the pain and euphoria of a loving a particular team, nor a footballer’s autobiography, despite the excellent ones out there (and I don’t mean any of the new ones). You will find, I hope, a list of books that give us insight into a sport and its culture so pervasive that its effect on humanity makes for great reading.
When Saturday Comes: The Half Decent Football Book by Tim Bradford, Penguin Global
This irreverent glossary put out by the monthly magazine of the same name provides a wide array of information about British football. Ranging from club and player histories to definitions of much-used footie slang, this is a well-written introduction to the unique nature of the region that created soccer. As pointed out by The Evening Standard, this book really shines as bathroom reading material.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy by Joe McGinniss, Broadway
Written by sportswriter and non-fictionist Joe McGinniss, this resembles Tim Parks’ A Season with Verona in the sense that both authors follow lower level Italian teams with a romantic love of the underdog, ala Rudy. And while both shed light into worlds unknown to most fans of soccer, at least in such detail and by such skilled storytellers, McGinniss’ personal involvement in Castel di Sangro Calcio creates a bit more tension than the typically popular insider account. His readiness to provide tactical advice seems shockingly presumptuous, perhaps less an indictment on the author, but on the lower leagues of Italian soccer.
The Glory Game: A Year in the Life of Tottenham Hotspur by Hunter Davies, Mainstream Publishing
Another account of an embedded journalist within the sacred confines of a club, but this time we get a glimpse into a big English club, and in a time so unlike the current richest league in the world. But the players remain similar in their passions and insecurities, only without the multi-million pound wages and global narcissism. Hunter Davies, a prolific journalist and author, also wrote the only authorized biography of the Beatles.
All or Nothing: A Season in the Life of the Champions League by Andy Brassell, Trafford Publishing
Andy Brassell, a Londoner in Lyon, contributes regularly to several soccer publications and shows, most notably the BBC World Football Show on BBC 5 Live. This whirlwind travelogue documents the 2003-2004 UEFA Champions League competition. Brassell does well to capture the mood and signifigance of Europe’s biggest competition, and individual accounts are detailed, but are short enough to keep you engaged.
Manchester Unlimited: The Rise and Rise of the World’s Premier Football Club by Mihir Bose, Texere Publishing
A detailed and engrossing account of Manchester United’s rise to dominance by BBC Sport’s head sports editor, Mihir Bose, this focuses on former chief executive Martin Edwards and his dicey relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson during the phenomenal rise of a “regional” club to the largest club in the world. The reliance on Ferguson despite a slow start in his United coaching career further illustrates the vast differences between less than a few decades ago.
Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power by Simon Kuper, Nation Books
Arguably the first “anthropologic” look at soccer and its place in the world, Simon Kuper provides an account of his travels among 22 countries over nine months between 1992 and 1993. What makes this book unique and quite compelling is that at the time Kuper was a relative outsider in terms of his knowledge of soccer. This genre can be overly-ambitious, pretentious and unsuccessful in so many books, but Kuper’s approach to soccer and politics is interesting as it is refreshing.
Forza Italia: A Journey in Search of Italy and its Football by Paddy Agnew, Ebury Press
Another “fish in a new pond” account of Italian soccer. Focusing more on Rome correspondent Agnew’s last few decades in Italy than a systematic exploration of calcio and its culture, the Irish journalist account is enjoyable for his Bill Bryson-esque look into what makes Italy tick, where a powerful political party is named after a crowd chant and the Prime Minister owns one of its most beloved clubs.
Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner, Overlook TP
If you have ever picked the Netherlands to win the World Cup recently, only to be disappointed when Italian efficiency and a tight 4-5-1 always seems to win out over technical finesse, then you’ll enjoy this book. Winner explores the mark that Dutch soccer has made upon the world game, as Total Football gave us a refreshingly young Ajax side, Johan Cruyff, and the wonders of wide play. He also deals with the uniqueness of such a small country producing so many technically-gifted players, and investigates several reasons why they’ve never dominated the world stage.
Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football by Phil Ball, WSC Books Ltd.
San Sebastian-based soccer writer Ball is a regular contributor throughout soccer media, and his investigations into Spanish soccer do not simply focus on already-conceived notions of rivalry and passion within the nation. Unsatisfied with just glossing over what everyone waxes poetic about, such as Real Madrid v. Barcelona, Ball touches on other long time rivalries among smaller clubs, as well as the requisite examination of soccer culture and how it relates to Spain in the sociopolitical sense.
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer, Harper Perennial
Perhaps not quite an explanation of world forces through soccer culture, The New Republic editor’s contribution to the “Soccer as Socioeconomics” school began by Simon Kuper, this is a book that will engage both longtime fans and even those with a passing interest in the sport. The nature of fierce rivalry and multi-generational passion endures the globalization that has made soccer the world sport that it is and Foer’s passion for the game blends well with his exploration of international economics.
Is your favorite missing from the list? Leave a comment about your favorite soccer books below.