Recommended Reading – Best Books for Christmas 2019

Christmas is coming!

Although it seems very early to be talking about it, there’s nothing wrong with being prepared when it comes to buying presents. And now it seems like the shopping period starts earlier every year, especially since Black Friday became a thing – here in Spain lots of stores have even turned it into ‘Black Week’ or even ‘Black Month’ (shudder) which is taking things a bit far.

Too Much

So I thought I would put this out there, a list of ten football books which I’ve read over the last couple of years and would highly recommend to any football fan. Whether you buy it as a present for a friend or loved one, or just decide to “treat yo’self” these books will provide plenty of entertainment.

I’ve tried to keep up a regular monthly recommendation of a book that I’ve been reading in my Monthly Musings section, so there’s likely to be a bit of repetition from those, but even if they have been covered already I’m going to try and expand on each title a bit more here.

The Frying Pan of Spain – Colin Millar

The story of the rivalry between Sevilla and Real Betis has been keeping me entertained on my daily commute to work for the past few weeks. As someone who spent a significant period of time living in Andalucía, I took every opportunity I could to visit Sevilla and was a regular visitor to both the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuan and the Benito Villamarín.

Most big regional cities in Spain are one-horse towns (eg Bilbao, A Coruña, Vigo, Málaga, San Sebastián) or have situations where one club is dwarfed by the other (Barcelona, Valencia) but Sevilla is different. Both clubs are massive in their own right and have enjoyed great success (league titles, cup final triumphs and in Sevilla’s case, making the UEFA Cup/Europa League their competition) and heartbreaks (relegations and the deaths of beloved players).

As well as telling the story of the two clubs, the book charts the background to the football being played – the great upheavals of Spanish life in the 20th century and also underlines what a great city Sevilla is. Reading this has whetted my appetite to go back to the city in the new year.

The ups and downs of both clubs make for a fascinating story and it’s high time someone told it. Colin has wanted to for a long time (I remember him telling me about this as far back as 2015) so it’s great to see it finally published.

He’s been a great supporter of the blog down the years too, so it’s only fair that I return the favour!

Europe United – Matt Walker

I picked this one up in Belfast International Airport at the end of August on my way to Gibraltar for my civil wedding ceremony. As I had a fairly lengthy layover in London to deal with on the day, this proved to be an excellent investment and it was to continue to provide me with plenty of entertainment through the next couple of weeks.

The book is about one man’s mission to watch a top division match in every one of UEFA’s 55 nations, the scrapes he got into and the people he met along the way. He does visit some big names along the way, but it’s really the lesser-known names which provide the best stories, such as the San Marinese team with a serious claim to being the worst in Europe, the misadventures of a goalscoring ‘keeper in Russia, going to the wrong airport on the way out of the Faroe Islands, the extremely complicated nature of travelling been the Caucasus countries, getting followed by a documentary crew in Israel and more besides.

Of course, Northern Ireland features in the form of a Glentoran v Carrick game at The Oval, though I can’t help but feel Walker should have arranged his trip to allow him to take in a Coleraine game! Minor quibbles like that aside, it’s a great read though I don’t think I’ll ever be trying to match his achievement.

Fear and Loathing in La Liga – Sid Lowe

Barcelona v Real Madrid – no fixture captures the imagination quite like it.

But there really is more to this historic rivalry than the casual observer sees on the pitch. And the picture is a lot more complicated than the one which a lot of people like to paint.

Sid Lowe covers the club’s’ contrasting fortunes in the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s Republican President who has almost been airbrushed from their history and Barça’s wartime president, whose death made him a martyr for the club and Catalonia. There’s the infamous 11-1 cup win for Real Madrid, the controversy over the Di Stefano transfer which ultimately laid the foundations for Real Madrid’s domination of Europe, until Barcelona became the first team to beat them, naturally in controversial circumstances.

There’s plenty of discussion of Cruyff, both as player and manager either side of the Quinta del Buitre, one of Madrid’s greatest teams and arguably the greatest side to never win a European Cup. It takes things right up to 2012/13 through the Dream Team, the Galacticos and the Messi and Ronaldo years.

It’s incredibly comprehensive, features interviews with key personnel on both sides and is written in the characteristic style that makes Sid’s Guardian columns so popular. I can’t be the only person who’d love to see an updated edition!

True Colours: International Football Kits – John Devlin

One for the kit aficionados among you. I have fond memories of picking up the box set of Devlin’s original True Colours books (covering numerous English Premier League teams and the home nations) in the mid-2000’s and the long-awaited follow-up doesn’t disappoint.

It was released in time for the 2018 World Cup and provides detailed kit histories of most of the major nations such as Brazil, Italy, Germany, Northern Ireland, Spain and so on.

While maybe light on reading material compared to some of the others on this list it’s a visual treat and will no doubt help settle a few extremely geeky kit-related discussions.

The only disappointment is that for some reason the German FA didn’t allow his images of their kits to be included, so they are represented through photos of selected shirts.

A Season with Verona – Tim Parks

This is one of the older books on the list, but it’s one that I still come back to regularly. It follows the author Tim Parks and his travels the length of Italy watching every game during Hellas Verona’s 2000/01 season in Serie A.

The book follows his travels up and down the Italian peninsula watching Hellas’ struggle to stay in the Italian top flight. The previous season they had overachieved and thus suffered the usual fate of a small club punching above their weight – the departure of their coach and a host of key players. Despite this any keen follower of Italian football will recognise a number of familiar names in the squad, including future World Cup winners Mauro Camoranesi, Alberto Gilardino and Massimo Oddo and Romania’s Adrian Mutu, whose once-promising career remains one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of the century.

Each chapter deals with a specific game and it’s an engaging read, giving you a real insight into what it was like to be a regular match goer in what was still regarded as the best league in the world at the time. The supporting cast of opponents features Maldini, Zidane, Totti, Buffon, Nedved and many more besides.

He travels to some away games with members of the infamous Brigate Gialloblu, the Verona Ultras, whose reputation for right-wing political leanings and racist chanting has unfortunately hit the headlines again recently but don’t let that put you off reading. An interesting counter to this is that while Verona are struggling and widely disliked in the rest of Italy because of their supporters, the miracle of Chievo is beginning to take shape (this was the season they won their first ever promotion to Serie A) and the

Even though I’ve read it several times and know how it ends, the final few games where Verona are scrapping for their lives are unbelievably tense, something that any fan of a club whose season has gone down to the wire can identify with.

Angels with Dirty Faces – Jonathan Wilson

This was top of my reading list around this time last year and if you haven’t read it and are a Kindle user, it’s available for the knock-down price of £1.99, so you should just stop reading this and go to Amazon right now and buy it.

Jonathan Wilson traces the history of football in Argentina from its British roots, through the influence of European coaches to the two World Cup triumphs and the two undoubted superstars the country has produced – Maradona and Messi.

I particularly enjoyed the amount of space devoted to club football too. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the Argentine club scene, so it was good to learn more about the glory days of both Boca and River, as well as the likes of Estudiantes, Newell’s Old Boys, Rosario, San Lorenzo et al. There’s also lots of detail devoted to the iconic managers of the Argentine game, from the age old rivalry between the styles Menotti and Bilardo to the importance of Marcelo Bielsa and his influence on so many modern-day bosses.

Reading this definitely reinforced my ambition to one day go and see a game in El Monumental or particularly, La Bombonera.

Wilson is one of my favourite football authors, I’d also highly recommend Behind the Curtain, his look at football in the former Soviet bloc originally published in the mid-2000’s and if you’re interested in the history of football tactics, his Inverting the Pyramid is effectively the definitive book on the subject. His latest, The Names Heard Long Ago, about Hungarian football’s golden age in the middle part of the last century is next on my reading list!

Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos – Gavin Newsham

Have you ever been cleaning up and discovered a book you completely forgot you even owned? This happened to me with Once in a Lifetime earlier this summer.

It’s the story of the North American Soccer League, the big attempt to sell “soccer” to the world’s biggest market, told mostly through the rise and fall of the league’s marquee franchise, the New York Cosmos (which is short for Cosmopolitans, not some kind of space reference, something I only knew thanks to this book) and their owners, management and players throughout the 1970’s.

Obviously, everything changed for the Cosmos when they managed to entice Pele out of retirement to sign for them, and suddenly they became a magnet for big names and briefly became the biggest draw in New York.

Of course success was unsustainable in the long run and the league and the Cosmos eventually folded leaving the gap that would eventually be filled by MLS.

It’s a great story, well told and it’s extremely relevant to today’s world of football. What happens when everyone tries to keep up with the big spending club that dominates the league? And what might happen when said big spending club’s owners pull out?

Plus it gets extra points for all the chapter titles being Bruce Springsteen references. I can appreciate that kind of thing.

It may be a bit harder to find than some of the others on the list, but it does appear on some websites at pretty cheap prices both used and new, so it’s well worth looking out for. In addition, someone has uploaded the movie which ties in with the book in its entirety to YouTube.

A Tournament Frozen In Time: The Wonderful Randomness of the Cup Winners’ Cup

I miss the Cup Winners’ Cup. Lots of people do. Which is probably why Steven Scragg was able to write a book about it. I somehow doubt that in fifty years time anyone will be writing a book eulogising the UEFA Conference League.

There was a wonderful simplicity to it, all the national cup winners, straight knockout. Growing up, it provided some of my formative memories of European football: Nayim from the halfway line! PSG’s iconic home it, my first glimpse of Ronaldo in action in his Barcelona days, Chelsea playing Tromso in a mental snowstorm when TV viewers were basically treated to a white screen.

Scragg’s look at the tournament’s history illustrates how important it was. It was the tournament where Alex Ferguson made his name internationally, first at Aberdeen and later at Manchester United, by inspiring shock final victories over Real Madrid and Barcelona, for all the money lavished on them in recent years, it remains the only European trophy either PSG or Manchester City have won, while it is one of the few trophies to have eluded the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool. One of the greatest quirks of it was the fact that no team ever managed to retain it.

Alas 1999 brought about the end of the tournament, as the expansion of the Champions League meant it would have become less a cup winners cup and more a cup for teams who reached the final and didn’t finish high enough in the league to qualify automatically for the Champions League – at least in the top nations anyway.

Building the Yellow Wall – Uli Hesse

Uli Hesse’s Tor is pretty much the definitive book on German football and his account of the rise of Borussia Dortmund to become a major force in Europe and almost everybody’s second team is another great read.

The trophies, (Dortmund were the first German club to win a European trophy and famously won the Champions League in 1997) great players and coaches are only part of the story.

Taking their most recent Champions League Final appearance (the 2013 defeat in an all-German affair at Wembley where Dortmund May have lost on the pitch, but certainly won the battle for hearts and minds) as a starting point, Hesse then backtracks to the club’s origins, their adoption of the now-famous yellow and black club colours

Where the book really excels is in its portrayal of the relationship between the club and its supporters which, more than anything else can account for the reason why travelling to the otherwise unremarkable city of Dortmund and experiencing a game at the Westfalenstadion, known by locals simply as “The Temple” is on so many people’s bucket lists.

The Illustrated History of Football – David Squires

David Squires is great. I’ve been a fan of his regular cartoons for The Guardian for quite some time now and clearly lots of other people agree as he has been able to publish three highly successful books as a result.

Of those three, my favourite is The Illustrated History of Football. Where else would you find key moments in the history of the game sitting alongside the time a player scored an own goal by kicking the ball into his own face, or FIFA suit Chuck Blazer renting an apartment in Trump Tower just for his cats?

Everything is done with his trademark dry wit and it’s the perfect antidote to the hyper-serious atmosphere of modern football, where every defeat signals a full-scale crisis.

Well, those are my recommendations. What do you think? Have you read any of them? Are there any others which you would recommend me to read? Let me know in the comments below or contact me on Twitter!

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