Recommended Reading III: Ten Best Books for Christmas 2021

Hello and welcome to the first of my end-of-year round-up posts!

With, whisper it, Christmas fast approaching, some of you are no doubt looking for present ideas for friends or family, or indeed, things to put on your own list.

As always, this is a selection of ten of the best football books that I have read this year. Some are new releases, others have been around for years, some are new to me and others are ones I’ve read cover-to-cover many times.

So here we go

The Age of Football – David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt’s The Age of Football is a good place to start, offering as it does, one of the most comprehensive overviews of the state of the world game that I’ve ever read.

For anyone looking for a crash course in world football, this is a good place to start. Dealing with a different region in each chapter, with each of those broken down into smaller units to discuss a country individually, it sketches an in-depth portrait of domestic and international football and the particular issues each face at the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century.

No sport has as much of a global reach as football but this has created more problems than it has solved for many of these countries. People gather to watch the biggest club and international games, but locally infrastructure is lacking and corruption is endemic.

Goldblatt shows how football is seen as a useful tool by politicians the world over, from populist regimes looking for legitimacy, wealthy regimes looking to promote their countries and those who see it as a real path to increasing their global influence. There’s also in-depth discussion of the corruption at FIFA.

The level of detail is superb and I can even forgive a couple of odd little errors in places (namely confusing the jurisdictions of the IFA and FAI) – I genuinely learned a lot from reading this, especially about Africa and Asia, places where my knowledge doesn’t extend very far.

It’s a dense read, but ultimately a rewarding one.

Barça: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club – Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper’s contribution to the world of football writing was already significant. Football Against the Enemy may be almost 30 years old now and some parts rendered out of date by political developments around the world, but it remains one of my favourite books. Ajax, the Dutch and the War, his look at the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation through the prism of AFC Ajax is equally worthy of praise.

It feels only natural that he should now move on to tackle Barcelona, given the amount of Dutch influence on the club’s rise to the position of one of the world’s best teams. The club’s rise to greatness is largely told through the three key figures of Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi. The principles instilled by Cruyff were taken to their apex by Guardiola, who created a way of playing which showed the power of the collective, but also maximised the potential of Messi, seeing him grow into the most devastatingly effective player on the planet.

But by far the most interesting part of this book is the section which focuses on the downfall of the club in the last few years of the presidency of Josep María Bartomeu. The neglect of the youth system, the scattergun transfer policy – the book recounts the shambolic way that Bartomeu’s board, desperate for a transfer coup after the loss of Neymar in 2017, negotiated the signing of Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund for much more than they were originally prepared to pay, the ever-increasing dependence on Messi as the club lost direction on and off the pitch and the catastrophic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The release of the book in the summer was somewhat overtaken by events, coming as it did a couple of weeks after the club was forced to admit, despite months of stating the contrary, that they were not financially able to renew Lionel Messi’s contract, resulting in the club’s talisman departing for Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.

No doubt there’ll be an expanded paperback edition coming along soon which will delve into that in much greater detail, as well as what to expect now that Barça have appointed Xavi, another devotee of the Cruyff and Guardiola style, as their new manager.

Champagne Football – Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan

A book where football is more background to the main action but still an eye-opening look at the world of the suits who run the game.

Champagne Football details the rise and fall of John Delaney, the man who for a decade and a half used his role as Chief Executive to turn the Football Association of Ireland into his own private fiefdom.

It traces his rise through the ranks of the FAI board, his role in major controversies such as the infamous falling out between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy in Saipan on the eve of the 2002 World Cup and his assumption of the role of CEO in 2004.

As an outsider to the affairs of the FAI, I was only partially aware of Delaney through his role as the association’s public face, his bizarre request for FIFA to let the Republic of Ireland be the 33rd team at the 2010 World Cup after the Thierry Henry handball incident and the stories of him getting drunk with Irish fans in Poland during Euro 2012.

This book goes deep into his reign, illustrating the behind the scenes drama and financial difficulties that were ongoing as he attempted to maintain a public image of the FAI as a properly functioning organisation. It’s quite startling how one man ended up wielding so much power and influence for such a long time and earning so much money – the book points out that Delaney’s annual salary in 2012 was more than the combined total earned by the CEOs of the Spanish and Italian federations.

The narrative really gathers pace at the end as evidence of the FAI’s true financial position comes to light, with Delaney having to lend the association money to cover a cashflow shortage, and his attempts to protect his influence and UEFA position by creating a new role for himself within the FAI in 2019, only for the fallout from newspaper revelations to force his resignation later that year.

Danish Dynamite – Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons

I only vaguely knew the story of Denmark’s great side of the 1980’s before I started reading Danish Dynamite during my home quarantine in Northern Ireland this summer.

Charting the improbable rise of Danish football from the doldrums at the end of the 1970’s, when amateurism ruled supreme and national team get-together were more known for the amounts of alcohol consumed than for any notable results. That all changed with the arrival of German coach Sepp Piontek and the emergence of a generation of superbly talented players who would in time grace some of Europe’s biggest clubs, such as Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer, Morten Olsen, Soren Leroy, Jan Molby, Jesper Olsen.

There’s a historic win over England to get the ball rolling, a semi-final at Euro 84 and then the scintillating way they waltzed through a group of death in Mexico 86, putting Germany, Scotland and Uruguay to the sword with their dazzling attacking play.

Alas, theirs was a star destined to burn brightly for only a short time. An infamous backpass by Jesper Olsen helped set Spain on the way to a 5-1 win the second round and after that crushing defeat, Denmark were never the same force again. They qualified for Euro 88 but didn’t impress and then failed to even make it to Italia 90.

The Danish team which won Euro 92 after receiving a last-minute call-up to replace Yugoslavia, bore little resemblance to the one which had thrilled the world six years before, spending most of their final victory over Germany hitting long passes back to Peter Schmeichel for the Man Utd goalkeeper to pick up and waste time.

The best thing this book manages to do is capture a sense of how fun it must have been to follow this remarkable team. Another plus point comes in the cover – recreating the iconic Hummel strip worn by the side at the 1986 World Cup – easily the best of any book I read in the last year!

The Fix – James Dixon

The Fix takes the reader back to the 1992/93 season – in many ways Year Zero for modern football. It was the first season after the introduction of the backpass rule, the start of the Premier League in England and most importantly for this book, the first season of the re-branded UEFA Champions League.

The book traces the origins of the change, the political upheaval brought about by the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia (with a particular focus on the great Red Star Belgrade team who won one of the final editions of the European Cup in 1991) and the arrival at football’s top table of Silvio Berlusconi, who branded the old open draw as “economic nonsense”.

It follows the development of the 1992/93 competition, with particular focus on some of the teams from smaller nations who took part. I enjoyed reading about Marseille visiting The Oval in Belfast to play Glentoran, alas the sort of tie that is an almost impossible dream for Irish League clubs these days. There were some great stories in the competition that season, the famous “Battle of Britain” between Leeds and Rangers, Barcelona’s Dream Team being humbled by CSKA Moscow, the dramatic events of the group stage that replaced the quarter and semi-finals and Marseille’s 1-0 win over Milan in the final.

The title even works as a double-meaning, referencing the dubious activities which saw Marseille unable to defend their crown and the way in which Europe’s bigger clubs have slowly but surely rigged the odds of participation in Europe’s biggest club competition in their favour. An essential read in this post-Super League world.

From the Jaws of Victory – Edited by Adam Bushy and Rob MacDonald

A collection of articles heralding some of football’s greatest nearly men, the legendary teams who came close to glory, but just fell short – often in agonising circumstances.

It includes the stories of three of the greatest teams to never win the World Cup, Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974 and Brazil 1982, beloved teams who captured the imagination of fans with their style of play such as Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, the famous “entertainers”, some of the unluckiest teams in history – Bayer Leverkusen of 2001/02 and Benfica of 2012/13 who chased trebles and ended up empty-handed, and one of the greatest what-ifs in football history, could the brilliant generation of Yugoslav players have achieved immortality on the world stage if the country hadn’t collapsed into civil war in the early 1990’s?

The anthology nature of the book means it’s easy to dip in and out of. You might not agree with some of the choices featured, but that’s part of the joy of this collection. A lot of the writers involved (and it’s a great selection, Patrick Barclay, Daniel Storey, Nicky Bandini, Scott Murray, Filipe D’Avillez and more besides) are fans of the teams they write about and their obvious passion shines through.

Once Upon a Time in Naples – John Ludden

The book which provided the inspiration for the excellent 2019 documentary film Diego Maradona, Once Upon a Time in Naples tells the story of El Diego’s turbulent seven years in Serie A.

The arrival of the world’s best player brought Napoli unprecedented glory, two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup and unleashed religious levels of fervour amongst the club’s passionate fanbase. It also profiles his crowning glory, the 1986 World Cup win in Mexico.

But it also goes deep into the dark heart of Neapolitan football and society showing how the local mafia, the Camorra, exerted control in every level of society and helped raise the money to bring Maradona to Napoli in the first place. There’s also the infamous showdown with AC Milan in 1988 with the scudetto at stake, where it is heavily suggested that players were put under pressure to lose and prevent the Camorra from losing huge sums of money on illegal bets placed on Napoli retaining their title.

It also shows Maradona’s self-destructive streak, his addiction to cocaine, how his love affair with Napoli had started to turn sour even before the events of the 1990 World Cup and his eventual downfall in 1991 with the positive drug test which saw him banned from the sport.

It’s a rollercoaster ride of a book and one which I’ll definitely be revisiting in the future.

Origin Stories: The Pioneers who took Football to the World – Chris Lee

Chris Lee’s Outside Write blog and podcast has long been one of the best outlets on the internet for intelligent football content, so it’s no surprise that Chris’ first book, meticulously researched over the last few years, is a great read.

Origin Stories sets out to tell the tales of the men who created the game of football, exported it around the world and the football clubs they set up. Each chapter is self-contained, which means you can read it in any order, starting with the countries you’re most-interested in, or go cover-to-cover in traditional style.

Each chapter follows a similar style, focusing on the origins of organised football in the country or region in question before focusing on the first club to be founded, the beginnings of competitive football and finishing by bringing you up to date on the current status of that first club.

To someone who has read a lot of football history, many of the stories are familiar, but there is still a lot of new information to take in, particularly about some of the countries which aren’t traditional footballing powerhouses.

It’s incredibly detailed and contains lots of interviews with experts from each country and people involved with the pioneer clubs in the various countries covered.

I may be a little bit biased in including this – my name does feature in the Spain chapter as I helped Chris with writing about Recreativo de Huelva, Spain’s oldest club, but I promise that in spite of this, it is well worth picking up!

Tears at La Bombonera – Christopher Hylland

It’s a great title, isn’t it?

Christopher Hylland’s book is billed as stories from his six years living in South America, incorporating local history and culture, travel and of course, football.

I identified a lot with his experience of working as an English teacher abroad, the difficulties of trying to balance that with time to socialise and improve your Spanish and trying to fit in as much football as possible.

Each time he visits a new club in the narrative, Hylland fills in the background details, the foundation of the club, the origin of a specific local rivalry, or some political or historical background.

I also enjoyed some of the more personal reminiscences, the often torturous nature of crossing borders in South America, sightseeing with his Mum, and how he ended up winning a cap for Peru’s international Cricket team.

I liked the style of the book, like many of the others on the list the chapters are almost self-contained stories, although there is a narrative thread running through the whole book. It has increased my desire to visit South America some day soon, especially Argentina and the author’s deep appreciation for the culture of the continent shines through.

Working Class Heroes – Robbie Dunne

Four years after its publication, Robbie Dunne’s book is still the definitive English language profile of Madrid’s proudly left-wing third club.

Written during 2016/17, a campaign which saw Rayo go through three managers in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win promotion from the Segunda, it weaves the story of Dunne’s experiences following the team that season together with the history of the club, interviews with fans and people associated with the club, as well as the story of the club’s leading fan group, the Bukaneros.

A lot of the book is given over to discussing the incredibly controversial figure of the club’s President Raúl Martín Presa, whose lack of care for the club is infamous. One particularly bizarre incident detailed in the book describes how he had instructed the tea bus driver to take the back roads on an away trip to avoid having to pay motorway tolls.

Sadly, he hasn’t got any better over time as the past year has shown, his provocative gesture in inviting members of the far-right Vox party to be his guests at a game last season and the appalling treatment of Rayo’s Femenino team are things that few fans will overlook, even if the team is enjoying a successful period on the pitch. Chants of “¡Presa vete ya!” are still commonly heard throughout games in Vallecas.

With Rayo currently riding high in La Liga under Andoni Iraola despite the continued off-field shenanigans, this is well worth a look if you want to understand what makes this unique club tick.

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