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Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Despite everything, football – in the true sense of the word – is still the best and most beautiful sport on earth. Disliking it because of some of the people who take part in, run it or support it would be like disliking the English language because Tony Blair speaks it or Will Self writes in it. English is bigger than them and football is bigger than sets of Red Devil golf-clubs. Football even has good books written about it. This, unlike Nick Hornby’s far better-known Fever Pitch, is one of those good books. Hornby reminds me of a nose-picker. Yes, he may have devoted a great deal of time to his hobby and derived a great deal of pleasure from it, but why tell the world?

You don’t need to ask that question about this book, because football is the world’s most popular sport and this book is an exploration of how it influences the world’s culture and politics in all manner of strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes disturbing ways too. Or amusing ones. Or both:

The general director agreed to an interview (for free) and the next day I found him in his office. It is basic and battered and located in the basement of the Omnisports Stadium, just a few doors down from the room where he kept 120 pygmies from the Cameroonian rainforests locked up last summer. Milla [a Cameroonian star at the 1990 World Cup] had invited the pygmies to play a few games at the Omnisports, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards (one of whom wore a Saddam Hussein T-shirt) and seldom fed them. A tournament spokesman explained to Reuters: “They play better if they don’t eat too much”. As for the imprisonment: “You don’t know the pygmies. They are extremely difficult to keep in control.” The Omnisports cook concurred: “These pygmies can eat at any time of the day and night and never have enough”. The little hunters themselves were too frightened to comment.

Their tournament was a disaster. Team names included Bee-sting of Lomie and the aptly named Ants of Salapoumbe, but only 50 fans bought tickets, and most of these came strictly to shout abuse at the pygmies.

Absurdity, as the Theatre of the Absurd taught us, can be cruel as well as funny, and Africa can be an absurd place, to the fullest extent of both senses. Football, there as elsewhere, reflects regional character:

Recently, three contracts have appeared for the sale of one player from Torpedo Moscow to Olympiakos Piraeus. One contract is for the Greek tax inspectors, one they show to the player, and the third is the real contract, but no-one knows which is which. (ch. 5, “The Secret Police Chief at Left-Half”)

The former Soviet Union is riddled with corruption, and so is its football. You’ll also learn in this chapter that clubs from Eastern Europe with “Dynamo” in their names were usually set up and run by the Secret Police. That is why they were so unpopular, unless they managed to associate themselves with nationalist aspirations, as Dynamo Kiev did. Kuper devotes a chapter to the club, with fascinating details of the “science of football” developed there that allowed Kiev to dominate European football during the mid-’80s with a team of super-fast, super-fit “robots”.

But I wonder whether pharmacology played its part in their success, as it may have done during the 1982 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina. Two Argentine forwards, Kuper writes, carried on running for an hour or two after one game, in order to work off drugs they had been injected with on the orders of Argentina’s military dictators. Winning the World Cup was important for public morale, and the generals were prepared to go to any lengths to help the team win it.

Few other sports can affect the mood of an entire nation for better or worse like that, and none can do it as powerfully as football. That makes football uniquely susceptible to corruption, and uniquely placed to reflect national character. Football isn’t the world, but you can find much of what’s important in the world and its people there. If you find yourself wondering how, let Kuper show you, all from the rivalry between Holland and Germany to the Pope’s season ticket at Barcelona by way of an American journalist who holds 0•3% of the shares in Charlton Athletic.

The only complaint I have about the book is the prose, which betrayed occasional tendencies towards one of my pet hates: what Fowler’s Modern English Usage describes as “elegant variation”: that is, referring to a “spade” as a “spade” once, then as a “pedally operated earth-moving implement” before you refer to it as a “spade” again. It’s an aesthetic flaw and that’s a shame in a book about the world’s most aesthetically pleasing sport.

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Football’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, Jimmy Greaves with Norman Giller (Hodder & Stoughton 2007)

Like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Greaves has put his name on an entertaining book that he didn’t write. And like Iommi, Greaves has earned the right to do that. He entertained millions as a player, then entertained millions more as a broadcaster and football pundit, but he never made a lot of money. I assume he’s not written this book, at least. It would be unusual if a good player from a humble background were also a good writer, because this is an easy and entertaining read.

And Greaves was a good player – very good, in fact. He scored 44 goals in 57 England games, which isn’t far behind Bobby Charlton’s record 49 goals for England. But Charlton took 106 games to score that many. If Greaves had played so long and scored at the same rate, he’d’ve had about 80 goals for England. But he retired early and was never the kind of conformist to win so many caps.

He missed out on the World Cup Final in 1966 too, but he says here that he agrees with Alf Ramsey’s decision not to play him. Booby Moore and Gordon Banks did play and both are included here. Moore was Greaves’ “best mate in football” and asterisks appear as Greaves says what he thinks of the way Moore was treated by “the f****** FA” after he retired and had to scrabble for money. Even mediocre players can become millionaires today, but Greaves’ generation often fell into poverty after they retired.

In one of the generations before that, Tom Finney was “never ever a full-time professional”, which is why he earned the nickname of “The Preston Plumber”. Finney is #2 in this book, after Stanley Matthews, but the book is written in order of birth, not by how highly Greaves rates them as players. In that case, however, birth-order and Greaves’ rating coincide, because only Matthews makes the “All-Star XI” that Greaves picks at the end. Playing 4-2-4, the XI goes like this:

Lev Yashin; Franz Beckenbauer, John Charles, Bobby Moore (capt.), Duncan Edwards; Alfredo di Stefano, Dave Mackay; Stanley Matthews, Pelé, Maradona, George Best.

I don’t know enough about football to disagree, but Johan Cruyff seems like an obvious omission. He’s #28 in the book proper. And where is Lionel Messi? Nowhere, because this book was first published in 2007, so he doesn’t appear at all. Footballers are like flowers: they flourish briefly, then fade. The big young names here, like Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, are senior players now, approaching the end of their careers, not burning at the zenith as they were in 2007.

And I don’t think there are many generations of footballer to come. This book is about the winners of genetic and environmental lotteries, but new technology means that we’re on the verge of being able to rig the game. When bioengineering and eugenics can produce super-athletes to order, how much value will sporting prowess retain? In crude, one-dimensional sports like athletics, rugby and American football, it’s already possible to inject your way to excellence, which is one reason I’m not interested in those sports.

Football has stayed interesting longer because it’s intellectually and psychologically demanding too. Big muscles and speed don’t automatically translate into dominance on the football pitch. Lightly built men like George Best and Denis Law could excel even in the days of brutal tackles and lenient refereeing. Like everyone else in this book, they must have had special brains, able to process visual information at high speed and perform very some complicated combinatorics. They were born with that ability, I’d say, but they had to polish it by practice. Footballing skill has to become automatic, operating below the level of consciousness, as the German great Gerd Müller explained:

Asked about his gift for goals, Muller said, “I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, or when a defender is going to make a mistake. Something inside me says, ‘Gerd, go this way; Gerd, go that way.’ I don’t know what it is.” (Gerd Muller, #26, pg. 135)

It’s no coincidence that the human beings who play football best are male or that eleven is roughly the size of a hunting-party. Long-distance running and spatial intelligence were once essential for hunting: chasing prey down, throwing spears, firing arrows, and so on. A game of football is like a ritual hunt.

So Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter had an even better name than was apparent as the time. He isn’t one of Greaves’ heroes, but he’s mentioned by George Best as one of the hard men who once tried to kick him out of games. Best mentions Ron “Chopper” Harris and Tommy “Iron” Smith too, then says:

But the hardest of them all was Peter “Cold Eyes” Storey at Arsenal. He seemed a real psycho to me. He used to prowl around the pitch almost grunting as he waited to chop anybody trying to get past him. (George Best, #27, pg. 144)

I hadn’t heard of Storey before, but I’d heard of nearly all of Greaves’ heroes. The exceptions were the Italian Gianni Rivera, AC Milan’s European Footballer of the Year in 1969; the Spaniard Francisco Gento López, Real Madrid’s fleet-footed left-winger for a remarkable 761 league and Cup games, from 1953 to 1971; and the Scot Jim Baxter, a skilful midfielder for Rangers, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest.

Otherwise I already knew the names and was happy to learn more about the players, from Alfredo di Stéfano to Zinedine Zidane, from Len Shackleton to Lev Yashin. Most of the men here are still alive, but football is in its dying days. Advancing technology will see to that, but as it does so it will also answer some interesting questions. It won’t be long before we can run computer-models of retired players and see how they might have performed in different eras and using different tactics. Was Pelé really the best of them all? I think he probably was, but that doesn’t mean he would be in history’s strongest team. The whole of a team can sometimes be more than the sum of the parts and managers are obviously crucial too.

Greaves chooses ten managers in the epilogue, then settles on Sir Alex Ferguson to manage his All-Star XI. But managing is something else that will be changed by technology. Will great managers emerge in the future among computer-gamers who have never played professional football? And when virtual football is fully realized, will people lose interest in the real thing? Probably not, because virtual football will derive its power from the real thing and its history. Bioengineering and eugenics will be the “Chopper” Harris of history, carrying out a crunching tackle from behind that ends the world’s greatest and most beautiful sport.

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