If you are interested in English soccer and you want to learn more about it — and also learn more about England and the United Kingdom in general — I cannot recommend highly enough that you read David Goldblatt’s book, The Game of Our Lives.
(Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning Groundhopper Guides may receive some compensation if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links.)
You might know Goldblatt for some of his other books, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, and the follow-up to that one, The Age of Football: Soccer and the 21st Century. In each of those, as well as Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer, Goldblatt applies a simple theory — that football, as the world’s sport and one of its essential shared languages and cultural experiences, is therefore the perfect way to understand the world.
And in this case, The Game of Our Lives (published in 2014) tells the story of England and the game it invented. Specifically it’s about what we would call the Premier League Era, but in fact this is the story of a once-great nation sliding into mediocrity and irrelevance, both internally and internationally, and how the game at home reflects this.
Here’s our whole list of soccer-related
suggested books, films and programs.
The irony, of course, is that the Premier League is the richest, most watched, and probably best football league the world has ever known. And yet it is horribly unequal, poorly governed, runs up enormous debts, and has lost almost all contact with its roots as a communal, bonding experience. Now, think about society in the big picture — income, employment, government, community, race and gender relations — and read that previous sentence again.
This is the kind of parallel that Goldblatt draws again and again. Here’s a quick review of the chapters — each an essay of around 30 to 40 pages packed with references, footnotes, and words and phrases that might send you (and certainly did send this American) off to Google, dictionary.com and/or Wikipedia to find out more about what he’s talking about.
Aspiration and Illusion: The Economics of the New Football is all about the perversion that television money has laid onto the world’s game, as it turned from a game of amateurs and clubs to one of global corporations — and how the game has responded by creating its own Victorian/Industrial mythology.
Keeping it Real? Match Day in the Society of the Spectacle takes you from the Victorian, working-class roots of the game to the modern VIP suite, and what has been lost along the way, both the good — a sense of connection between community, club and players — and the bad, like the sense you might get killed inside or outside the ground.
English Journey: Football and Urban England traces how the game was once a place where Barnsley honestly had the same shot at winning as a team from London, and where most English cities were prosperous places — and now all the wealth, power and success seems to be in London, Manchester or Liverpool.
Playing the Race Game: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity reads as a prelude to Brexit, as England and football both become more international and, therefore, less white. And from anti-Jewish chants to bananas thrown at black players, it hasn’t been pretty, even as the action on the pitch has become ever more amazing.
Football at Twilight: Britain’s Endgame is also extremely prescient, as Brexit has brought up once again the specters of Scotland leaving the UK and Ireland being reunified. But even in those scenarios, what of England? You never knew how loaded the question of a Team GB at the Olympics could be.
You Don’t Know What You’re Doing: The Misgovernance of English Football is about the (non)governance of football and the (non)regulation of it as a business. Specifically, the Football Association is brought out for extreme ridicule, and the corporate bosses that run the big clubs are exposed as caring about nothing beyond short-term profit.
Last Man Standing? English Football and the Politics of Gender will tell the shocking story of English women’s football being essentially banned nationwide for 50 years, and also get at the question of why — even in 2021, six years after the book’s publication — no gay player has come out in English football.
All of this sounds quite heavy and scholarly, and it is. But Goldblatt’s gift as a researcher and writer is that he conveys immense information and enormous perspective while also telling a good and compelling story. And he has already changed the way I think about the game and English society writ large, as well as how I watch any individual game.
And while Goldblatt, down to the very last sentence of the book, is pessimistic about the future of both England and English football, there is a common thread that carries throughout his latest masterwork: that a perfect way to understand and appreciate the remarkable nature of football, and of the supporter culture that has grown up around it, is to note that it can still provide community, spontaneity, poetry, and even magic — despite the corruption, negligence, and incompetence of the people running it.