There is no shortage of books about soccer, but most of them are not to my taste. Here are my first reviews of some of the soccer books I do enjoy, which are more about the history of football and supporter culture.
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There are several kinds of soccer books I really couldn’t care less about. Player or coach biographies? Yawn. They’re all the same. Club histories? I have no doubt they are of interest to their supporters — and believe me, I will watch anything, more than once, about the Portland Timbers — but I don’t need to rehash the great moments of Your Favorite FC. Tactics? Might as well read some obscure language with a different alphabet for all I’ll get out of it.
What I want to know is the history of the game — and of clubs in the general sense, not recounting every game or season in detail. I also want to learn all I can about supporter culture in the general sense, like how singing has developed at games or how the relationship between clubs and supporters has evolved. And I will read a personal history of someone’s relationship with a club or the game so long as it’s well written and it isn’t 300 pages of “Me and my mates downed 17 pints and went to game, and it was bonkers.”
Here’s the first installment of my soccer book reviews.
This is the mothership of histories of the game. It’s essentially a textbook, with all the flair and style you would expect — which is to say, very little. It’s thick, it’s academic, and it’s massive — as in 992 pages. So it’s more like a reference book, something you return to occasionally when you feel up for another push.
It’s also indispensable. The amount of research that went into it is overwhelming, as the history of the game is tracked from the first kickabouts to 2006, when it was written. I took weeks to read this, as honestly an evening spent with it is the intellectual equivalent of downloading 500 gigs of data to be referenced later. I don’t mean it’s boring; it’s just a lot! It covers basically the whole world, especially since the Industrial Revolution in Britain. So I might have skipped a few sections here and there, but if you are interested in, say, how FIFA and the World Cup came about, it’s in here. Same for the hooligan period in England. Or how they fared behind the Iron Curtain.
A brief word on the name: I have linked here to the Kindle version on Amazon, which is the American version with the word “soccer” obviously used. Same for the paperback edition available there. In the rest of the world, it uses “football.” And other than the intro to the US edition, it’s the same inside. And as for history, here’s my little bit on where the word “soccer ” came from.
There is a sub-genre of books in which Americans “discover” the game of football, almost always in England. Obviously, my own book could fit here, but I wrote a travel and cultural guidebook, whereas Chuck Culpepper, a journalist who was then with the LA Times based in London, has written a fun one here.
The story is simply this: after a while, covering sports takes all the fun out of it (I can attest this is true, one reason I quit being a sportswriter), and this had happened to Culpepper. Then he was somehow drawn to Portsmouth, on the South Coast of England, where he “discovered” English football supporter culture — Portsmouth being a fine place to do so, by the way. By discovering what he calls “basically childhood with beer,” he falls back in love with sports.
Probably my favorite line in here, because it’s one I can identify with, is when he describes a memorable moment in a game, packed with drama and tension and significance, and says that as a sportswriter he would have experienced it standing perfectly still with his arms folded over his chest, figuring out how he was going to write about it. Instead, as a new fan of Portsmouth, he was losing his mind and hugging strangers, a much better way of going through life.
In addition to being simply a fun and easy read, this book is a guide to many of the things I enjoy so much about English soccer compared to American sports, like thousands of fans in one end of the stadium singing to those in the other end, “Your support is fucking shit!” It blew Culpepper’s mind, it blew mine, and I hope both he and I can inspire you to go over for a game.
Adam Hurrey is something of a role model for me. He had an obscure passion, combined it with something of an obsessive mind for detail, created fun and informative content, then turned that into not only a career, but also a real contribution to the sporting and cultural landscape. Also, he’s a nut for language.
Some 15 years ago, while working as a “TV listings editor,” whatever that is, Hurrey noticed he was becoming obsessed with the curious ways that “football people” use the language. He started blogging about it. This led to a book. That led to a career as a sportswriter. He now has a podcast. He’s also a pretty good follow on Twitter.
And all of this has come about because he found metaphorical gold lying in the streets: we all comment on how sports twists the language, but he’s the one who became conscious about it and started writing about it.
Just as a telling example: The first chapter of Football Clichés is called “101 Ways to Score a Goal (or Not).” In it, he dissects the difference between firing, drilling, rifling and powering; between an exocet, an arrow, and a howitzer; and whether a goal was tucked or slotted away, dispatched or buried. I cannot tell you (or at least I’m not willing to tell you) how many conversations along these lines I have had with my fellow Timbers season-ticket holder. We also enjoy coming up with American versions of a rainy night in Stoke.
Anyway, it’s what inspired the helpful soccer terms to know section of this blog and our book, so I hope you will go straight to the source and enjoy this as much as I do.