10) Lovejoy on Football – Tim Lovejoy
10) For Club And Country – Brian Glanville
The first book on the list is actually a bit of a cheat, a compilation of the best of the Guardian’s football obituaries. Yet to celebrate football writing without mentioning Brian Glanville would be like honouring Manchester United without acknowledging Alex Ferguson. There is nobody better than Glanville at the art of the obituary.
The collection is comprised of columns largely written between 2001 and 2007, and its greatest trick is to give the reader an astonishing amount of information in a short space of time and pages. There is no waffle and very little whimsy, just a writer describing the careers and personalities of some of the game’s most important characters in his own wonderful style. You find yourself educated almost through osmosis.
9) The Miracle Of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinniss
Space may now be at a premium in the middle of the Venn diagram between sports and travel writing, but there were several trailblazers in the genre. These were the writers who took full advantage of the growing exposure of – and therefore interest in – European football. The greatest of those was Joe McGinness, and his magnificent tour de force of Italian football and culture.
McGinness’ book follows the fortunes of tiny Castel de Sangro, a club from a small town in southern Italy who reached Serie B in 1996, but the club’s progress is only one aspect of a story you can truly re-read and enjoy over and over again. It nails that most difficult combination: humour without trying to be funny.
The best travel writing doesn’t so much make the reader feel as if they were there as create a desperation to be in the author’s shoes. It’s all you can do to stop yourself selling your possessions and heading for Italy armed only with a passport, money and sense of football adventure.
8) Football In Sun And Shadow – Eduardo Galeano
When Galeano passed away in April 2015, football writing lost one of its pillars. The Uruguayan was a novelist and historian, but also a deep lover of football. Galeano admired football’s ability to survive through conflict and corruption.
For fellow lovers of the game, ‘Football in sun and shadow’ was his masterpiece. This is football writing like nothing else, prose broken down into small segments but each containing as much flair as a mere mortal would be happy to produce, or even dare to use, in a year. The format of the book makes it feel like these are the whimsical thoughts of a man sat in an easy chair, sipping a cold drink and smoking a fat cigar, passing comment on life.
‘Although he can contemplate the miracle more comfortably on TV,’ Galeano writes on the subject of fans. ‘He prefers to make the pilgrimage to this spot where he can see his angels in the flesh doing battle with the demons of the day.’
For more on the book, read this excellent review by Andi Thomas.
7) The Girls Of Summer – Jere Longman
Former sportswriter for the New York Times, Longman was in the perfect position to write the defining book on the progress of women’s football, told through the experiences of the US team that won the 1999 World Cup.
Not only does Longman provide unprecedented access to a team of superstars, but also takes the opportunity to delve further into the impact of women’s soccer on issues of class, race and gender in US culture, and the gap between the haves and have-nots of male and female sport across the world. The quality of writing makes it exactly the sort of book that you pick up one late afternoon and find yourself finishing at 1am the same night. Truly wonderful.
6) All Played Out – Pete Davies
As a four-year-old boy whose football obsession was developing but not yet raging, Italia ‘90 is not a World Cup I remember. It still feels like an act of treachery to pick any other major tournament as your favourite.
Crucially, it occurred at a time before columnists and writers felt the need to tell us what we could or couldn’t enjoy, and made us feel guilty for our choices either way. The English football team made people feel excited and tingly, with far less of the weariness. People were infatuated by Gascoigne, respectful of Lineker and proud of Pearce. This was a four-week party, with Nessun Dorma as the soundtrack to make the hairs stand up on your neck. Pete Davies doesn’t just describe that fevered mood, he brings it back to life.
Most importantly, this is the type of book that we will never see again. Such was the access to players and staff, Davies is able to describe in incredible detail the minutiae of tournament life in England’s squad, building up that crazy night in Turin.
Italia’ 90 was the last World Cup of a bygone age, the game affected by rampant commercialism and corruption and the access to our stars vetted. ‘All Played Out’ is the majestic eulogy.
5) Back From The Brink – Paul McGrath
Football autobiographies are a tricky breed, a few honourable mentions sticking out against a sea of beige. In October, former player and manager and current pundit Leroy Rosenior will bring out the story of his life. The name? ‘It’s only banter’.
The honourable exceptions to the rule typically focus not on on-field events (which tend to follow the lines of ‘the boys did good’) but the strains of personal lives. Paul Lake and Tony Adams’ autobiographies are both brilliant, but there can only be one: Paul McGrath.
McGrath’s candidness about the genuine horrors of addiction take your breath away. When reading large passages, you almost forget that the protagonist was even a footballer, let alone one of immense quality who used supreme talent to mask his mental illness. A book to change how you view footballers, not as performing animals but potentially vulnerable young people.
4) The Football Man – Arthur Hopcraft
It would be no exaggeration to call Hopcraft the first of his kind, a writer who even in the Sixties appreciated that football was not merely a Saturday afternoon pursuit but an important part of British culture. The Football Man: People and Passions in Soccer was his attempt to explain the where, how and why of football’s unique pulling power. It is a triumph.
‘Football matters, as poetry does to some people and alcohol does to others,’ Hopcraft wrote. ‘There is more eccentricity in deliberately disregarding it than in devoting a life to it. The way we play the game, organize it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.’
Reading back now, the most striking thing is just how prescient his observations were, even in relation to the modern day. It was Hopcraft’s aim to get to the ‘heart of the game’, and few have ever done so better.
3) The Ball Is Round – David Goldblatt
Quite simply, the bible. In 911 pages, Goldblatt does what he does best, namely offer a complete history of a topic in meticulous, magnificent detail. The book begins in ancient Egypt, Mesoamerica and China and ends in 2006 when the author put down his pen. It reminds of the King of Hearts’ advice in Alice of Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Yet it is so much more than just a reference or textbook. By breaking the text down into sections, Goldblatt makes the content readable and easy to absorb, as if you are reading a (long) series of articles on the subject. By the end, you feel honoured to have enjoyed the definitive take.
The Ball is Round proves the theory correct: Once Goldblatt has written a book on a subject, nobody else need bother.
2) A Life Too Short – Ronald Reng
Not strictly an autobiography, but only by tragic technicality. Ronald Reng was supposed to co-write the autobiography of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, and was a personal friend of the player. On November 10, 2009, Enke could no longer cope with his depression. A husband and father stepped out in front of a train and was killed. Enke was just 32.
Out of a terrible tragedy came a glimmer of hope, with Reng determined to tell the story of his friend in order to raise awareness of a horrible, destroying disease. The author passes comment on the huge pressure piled upon elite sportspeople, but also on the difficulties of managing fame and depression.
‘Today I know why the biography was so close to his heart,” Reng writes. ‘When his goalkeeping career was over, he would finally be able to talk about his illness. Robert summoned up a huge amount of strength to keep his depression secret. He locked himself away in his illness. So I will now have to tell his story without him.”
1) The Soccer Syndrome – John Moynihan
In the build-up to the 1966 World Cup, there were plenty of journalists and writers passing comment on the chance of England and on football in general. For the most part, they remained aloof, separated from the game as a whole largely by class. Put simply, these were middle-class people writing about a working-class sport.
Moynihan bridged that divide. Rather than discussing football as an outsider looking in, he wrote with the passion of an obsessive fan but with a flourish that allows his book to stand the test of time. This is a Henry Winter pie with a PG Wodehouse crust, and if you can’t get on board with that meal then we just can’t be friends.
Saddened to hear that John Moynihan has passed away. Great character, brilliant football writer. 'Soccer Syndrome' is a classic book
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) January 17, 2012
'The Soccer Syndrome' (1966), by late John Moynihan back in print. Includes telling insight into modern/60s players pic.twitter.com/R4XbEpMbZG
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) March 22, 2016