Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Football Men by Simon Kuper

The Football Men by Simon Kuper.Simon Kuper's 1994 book 'Football Against the Enemy' hit just the right note in English-language football literature just at the time the English game was beginning to open up to the world.

The sports-travelogue cum cultural study tapped into a widespread desire for intelligent and wide-ranging football writing that had yet to be properly satisfied by publishers. Whilst its guiding theme might have been a little lost in the end, it remains a true football classic.

Kuper followed up the success of his debut by retreating to newspaper columns and the Dutch football journal 'Hard Gras', and until today has only produced two other books on soccer - "Ajax, the Dutch, the War", a skilful fusion of football into C20th history and a salient reminder of the Netherlands' less than storied war record, and 2009's brave attempt to create a football version of 'Freakonomics' and 'Moneyball', entitled "Why England Lose".

"Why England Lose" might have had fans reaching for the revolver every few pages as Kuper and economist colleague Stefan Szyminski took aim at one sacred cow after another of conventional football wisdom, but it is an extraordinarily thought-provoking book and a very welcome addition to the canon.

His latest production, "The Football Men", takes as its source Arthur Hopcraft's 1968 work 'The Football Man', one of those classics of football literature before the genre was effectively born in the 1990s.

Like Hopcraft, Kuper has interviewed, or written sketches about, a myriad of men at the top of the game. But as he implies in his introduction, maybe it was not the best idea in the first place. The problem, as all journalists and most fans twig sooner or later, is that footballers are mostly inarticulate, boring or both. In the same way that the Apollo 11 astronauts could not put into adequate words the aesthetic or philosophical majesty of their accomplishment, it is better left to non-protagonists to record and interpret the Beautiful Game.

"I have never thought that most footballers have anything special to say, "
admits Kuper. "In fact, now that I've reached middle age I've increasingly given up chasing interviews with footballers. It isn't worth the humiliation."

From his many encounters and observations, Kuper believes that a top player today has metamorphosed from the working class hero of the post-war period to "a slightly monomaniac corporate man and yes-man," while the idea that they are driven fanatics is largely untrue. In short, the great players have more natural talent, more time and more money than us, but are not in any grandiose way super-humans or geniuses.

Because most of the book is culled from Kuper's various columns over the years, there are many vignettes which do not satisfy as much as the longer profiles - the one on Lothar Matthaus is particularly apt, and some of the confident predictions fell flat, a fact he frankly admits in various footnotes. At times Kuper can self-parody, as in his overflowing tributes to the continental flair of England managers Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello before things went awry for both of them, but he remains mostly a sharp observer and certainly one of the most talented football writers around.

As with his books and articles, the pieces which work the best are about his beloved Netherlands, probing the mysterious Dennis Bergkamp, falling out with his idol Johann Cruyff or desperately contacting the Dutch camp at World Cup 2010 with analyses of Spanish penalty-takers hours before the final, in the confident hope that the Netherlands could at last triumph on spot-kicks.

Like the Dutch in Johannesburg, Kuper might have missed the big prize with "The Football Men" but shows enough flourishes to remind us he has enough talent to bounce back with more seminal soccer books.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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