(*) ‘Scottish Football Books’ are defined under the ‘FIFA granny rule’ – even if they’re not Scottish but they mention Scotland, they qualify. (I ignore the fact that Fever Pitch would almost certainly choose to play for England if it had the choice.) In No Particular Order:
“Fever Pitch” – Nick Hornby
“The best book ever on soccer,” said GQ – presumably the American edition. Not much more to say. I remember reading Hornby’s book thinking throughout, “Fucking hell, that’s me.”
– Hornby remembers the end of his first love affair – because Arsenal drew with Spurs 2-2 the day prior. I remember getting chucked by my first long-term girlfriend; Rangers had lost to Dundee United earlier that day and the supporters bus left Ibrox without me.
– I could tell you which day of the week any date of the year was, because I knew the football schedule inside out; Hornby as a young Gooner was fixated with facts and figures.
– Hornby talks about his superstition of throwing a white mouse chocolate under a car before games; I would always bite off two slabs of my Rangers chocolate bar before kickoff at Ibrox. (Hey, it won us nine-in-a-row.)
Fever Pitch kickstarted the whole football literature genre – and while that’s not entirely a good thing, the book itself was spot on.
[Qualifies for Scotland through having a chapter named “Charlie Nicholas”]
“Among The Thugs” – Bill Buford
In 1982 Bill Buford was the editor of “Granta”, a high-end literary periodical, when he chanced upon a football special travelling through a station “near Cardiff” and was amazed at the spectacle provided by three carriages of prime 1980s Liverpool supporters. His book is the story of being a supporter in the 80s, as he followed groups of thugs – mainly a group of Manchester United “InterCity Jibbers” – around Britain and Europe. A memorable trip to Turin illustrates the corruptive power of the football crowd: after three days travelling with a highly unofficial and undesirable group of Reds, the future editor of the New Yorker returns to London and barges past an old couple in Marble Arch tube station, telling them to “fuck off you cunts.”
Buford is a compelling writer, and verges on glamourising the era – which in truth was all-round nasty, as well as fatal in many ways (Heysel, directly attributable to crowd violence; Hillsborough, indirectly so). But his vivid prose really transports you there, and you recall the atmosphere of the time – police escorts to and from train stations; casuals and scarfers; terracing; the chaos of away European games, prior to the corporate cleanliness of the Champions League. Fittingly, the book ends at Italia 90, in many ways the end of the Buford era and the start of the Hornby era – but while everyone remembers Gazza’s tears in Turin, Buford’s World Cup ends in a side street in Sardinia, beaten and bloodied along with hundreds of English hooligans after a pasting from the Carabinieri.
“Headhunters” – John King
King’s “Football Factory” trilogy does border on hooliporn, but the boy can tell a good story. I select Headhunters purely because of the competition inside the book… the amazing come-from-behind reversal of fortune at the end outstripping even Manchester United’s victory in Barcelona for sheer audacity. The stories perhaps have no great unifying theme but they do illustrate the transition of the football hooligan to chilled-out Eurotraveller – albeit one with an edge.
“Football Days – Classic Football Photographs” – Peter Robinson
“When Saturday Comes”, one of the original fanzines, has for the last few years run a regular feature – a double-page photo of vintage soccer action, accompanies by the story behind the picture. Gordon Banks in the mud at Filbert St, or Hampden Park in the 40s, or the Valley in its heyday. I love it. This is a book full of these moments, dating from the late 60s to the early 2000s, with some black-and-white but more colour.
Every page tells a story, but I love Billy Bremner smiling as the coin is tossed before a game with Leeds – how ginger is he, and what a contrast his smiling face is to what no doubt happened over the next 90 minutes. George Best, a handsome young man; as the punchline goes: George, where did it all go wrong? My favourite: pages 194 and 195 – Don Hutchinson wheeling away in celebration as the ball enters the Wembley net. At the other end of the scale, Joao Havelange’s vanity on full display at his last World Cup as FIFA president, France 1998.
“Badfellas – FIFA Family at War” – John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson
This is the book they tried to ban, and if I was an ethically-challenged despot in charge of a multi-billion-dollar unaccountable entity, I’d try to ban it too. More venal than Buford’s book, more filthy than Headhunters, Sugden and Tomlinson take us on a tour through the diseased belly of international football politics – and then down into the intestine and out the arsehole of world football, where you and I get shat on, time and time again. There are many crooks in football, but none bigger than the crooks that control FIFA; this book provides the evidence. The fact that nothing will be done is an outrage.
The book charts the history of FIFA, and demonstrates how Havelange (“wily” is a common adjective that does not do him justice) maneuvered to win an electoral vote against the “Colonel Blimp” figure of Sir Stanley Rous, and then began the relentless commercialisation of the beast, and the thousand greedy mouths sucking at the teat. Most spectacular are the events surrounding the FIFA presidential election in 1998… tales of envelopes being stuffed under hotel doors, eventually securing the loss of Lennart Johansson. Tellingly, a former FIFA executive explains why Johansson lost – “He is honest, he is not corrupt” which apparently gives him a “crippling disadvantage”. This is the world we live in.
Next week: five more.