‘Africa United: how football explains africa,’ Steve Bloomfield
I am fairly sure that I have read this book before, almost certainly whilst I was living in Cape Town for the 2010 World Cup. It is crisply written, informative in both a footballing and pan-African journalistic sense, as Bloomfield visits 13 countries across the continent and shows how football both explains, and is affected by, each featured country’s respective people, governments and fans. Didier Drogba appears to have prevented civil war in the Ivory Coast; Egypt and Algeria almost went to war over a World Cup qualifier; and coaches in England have no idea how easy they have it, with a description of a game so important to its President that the Sudanese manager was warned not to bother returning to the country if they lost.
Travel, history, war, peace, a little politics and a lot of football: this seemed to be a book written just for me, and including the following fantastic anecdote:
“Egyptians see themselves as Arabs rather than Africans and this certainly feels like an Arab city. I was told a story, possibly apocryphal, when I first came to Cairo. An Egyptian diplomat, newly appointed as ambassador to Zimbabwe, is greeted at Harare airport by the foreign minister.
‘Welcome to Zimbabwe,” the foreign minister says.
‘Thank you,’ replies the ambassador. ‘It’s my first time in Africa”…
‘Foul! the secret world of fifa: bribes vow rigging and ticket scandals,’ Andrew Jenning
“Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter had joined FIFA in 1975 to manage their new Coca-Cola funded schemes to produce more coaches, referees and specialist sports doctors. He’d made the headlines four years earlier when he accepted the presidency of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders, a group of 120 men from 16 countries who ‘regret women replacing suspender belts with pantyhose’…Blatter had trained in business administration but his skills were public relations. In 1964 he got his dream job in his favourite sport, [any guesses? WRONG! -Doron] general secretary of the Swiss ice hockey federation. Forever after, Blatter kept a souvenir hockey stick in pride of place in his office…”
This single paragraph could be printed in giant letters on the front, back and sides of this book, and should be reproduced in lasers in the sky at every world cup and major international football event as a reminder to everyone what is wrong with football: the man in charge of it has no real connection with the sport, comes from a business and PR background, and isn’t even a fan of the sport. When the best thing in a description of the President of FIFA is that he has a slight suspender fetish, it goes a long way to explaining how we got to a situation where taking your jersey off is punished harsher than foul, abusive language or game-ruining diving, and where players get fined more for revealing sponsored underpants than fans are for vile racist taunting or violence.
The entire book, excellently researched by investigative journalist Jennings, left me feeling depressed and angry about football for weeks: in fact, I still am. I thought I knew how incompetent and depressing the state of world football was, but it turned out that I didn’t know the half of it. Worst of all, with the London Olympics a mere 14 days away now as I type, it is clear that this has become the rule in international sports rather than the exception: rampant and often inappropriate corporate sponsorship, opaque financial dealings and unaccountable leadership which leaves the everyday fan looking in from the outside – scandals and exposés don’t seem to dent these international juggernauts, but in the single example of Blatter being roundly booed at most games of the 2010 South Africa World Cup, there was a glimmer of hope that at least people know that things are wrong: whether we can do anything about it or not is another matter, especially when you have committee members of the pedigree of Zimbabwe’s FA representative:
“Outside Leo Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe’s association, buttonholed me. ‘It is shocking,’ he stuttered, ‘This is a travesty of democracy.’ Was Robert Mugabe’s nephew just saying what he wanted me to hear?…”
‘The Football Men: up close with the giants of the modern game,’ Simon Kuper
A few years ago I picked up and read an enjoyable book called ‘Soccernomics‘ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, a version of Freakonomics or a Gladwellian take on the world’s sport™. Not long ago I picked up and read an equally enjoyable book titled: ‘Why England Lose: and other football phenomena explained.’ It was literally as enjoyable as the former book, since it was the former book, which had merely been repackaged and renamed for the American audience. Luckily I had forgotten most of it, but I was still impressed enough by the book(s) to be excited to read this compilation of vignettes on some of the leading players and coaches of world football penned by one half of that pair, a Dutch journalist who has been reporting on footballing figures for various magazines and newspapers since 1986.
This was a fantastically enjoyable book, featuring snippets of trivia and insight, tactics and minutiae, but most of all observations of footballers as individuals, not heroes. Kuper repeatedly forces home the point that, contrary to the impression of those of us who only get to see them from a distance, these are real (and often extremely uninteresting) people, often with little or nothing to say. A profound reflection on the modern fetish for fame, (and I should know, keeping a photo collection of my brushes with famous literary, sporting, comedic and musical heroes on Facebook), the stories revealed will keep any footie fan engrossed and thirsty for more: which, luckily, I have found for you, at Kuper’s own blog for the Financial Times, here.
“Instead of having original thoughts, he now spends his time taking his grandchildren to the zoo and commentating on Dutch television, often continuing to speak after the microphone has been turned off, because he has never udnerstood how TV works…”
“The transfer fee Barcelona paid for Cruijff was so big – five million guilders – that the Spanish state wouldn’t countenance it. Finally Barça got him into Spain by officially registering him as a piece of agricultural machinery…”
“I remember Paul Simon’s story about running into the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio in a New York restaurant. In ‘Mrs.Robinson,’ Simon had sung:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
When he saw DiMaggio in the restaurant, he worried that the old man would be angry with him. It turned out DiMaggio wasn’t. He liked the song. But he didn’t understand it. The lyrics made no sense, he told Simon. Everyone knew where he was. People saw him on TV commercials every day, he pointed out.
DiMaggio had taken the song literally, whereas Simon had meant it metaphorically…In the restaurant, Simon realised that sportsmen can’t think about themselves as metaphors. They think they really exist…”
Ruud Van Nistelroy:
“Ian Rush said of his time in Italy that it was like a foreign country…”
“This is how Dutch kids follow football: they follow players rather than teams. When Van Nistelrooy joined Manchester United, the British press ritually asked whether he had supported the club as a child. To Van Nistelrooy, the question made no sense. He had supported Marco Van Basten…”
“On the Place Tartane, Zidane rarely bothered using his left foot, and he never headed. When at the age of fifteen he moved two hours up the coast to play for Cannes, and a coach first threw a ball at his head, he ducked…”
Little known to me, (or any of the Arsenal fans I have mentioned it to since I read the book), Anelka, Franck Ribéry and Robin van Persie have all converted to Islam.
“He dribbled like a Brazilian, passed like a Dutchman and ran like a Brit…”
“He persuaded the small northern club Calais to sign his younger brother, François. (The boys’ father, also François, clearly didn’t have much imagination when it came to names)…”
(n.b: Footballing trivia learned from this book included the fact that Wayne Rooney’s father is also called Wayne; Frank Lampard’s father is, of course, Frank Senior; and, as anyone who knows anything about football knows, ex-England international defenders Gary and Phil Neville are the offspring of the wonderfully named Neville Neville: who says imagination is dead?)
“The Beckham brand is strongest abroad, because foreigners experience him without the annoying soundtrack…Like Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin, Beckham works best as a silent brand…”
“Beckham was lucky that, just as his career was starting, he met a brand manager as gifted as Simon Fuller, the future creator of American Idol. In the mid-1990’s, when he was managing artists, he suggested to his client Victoria Adams that she go and watch Beckham play. Jimmy Burns writes in his ‘When Beckham Went to Spain‘: ‘Victoria subsequently related…that Fuller’s ambition at the time had been to have her dump her then boyfriend Stuart in favour of someone famous, like a footballer’…”
(There is so much to feel nauseous at that single paragraph, I almost considered leaving it out of the blog, but if I have to know this stuff, then you do, too, dear reader)
“You close Ashley Cole’s ‘My Defence‘ feeling dirty and stupid for having read it, your main emotion surprise that his agent let him write it. Rooney’s book reads a bit like an essay that a child has been forced to write at primary school…”
Luckily for me, and for you, Kuper has read them for us, and given us the highlights, (and, more to the point, the lowlights). As I hope I have done for you.