It is entirely possible that I possess the only cricket book in the world personally autographed by Pele. It happened like this: I had just shifted to Dubai, where Pele was visiting, and my books hadn’t arrived yet. The book I had with me when we met was An Indian Cricket Omnibus, edited by Ramachandra Guha and TG Vaidyanathan. “All the best,” wrote Pele on the title page, after we had spent a day together, talking football and watching football.
A couple of years later, we met again, and this time I had with me his autobiography: My Life and the Beautiful Game. He signed on the title page by right. It was one of my first soccer books, a paperback edition bought in 1978. Pele’s more recent autobiography, Why Soccer Matters, is, by all accounts, pedestrian in comparison; I shall probably give it a miss.
In a World Cup year, there are few pleasures to match (in the build-up to the tournament) a re-reading of soccer books, a further thumbing through of well-thumbed volumes and a reintroduction to some long-untouched favourites.
Top of the list has to be Soccer in Sun and Shadow by the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano. “Soccer,” he writes, “is a pleasure that hurts,” and this is a quirky book full of pleasures and thrills, of insights and history, of fringe characters and greats. “The history of soccer,” he says, “is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its roots. Professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from the crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, a cat toying with a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he is playing, with no purpose or clock or referee…”
And here is his description of the Brazilian great Garrincha: “He was the one who would climb out of the training camp window because he heard from some far-off back alley the call of a ball asking to be played with, music demanding to be danced to, a woman wanting to be kissed.”
Close, if not on the same level is Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by the English journalist David Winner. I only need to quote from the author’s introduction to give its flavour: “If this is a book about Dutch football, at some stage you’ll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbis and airports but barely a word, for example, about PSV and Feyenoord. A very fair point. And the reason, I suppose is that this is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football, which is something slightly different…”
The ‘Total Football’ that the Dutch unveiled to the world in the 1970s was of a piece with the ‘Total Architecture’ of an evolving Amsterdam and the ‘Total Design’ that was a naturally ally. Winner asks the question haunting the Netherlands: why do they play such beautiful soccer but never win the World Cup? And then the final compromise in the last World Cup – the admission, by playing out of character, that it is better to win ugly than to lose beautifully.
Franklin Foer’s How Football Explains the World avoids the twin traps of oversimplification and sentimentalism. Foer is an American, and he looks at the globalization of the game to explain the fault lines around our world, from poverty to anti-Semitism to radical Islam, all the themes gaining from being expounded by an ‘outsider’. “There is a thin line between passion and madness,” he says, while talking about the connection between Serbian hooliganism and the Balkan wars.
From the general to the particular: Novelist Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is the funny, touching story of his obsession with Arsenal and the manner in which his life and the progress of his football club are entwined.
Recounting his first game, Arsenal vs. Stoke City, Hornby explains he “fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” At one point he worries about his (as yet unborn) children. Would they support another team? “There must be many fathers around the country,” he writes, “who have experienced the cruelest, most crushing rejection of all: their children have ended up supporting the wrong team…”
Of the many biographies, a favourite is Garrincha: The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero by Ruy Castro. The group of theoretical scientists which decided that a bumble bee was badly constructed and therefore could not fly would have said about Garrincha that he was badly constructed and could not play football. His right leg turned inwards, and his left out. He looked as if he could barely walk. Castro’s biography goes into areas others fear to tread, and the result is a complete picture of a man, his times, and the inner conflict or lack thereof.
No list would be complete without David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Simon Kuper’s two books, Football Against The Enemy and The Football Men: Up Close with the Giants of the Modern Game, and Andrew Jennings’s Foul: The Secret World of FIFA, Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals.
To understand Brazil and what football means to that country, there is Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos.
And finally, two books I love to dip into. Brian Glanville’s Football Memories, the personal journey of a man many consider the voice of soccer, and an anthology: A Game of Two Halves edited by Stephen Kelly.
Here we meet such soccer buffs as the philosopher A J Ayer, Albert Camus, Ryszard Kapuscinki (the superb The Soccer War), Harold Pinter, George Orwell, JB Priestly, John Arlott, Geoffrey Green, Frank Keating, Simon Barnes, Hugh McIlvanney, Alan Ross and many others who have lit up the game with their prose, and indeed poetry.
Every four years, another updated edition of Glanville’s The Story of the World Cup arrives. This year, however, I prefer Nick Holt’s The Mammoth Book of the World Cup which is more comprehensive, and bravely carries a section on the most overrated players of the World Cup.
The author is Editor, Wisden India Almanack