A novel way to spend Christmas

With the final shopping days before Christmas already upon us perhaps you are at a loss about what to buy for that football fan in your life. Often we football nuts are merchandise magnets so it’s hard to know what we’ll already have and what will go down well. A book you think! A book is always a safe bet, but beware amid the bookshelves lurk some horrors, an unsuspecting shopper might good-naturedly present you with Ashley Cole’s autobiography “My Defence” on Christmas morn and wonder why you’re trying to smile through gritted teeth. So here are a few tomes that can be found in most decent bookshops which I hope will provide an ideal stocking filler.

Tor! – The story of German Football by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger

Oh no the Germans, and German football! How boring you cry! What with their relentless excellence, grinding out dull boring victorys, through penalty shoot-outs or cold efficiency and their dry humourless footballers, even the title Tor! with that frightening exclamation mark, how terrifyingly Teutonic, surely this is a limp, formal, dismal read?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Hesse-Lichtenberger sets about deconstructing the myths that surround German football and the German nation with a ruthless mirth. Tor! follows the standard chronological history of the game in Germany but throws in much more besides. We are introduced to a wild and varied cast of characters interspersed with humorous asides and anecdotes, while the period that focuses on the rule of the Third Reich is handled in an honest and forthright manner. Hesse also makes particular effort to highlight the importance of the German Jewish community in the early years of footballs’ emergence as a national passion.

There are excellent sections of the origin of German football club monikers, so you’ll know all your prefixes from your Borussia to your TSV, whilst Hesse argues persuasively that total football was not created by the Hungarians of the 50s or the Dutch of the 70s but by the Schalke 04 and demonstrated on a national stage by the Breslau Eleven of the German national team of the 1930s. The author also argues passionately and with no little literary skill for the merits of the various successful national teams from later eras, who are often unfairly (he argues) seen as the spoilsports that prevented the Magic Magyars of 1954 and the Dutch Total footballing  side of 1974 from crowning their achievements with a World Cup. The sections about the great German European championship winning side of 1972 are excellent and his critical re-evaluation of German skill and flair, best epitomised by the languid playmaking genius of Gunter Netzer, are worth the purchase alone. Considering the exciting, skilful generation that has been produced by Germany in recent years, a reading of Tor! is all the more timely.

Stramash; Tackling Scotland’s Towns and Teams – Daniel Gray

With Glasgow Rangers currently languishing in Scottish Third Division, what better time to brush up on some of the lesser lights of Scottish football? Get to know your Alloa from your Ayr United, and along the way learn something about the many disparate and interesting towns of Scotland that most of us only know through the classified results on a Saturday afternoon. This is the domain of Stramash.

Gray presents his story as half national football profile-half Edwardian travelogue. As an Englishman living in Scotland, he still has an outsider’s eye for the weird and wacky that makes up the history of towns like Kirkcaldy and Dumfries. Gray’s previous works include a book about the Scottish soldiers who enlisted to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, so it shouldn’t be surprising that from early on his political colours  are nailed to the mast; a recurring theme is the bitter fatigue of finding the same Tesco Express in every small to medium Scottish town. However, he doesn’t turn into a hectoring ideologue: his railings against the identikit high-street are laced with pithy humour and wry observances. And somehow, he always manages to find something witty, endearing or beautiful even in the most deprived post-industrial back-waters.

However interesting and entertaining the vignettes of the towns and their characters are, his evocations of an almost lost footballing world are beautiful, poignant and usually quite funny. His descriptions of the Cowdenbeath Stadium, used as a stock car racing track during football down time, is particularly good. It is a world that many League of Ireland fans will recognise, but one that is almost gone; a whisper of the past kept on life support by a few hundred (sometimes a few dozen) fans of the dedicated and often eccentric variety.

The book begins with a quote from JB Priestly that sums it up better than I can could, it encapsulates the joy of “having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life”, and into a splendid kind of football book.

 A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke – Ronald Reng

Football fans the world over were shocked and saddened to learn of the death of German International goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009 at the age of only 32. What many did not know was that Enke had suffered from depression for years. One man who did was Ronald Reng, author and friend to Robert Enke. They had planned to write a book together charting Enke’s career and his struggles with depression once he had retired. That was never to be, but Reng knew he had to continue the work that they had started and that Robert Enke’s story should be told.

With the assistance of Robert’s wife Teresa, many friends and former team-mates (such as Victor Valder and Rene Adler), the book was completed and with it, they reated a unique sporting biography that transcends the game. Far removed from that standard self-glorifying autobiographies churned out by many players, A Life Too Short excels as a simple sporting biography but it is so much more. It is a coaching manual for goalkeepers, being deeply discursive about styles of play, national goalkeeping stereotypes, and how to break in new gloves. It also operates as an accessible and educational piece about depression, a disease we are all aware of but often don’t fully understand.  As a way to learn about the condition that afflicts so many a curious reader could do far worse.

Above all it is a human story. The word biography comes from the Greek, and means the drawing of a life: in A Life Too Short, Enke’s life is fully drawn and he is drawn as a real and complex person, a son, husband and father, a shy sportsman of great bravery, hidden intellect and possessor of a dry sense of humour. One might think that the idea of reading the biography of a depressed sportsman who committed suicide would be hard work as a January page-turner. However Reng handles the subject extremely well, and his personal connection with Robert and his family shines through. His compassion and understanding of depression is deeply touching and what is comes through is a superlative biograph that will change how you view professional athletes and, indeed, sufferers of depression forever.

Ajax, The Dutch, The War – Simon Kuper

The best biographies and the best football books tend not to limit themselves solely to the narrow confines of just the game, or just the professional career of the chosen subject. Football and footballers do not exist in isolation; they are products of their society, and occasionally even get to influence society. As Arthur Hopcraft famously noted in The Football Man, apart from praying, football is the thing more people choose to do on a daily basis than anything else in the world. So what better way to examine the functions of a society in microcosm than through football?

All the books mentioned previously give an insight into the cultures and influences that produced their style of football and their players, but Ajax, The Dutch, The War goes even further. Kuper’s narrative moves from the Jewish suburbs of Amsterdam in the 1930s back to the Netherlands of the 17th century, before cutting forward to the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and sandwiched in the middle is Ajax, the KNVB, a host of former footballers, club administrators and officials. However at the core of the book is Kuper’s determination to destroy the myth that the Dutch have perpetuated but only half believed since the armistice, that of the Good Dutch and the Bad Dutch during the war; that there were a few who were bad, the collaborators, but that the rest of the Netherlands was good during the war and are beyond reproach.

Kuper lived in the Netherlands as a child and returned there in his 20s.  However, having also lived in the UK and Uganda, he brings an outsiders’ view, and tells the story of the Dutch in World War 2 through the prism of their football clubs. Through the minutes of board meetings from Ajax and other clubs, we see the chilling if mundane details that make up the running of a Dutch football club against the backdrop of the Second World War and the deadly machinations of the Holocaust. Antisemitic outbursts, expulsion of members on the grounds of their Jewish faith, acts of cowardice and resistance – through documentary evidence and personal testimonials, slowly a picture emerges to show how Amsterdam, the city with the biggest percentage of Jewish residents in all of western Europe saw almost all of its Jewish residents wiped out.

Kuper’s study at times has the hallmarks of a personal crusade to give a true representation of wartime Holland, with football the chosen filter, however it is meticulously researched and is full of contributions from men and women who survived the war, witnessed the deportation and Holocaust but also, before and after the war, stood on terraces supporting their side, bankrolled their team and played the beautiful game. A challenging and though provoking piece of sporting and social history that challenges assumptions and stereotypes that persist to this day.

Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game – Marc Bennetts

Russia has emerged at the forefront of the modern game. The wealth generated by the exploitation of gas and oil reserves has allowed the wealthiest in Russian society extend their infuence into the world of football more than they were ever able to do, even at the height of the Soviet Union. Gazprom are Champions League sponsors, the European Champions Chelsea lifted the trophy with a squad bought with Russian oil wealth, whilst clubs like Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow have lifted Europe’s second club competition in recent years and have their eyes on the main prize. With players like Hulk, Samuel Eto’o and others moving East, Marc Bennetts book is a timely examination and introduction to the football of the nation that will host the World Cup in 2018.

As Bennetts notes early on, any book about British football would be unlikely to give much of a mention to Gordon Brown or Tony Blair. However, his own work mentions Vladimir Putin dozens of times. Putin, despite admitting that he does not have a great personal interest in football, understands its power and importance. It is a source of national pride and a release valve for restless young men. At times, reading Bennetts work makes you feel that you’re reading a piece of investigative journalism from the late Anna Politskovskaya, which is no bad thing. Corruption, corporate rivalries, Chechen terrorists, and accusations of political interference in sport are all rife within the book. Bennetts makes no value judgements, and tries to present the testimonies from the interviews he carries out in context and in as even-handed a way as possible.

Bennetts articulates eloquently the frustrations of fans in Russia: at one point a disconsolate Spartak Moscow fan says he doesn’t care anymore as it’s not his team versus Zenit, but LukOil versus Gazprom. He also resists the urge to condemn Russian football completely, and sees the potential in Russia to develop. His affection for Russian football and the country as a whole comes across, with Bennetts being both critic and advocate for a footballing nation that has no intention of slipping into the background.

The Author

Gerry Farrell

Gerry Farrell, Dublin based football enthusiast with an interest in League of Ireland, the Irish National Team, and a bit of everything else. Bohemian in my outlook and footballing alliegiances, presenter of "The Beautiful Game" on Phoenix FM 92.5. Has nearly completed the Panini Euro 88 sticker album.

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