Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Culture, Politics and Soccer

When Simon Kuper's excellent book Football against the Enemy hit bookstores more than a decade ago, there wasn't any market for books analyzing a country or a culture from a soccer perspective. But the success of Kuper's book opened the market for books trying to understand the complicated political and social situation of a country via the beautiful game. Here are some of the more well known books in no particular order:

  • Le Foot Edited by Christov Ruhn: This collection of writings looking at French football is quite impressive with the pieces on Zidane (by Mounsi), Anelka and Wenger being personal favourites.

  • Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football by Phil Ball: Ball's beautiful writings on Spanish soccer can be found weekly on Morbo is a pleasure to read.

  • Brilliant Orange by David Winner: A hilarious and insightful account into the Dutch psyche and football.

  • Tor! The Story of German Football by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger

  • Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way by Alex Bellos: Bellos does an excellent job of capturing the beauty and chaos that haunts Brazilian football.

  • The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli, Gabriele Marcotti: A very insightful book that looks at the tactical and cultural differences between English and Italian soccer.

  • Baghdad FC: Iraq's football story by Simon Freeman: Despite the number of books out there on Iraq, this provides an intelligent look at Iraqi life and culture via soccer. And since most of the books on Iraq are looking at things from an American perspective, it is refreshing to see things with a combination of British and Iraqi voice.

  • Goalless : The Story of a Unique Footballing Nation by Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandyopadhyay. India has the third oldest soccer tournament in the World (The Durand Cup) aside from the English and Scottish F.A Cup dating back to 1888. And in keeping with the other rules of the British occupation, in the initial days of football in India, Indians were not allowed to even kick the ball as the game was only reserved for the British soldiers and elite. But that changed when a young boy, Nagendra Prasad, kicked a ball back to the British soldiers in 1877. He is hailed as the "father of Indian football" and his story appears to have inspired a crucial scene in the film Lagaan when a young boy returns a cricket ball to the British soldiers. Nagendra Prasad's simple act seems to have raised the interest of the game in India but the big breakthrough for Indian football came in 1911 when Mohun Bagan beat a British team and that victory is attributed as being the first spark in the quest for Indian independence. I always wanted to find a book which talked about Indian football and thankfully I got my hands on this book. Even though some parts of the book are a bit dry, it sheds light on plenty of relevant topics regarding how soccer helped fuel the dreams of freedom from the British and how the game created regional and religious divisions among the people. Also, there is mention about India's absence from the 1950 World Cup. India qualified for the World Cup in Brazil but opted out. I grew up reading that it was because the Indians wanted to play bare-feet that they were refused entry. But as the book shows, the reason might also be financial as there was not enough money available to send the team to Brazil. Playing the game bare-footed sounds strange today but the more I think about it, the more I feel that there is something truly pure about playing the game without any shoes. Maybe in the early days, the first Indians to have played the game were onto something.

  • Forza Italia by Paddy Agnew: I was looking forward to reading this book and it does not disappoint. I remember reading Agnew's articles on Italian soccer in World Soccer for most of the 90's and for the longest time, he was my sole English source for Italian soccer. The book is a look at Paddy's life covering Italian football, including the challenges he and his wife faced adjusting to their Italian life plus the frenzy that takes place in Serie A football.

  • Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson: This is a very interesting read which not only gives a nice historical perspective to some Eastern European nations but also shows how politics in the region influenced soccer and how soccer in turn was used to push a specific political agenda through such as the division of Yugoslavia. I enjoy reading Wilson's soccer articles in the Guardian as he covers Eastern Europe very well.

  • And in a few weeks, another book will be added to the above list.

  • When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone by James Montague: The title of this book on Middle East soccer is a twist on the popular soccer magazine, When Saturday Comes. Before the English Premier League was formed, all top flight English soccer games kicked off on Saturday afternoon @ 1500 GMT. But now thanks to satellite tv, a good number of Premier League games take place on Sunday, with some on Monday night as well. Still, the magazine When Saturday Comes continues to thrive with insightful articles. But in the Middle East, Friday is the holiday as opposed to Sat or Sun. Hence the title. There was a recent piece by James Montague in the Guardian regarding Kurdistan's soccer team.
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