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The best books on Football

recommended by Rob Hughes

Football is about so much more than just football. Veteran sport journalist Rob Hughes recommends some of his favourite football books.

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Let’s start by talking about the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, when the country was still ruled by a military junta. This is one of the episodes in the book by Paul Gardner, Soccer Talk.

Yes, I met Gardner during that tournament – he and I got into some quite incredible scrapes. I’m sure everybody did in ’78, because Argentina was under such political repression. It was the first World Cup that I actually attended. And I was actually turfed out of my hotel for having written articles about the junta before I arrived, and put into a hotel where they could watch me. But what they inadvertently did was put me right in the heart of the city, so that I could literally see the crowds becoming dissident towards the regime. Gardner and I were caught in the square outside the obelisk. There was such a crowd, I am certain that people would have been crushed to death in it. What we didn’t realise was that that was the night of coming out – that was the night people decided ‘to hell with the junta, we’ve won a soccer game, and we’re going to celebrate!’ So everybody was on the street, and I met Gardner as both of us tried to escape from the deathly crush. We jumped a barrier and finished up in the underground – for which we hadn’t got a ticket between us – and some incredible Argentine people gave us their coins (they weren’t tickets, they were coins) so we could get away. Even though it meant they couldn’t. It was an astounding piece of humanity and it taught me a lot about the Argentines. That was literally my meeting with Gardner.

The book you’ve recommended of his is a collection of articles and essays stretching over 30 years. But the Argentina ’78 episode is your favourite?

People think I’m crazy, but I genuinely believe that that tournament changed history. I think the generals, having repressed the people and had night curfews for I don’t know how long before we got there, simply couldn’t maintain that repression once they’d let the people out on to the streets. And they made, I suppose, a political error in allowing them to do it. But they had wanted the World Cup, and managed to acquire the World Cup, to further their regime. So they used the politics, the internal politics of football, to get the World Cup. But then, having got it, it turned into the great liberation of the people. And everywhere you went, to every city, Mar del Plata or wherever, the night of an Argentine game, it became a night of outpouring on the streets. And it was clearly far, far more than a football tournament. Really what I’m saying is that the force was bigger than football. They probably weren’t the greatest team in the tournament, but they just weren’t going to lose to anyone.

And they beat the great Dutch team in the final. Though Holland’s best player, Johan Cruyff, had failed to show up for the tournament, though no one really seems to know exactly why.

I used to be very, very close to Johan Cruyff, at the time when he was right at the top of his game. He and I played together, and I kicked him once. He had an absolutely incredible insight into the game, even as a young player. He was far ahead of anyone else, but, and I used to tell him this, he was the problem. He wanted to run everything in the team, and the other players didn’t want to be run by him. They should have won the World Cup in Germany in ’74. They then went to Argentina and they reached the final again. Cruyff refused to go because he had a personal contract with Puma, and Adidas was the team’s sponsor. He wanted to cut his own deal, so he started appearing in photographs with a different kit to the rest of the team, so they dropped him.

Holland never give me the impression of really wanting to win. 

They don’t want to win with each other. They argue with each other all the time. And they’ve already started in this World Cup, some of the big players… But, personally, I don’t think they could ever have won in Argentina. If ever destiny played a part in this sport it was that time. The Argentine team had such a high, almost superhuman, reason to win the World Cup, that I don’t think anybody would have got in the way. And also that was a rough, tough Argentine team.

Can you tell me anything else about Gardner and his book, beyond Argentina ’78?

You’ve rumbled me a bit because I think that’s why I like the book, because the book brings to life something that you can hear from the way I’m talking, informed me as journalist. American followers of football know Gardner more for his other book, The Simplest Game, which he wrote in 1994, the year America staged the World Cup. Pele, the most accomplished player in the sport’s history, recommended Gardner’s book to all Americans who want to know, and love, his game. But I prefer Soccer Talk. It features themes tackled by the author in many parts of the world, and there’s better stuff in the book than the chapter about Argentina. Gardner has an obsession with Hispanic players. I was actually in New York about ten days ago – it was Gardner’s 80th birthday, and the United States Soccer Federation helped organize a huge dinner for him and invited me to go and say some words. And one of the reasons they were holding this big party for him is that he helped bring over a team from Bolivia, a boy’s team from Tahuichi. It was a very special team because he took street urchins from drugs to soccer, and from that team they produced almost the entire 11 that played in the World Cup in the US in 1994. If you trace it back, the reason for that team’s special affinity with America, where the World Cup happened to be being hosted, was this one guy. So, although he’s a writer, he’s a bit more than writer. Gardner is a strange man, because he’s English. He’s lived in the States since 1959 – he was actually a pharmacist and he arrived in the States on a contract to work as a pharmacist. He found out after a period of time that he didn’t like dispensing toxic medicines, and packed it in. But although he was English he wasn’t a football man either, so the strange alchemy of how he became a football writer I’ve never discovered.

Let’s go on to Goals for Galilee: The Triumphs and Traumas of the Sons of Sakhnin, Israel’s Arab Football Club by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochdendler. This is another amazing story, I think. 

I have known Jerrold Kessel for 15 years. He’s a former CNN frontline reporter in the Middle East, and I saw at World Cups how the game gripped his imagination beyond some of the horrors he was sent to report. Now he lives in Jerusalem, and Kessel and his cameraman made a documentary film, We Have No Other Land, about the soccer team of Sakhnin, an Arab town in Galilee. It has a Jewish manager and several Jewish players, but is an Arab team. Against all odds it captured Israel’s State Cup, and represented Israel in Europe. It’s a true story of football conquering prejudice in one of the most suspicious lands on earth.

So if one could get hold of it, it’d be better to watch the documentary than read the book. 

The documentary is really moving, really powerful. It was filmed four years ago, at the time when the team broke through. The book is an afterthought, if you like. The book certainly tells me a lot that the documentary didn’t, because it’s written in the person of the founder of the club and the players. So it’s an attempt to get inside the club, and to get inside the minds of the people who formed it. But it doesn’t quite come off. Partly, I suppose, because I’m spoilt by seeing the documentary first. The film just worked superbly; you can feel the Gaza Strip from seeing the documentary…

Is it uplifting? Or is the message that football can only get you so far?

The message is that Arab and Jew are so close to each other, the border is so thin, that they’re really the same people. It’s really like having two different tribes of the same person, forever warring. For the club, there are two successes really. One is that the club survives, because its field has been bombed just about every time that Israel bombs across the border. But, forgetting the material side, the second success is a spiritual thing – the club has a Jewish coach, it has Jewish players, but mostly it’s an Arab team. To me, the biggest shock with this whole story is that they were allowed to compete and win the Israel State Cup. Israel allowed an Arab team to compete in their cup, and then win it, and then, having won it, they had the right and took it to compete in Europe as an Israeli team. And that’s very powerful. My feeling is that soccer is a lingua franca, it can cross all the boundaries.

Let’s go on to the book about French footballer, Eric Cantona, The Rebel who Would be King. Cantona is now a film star…?

Yes, he’s right now appearing in films. He’s actually playing himself in one, the film that’s really made a big breakthrough [Looking for Eric], but he is someone around the French film set. And, in a way, as this book tells you, he was an actor all along. He was an astoundingly gifted football player, a bit like Cruyff, and difficult to contain in a single side. And that’s the reason he came to England, because the French couldn’t abide him – imagine a man too arrogant for the French! He was all that. And what the book attempts to tell you, by going back to his origins, is that he’s not even accepted as a Frenchman. He comes from this strange family that lived in a cave that was built into the side of a mountain in the Caillols area of Marseilles.

His grandfather was artistic, so painting is one of his hobbies; poetry is another, though he’s lousy at it. And it used to come out when he was playing, that when he did something wrong he did it spectacularly wrong. Like the kung-fu kick he gave to a member of the audience, when he was playing for Manchester United. They played away at Crystal Palace and a spectator was taunting him with racist comments about him being a frog, and he literally ran the width of the field and launched himself feet first into this guy, catching him the head. He was banned for about eight months from playing – and almost the biggest success that the Manchester United manager, who had been there for 26 years, ever had, was tempting him to come back and play again. Because he’d decided that if the English wanted to ban him, he was never going to come back. And he did come back, and instantly changed one of the biggest and most difficult stalemates that I’ve ever seen in my life, just through sheer arrogant but wonderfully gifted ability. He was an extraordinary performer, but none of the English, me included, ever worked him out. You never could quite tell why he was a rebel, or why he was difficult. If he didn’t like a club he was playing for, it didn’t matter what contract he was on or anything else, he went.

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In this book Philippe Auclair, a French football correspondent based in London, turns his pursuit of Eric into an obsession to unravel the strange, and thus compelling, nature of the man. ‘I play with passion and fire. I have to accept that sometimes this fire does harm’ is one line in the book. Ultimately I’m not sure that Auclair, or any man, could explain everything that moves and motivates the dark side of this wonderful showman player. But I doubt anyone gets closer to it. And the irony is that Cantona never really played for France. He did play, maybe 30 times, but I remember the day he was dropped from the French squad. I remember asking the French team coach ‘Why?’ And the guy said to me, which was an astonishing thing to say, ‘Because I’ve got somebody better.’ And actually it proved right, because the guy he had was Zinedine Zidane. So if Cantona hadn’t been such a rebel, we might never have seen the beauty of Zidane…

Let’s talk about The ESPN World Cup Companion – I presume this is more of an ‘everything you need to know about the World Cup’…

Yes, though told in a quirky way, which is the character of one of the authors, David Hirshey. But what I was looking for there, to be honest, was I’ve been so maverick in my choice of books, and certainly if I was an American, and the World Cup is on and for about one month America understands soccer, I need a book that tells me something, that helps me through the tournament. And this book probably does it better than the book that’s the real bible, Brian Glanville’s The Story of the World Cup. Because this World Cup comes at a time when the United States media has started reflecting the expansion of soccer in America , it needs a book that copiously explains to Americans the global aspects of the sport. Hirshey and Bennett appear indefatigable in reading everything, watching everything, and cramming everything into one compendium of the 80-year-old phenomenon, the World Cup. In Hirshey’s case, the thirst for knowledge was handed down by his late father’s latent European lifelong love of the game as an Arsenal fan in exile in New York City. The Companion is pacy, passionate, unsparing in detail, and, so far as I know, accurate.

Next is a book by Norman Fox, Prophet or Traitor about Jimmy Hogan. I’ve never heard of Jimmy Hogan. Should I have?

It’s the obscurity of him that makes the book in many ways. He’s obscure in England as well. He played in England, before my time, and was 71 years old in 1953. Hogan is the mystery man behind it all as it were. The thing that makes the book is that when I was a child, barely seven years old, the Hungarians came to England and absolutely destroyed the myth of British superiority. England then demanded a rematch and went to Budapest, and got an even bigger hiding. When the English then tried to say to the Hungarians, ‘What on earth is this all about? Where did you learn this kind of football?’ They turned around and said: ‘You should ask Jimmy Hogan.’ So he then became known as a traitor in England – and treated as such. Some of the English team of that time to their dying day regarded this guy as a traitor. But there was no such thing, in those days, as a coach. So when he finished football, he went abroad. And he went to various places –Switzerland, Austria, and so on. And, in each one, he taught them how to play. But he taught them, as it turns out, how to play a much, much superior game to the English. And the irony is that that’s still the case. The reason the Dutch, the Austrians, the Hungarians, all those people, and even if you took it further, the Brazilians – they learned to play a different way because of this wandering minstrel, Jimmy Hogan. He was actually just earning a living, doing what he enjoyed doing, which was telling people ‘This is how you play…’

Finally, as a postscript, you’ve added a book that’s out of print, Common Sense About Soccer, written in 1970 by Nils Middelboe, an Olympian and an amateur who played for Chelsea for one year…

It’s the smallest book, and you can find it on eBay – I saw it just the other day; people are offering their copy of it. I’m miffed because my own copy has been stolen. It was the tiniest book, it was only about four by five inches, not that many pages. Nils Middelboe was a real Olympian, a decorated one, he scored two goals in the final in 1948, then fell in love with England, and stayed a year to play for Chelsea. But he was actually a banker, and he reached old age in 1970 and decided to write this book. And the reason he wrote is it that he thought it was extremely sad the way that coaches all across the world, but perhaps especially in England, were systemising the game. They were taking away the childhood from kids, by making them play to set patterns. So the whole thesis of his book was: ‘Stop all this overcoaching because by overcoaching you are sterilising it.’ That one phrase of his, ‘to systemise is to sterilise’ has stayed with me, even though I can’t lay my hands on the book.

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Did it have a big influence?

This sounds awfully big-headed, but I started including it in columns. I don’t think anybody had ever heard of the book. But coaches in at least half-a-dozen countries, coaches of national teams, kept coming to me and saying, ‘Where’s the book – we can’t get it!’ And I would send it to them, on condition that they sent it back, and everyone did until eventually, of course, somebody didn’t. And, funnily enough, I know the guy and I keep asking him for it back, and he keeps telling me it’s on his bookshelf, and I tell him I don’t believe him, because I‘ve never met a football coach with a bookshelf. Plus his coaching does not suggest enlightenment, so perhaps he pulped it. But I think the book did have some effect. There is still a need for people to let go of the reins, and to let their imagination go – especially children. He didn’t specifically write it for children, but, if you tell children at nine what they should do and what they shouldn’t, then you’ve lost all the improvisation that you get with the Johan Cruyffs…

June 10, 2015

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Rob Hughes

Rob Hughes

Rob Hughes wrote a column about football for the International Herald Tribune for more than 30 years, as well as writing for The Times for a decade and The Sunday Times for 25 years. In 1990 Brazil awarded him its highest civilian decoration, the Order of the Southern Cross, saying he belonged to ‘those few writers who reach beyond the mere descriptive to find in sports a deeper expression of individual and national aspirations’. He currently writes a column for the the Straits Times, and you can find his most recent columns here. 

Rob Hughes

Rob Hughes

Rob Hughes wrote a column about football for the International Herald Tribune for more than 30 years, as well as writing for The Times for a decade and The Sunday Times for 25 years. In 1990 Brazil awarded him its highest civilian decoration, the Order of the Southern Cross, saying he belonged to ‘those few writers who reach beyond the mere descriptive to find in sports a deeper expression of individual and national aspirations’. He currently writes a column for the the Straits Times, and you can find his most recent columns here.