Rather good football books – Part 1

Well, I thought I’d save part 2 of the Football Podcasts article for another day, and instead recommend some top notch football-related reading material. A lot of my reading these days does seem to encapsulate non-fiction football-related stuff, so thought I should pass on those books I really enjoyed.

“The Miracle of Castel di Sangro” by Joe McGinniss

If you have only six pounds of Amazon vouchers at your disposal, and are determined to purchase a football tome, get this one. A fairly unpromising premise gives lie to an amazingly personal, almost bi-polar account of one man following a Serie B side for a season.

McGinniss introduces himself as an American journalist, who has recently, primarily due to USA 1994 (this is set in the Italian 1996-97 season) discovered a love for “calcio” he previously never knew of. He had read of a small Italian side called Castel di Sangro Calcio, who, hailing from a town with a population of 5,000 (Castel di Sangro, indeed), had reached the ridiculously dizzy heights of Serie B. McGinniss states early on that he turned down a biography of OJ Simpson in order to write this book. I for one am immensely glad that he did.

McGinniss’s approach is a very personal one – he embeds himself into the lives of the team, the management and (despite their best efforts to put him off) the owners (who as can be seen throughout the book, don’t entirely have the club’s best interests at heart…), and from thereon it reads almost like a thriller rather than a factual account of the life of a football team. He shares their tragedies and their successes in equal measure, the utterly farcical situations the team find themselves in throughout the season, and even becomes a bit of a footballing aficionado by the end of the book where, suffice to say, things turn a little unsavoury. In all an excellent account of a season against the odds.

Tor! by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger

There are a number of great football books (some of which I’ll come onto below) which take a country’s footballing history and smash it into 400-odd pages of fact and intrigue. “Tor!” is the German take on things, and quite a tale it is too. “Tor!” is German for goal, and the book itself is a rarity in this “series” of books in that it’s written by a citizen of the country being written about. To my mind, this only improves “Tor!” as we are spared cliches about Teutonic efficiency and humourlessness and instead treated to a tremendous analytical account of the history of the game in Germany.

One thing which will strike the reader about this book more than anything is that German football, until the early 1960s, had no great organisation to it, and was for much of the twentieth century something of an amateur sport, each league season culminating in an almost Superbowl-esque one match play-off for the German title.

The book takes us through the early history of German football, into the Nazi era, then into the split between West and East, (particularly focusing on West Germany’s success in the 1954 World Cup against astounding odds) and finishing with the reunification of the country, and the re-integration of the East German sides and players. It is this clear historical context throughout, as well as Hesse-Lichtenberger’s refreshing frankness on much of his country’s play, which makes this an excellent read.

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

What I want to do, publisher of mine book, is to write about the history of football tactics and formations. Difficult one to sell, one might have thought, but there is no doubt that Jonathan Wilson makes a pretty dry subject almost very interesting.

Part of what makes Inverting the Pyramid as good as it is is the context Wilson places the many random combinations of digits in. 2-3-5 is used to conjure up the halcyon days of the game; the shift to the “catenaccio” model of Helenio Herrera and co gives lie to a description of the man himself, and the lengths to which he was prepared to go for his sides. Footballing geniuses who one may never have heard of, such as Valeri Lobanovski and Bela Guttmann are given prime space for their tactical innovations; even Graham Taylor’s introduction of the pressing game at Watford is given a prime spot in one of the later sections of the book.

Wilson’s book is not so much about the merits or demerits of any particular formation, though he does go into this detail; rather the manner in which they changed, and often in which they were forced to change given the development of the game. In all a somewhat fascinating if a little dry tale of the development of a vital facet of the game.

More to follow, but next up is an EPL preview.


Top notch football podcasts – part 1

What can I say, I’m on a little bit of a roll in terms of blog posts this week. The close-season has irritated me because some of my favourite podcasts are off the air (if one can call the Internet the “air”). My lack of aural pleasure has inspired this list of beauties, so you can all subscribe for next season.

Fighting Talk

Not strictly a football podcast (it does cover more than that), Fighting Talk is a sporting talk show presented by everyone’s least favourite Match of the Day 2 host, Colin Murray, on Radio 5 Live. It tends to get low-rent guests (Simon Day is about the most famous guest) but what it lacks in “celebrity” it certainly makes up for in sheer entertainment value. Points are awarded for punditry, with questions ranging from “Sportspeople as biscuits” to erudite efforts from the programme’s producers and the public. Questions are asked over 45 minutes, including one in which Murray gives ten extra points for an answer which concurs with his, contained in a “golden envelope” (which hardly anyone ever gets).

The two highest scorers are then charged with “defending the indefensible”, in which Murray reads a ridiculous statement with which the contestant much agree. Whoever makes the best effort at doing so (memorable events include Jim Jeffries being cut off after he was asked to defend “Vomit is always part of my lovemaking ritual” (in reference to Ashley Cole) and John Rawling saying nothing when asked to defend “I hate Xmas dinner as my wife’s cooking is abysmal). It is a fairly fluffy fifty minutes but entertaining nonetheless.

The World Football Phone-In (“WFPI”)

The original football podcast I subscribed too, and still my favourite. WFPI takes place every Saturday morning from 2:30 to 4:00am on Radio 5 Live. Luckily, it is also available as a podcast. Genial and occasionally annoying Up All Night host Dotun Adebayo presides over a never boring show, with pundits who (by and large) display an almost encylopaedic knowledge of their subject matter.

Regular correspondent Tim Vickery appears every week – his area of expertise being South America. His knowledge is frankly ridiculous – his ability to wax lyrical about a random Peruvian second division player for 2 or 3 minutes is tremendous, and he never fails to put across sensible, well-thought out opinions. He also regularly apologises to Celtic fans for recommending Rafael Scheidt on one very early edition of the show, and brings in the hilarious Brazilian Portuguese pronunciations of Jonathan Woodgate (Oodgey-gaugey), Harry Redknapp (Hedgey-nappy) and Marlon Harewood (Harry-woodgey) when things get a little stale.

Andy Brassell, who appears fortnightly in rotation with Sean Wheelock (see below), is the show’s European expert, and shares Vickery’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his area of expertise. His polyglotinous ways are particularly impressive, drifting into perfect Portuguese/Spanish/French pronunciations of various players/clubs. Again his opinions are well founded, and he displays a sound technical insight into the beautiful game too.

Sean Wheelock is the resident CONCACAF expert, and despite his jovial Mid-West ways is probably the least effective of the regulars. Though ostensibly a CONCACAF man, his expertise extends almost exclusively to Major League Soccer. When asked about Mexico, if it ain’t about Jared Borghetti or Javier Hernandez, one can forget getting an answer.

Adebayo himself can be a little irritating, but he is good at moving people on who ask idiotic questions or who try and take up a little too much airtime. Other less regular regulars include African experts Durusimi Thomas and Mark Gleeson, both of whom add some spice to proceedings, and other irregular regulars include contributors from Russia, Asia, Australia and Norway.

The Football Ramble

I first came across the Ramble thanks to an article in Four Four Two in early 2009. It described the Ramble as a “fans’ show” and that is very much the case. The Football Ramble involved four chaps bantering about the beautiful game: Marcus Spellar (de facto host and Fulham fan), Luke Moore (Portsmouth fan), Pete Donaldson (excellent surname, Newcastle fan) and James or Jim Campbell (Arsenal fan).

The show follows a fairly formulaic path, but it’s the bizarre digressions from the chaps, their general knowledge and enthusiasm for the game that really shines through. The first 10 minutes or so generally involves a listeners’ question which Marcus puts to the four panellists (himself included). This can range from “best Emile Heskey goal” to “best footballer with a beard” to “which footballer would you go out with”, with Spellar awarding the best answer “the points.”

There then follows a round-up of that week’s English Premier League matches, usually followed by the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2. A brief sojurn to Scotland normally follows (particularly if Hearts have had a decent result), and then a jaunt round the major leagues of Europe.

Thereafter is the “e-mail” section (I have had the pleasure of having one read out on the show) where again these range from the sublime to the ridiculous – regulars include a baker who sells Ramble Rolls, and a Leeds fan whose boss thinks he’s a Spurs fan, continuously buying him seats for Spurs games.

The latter part of the show (and often the strongest) is the Dean Windass Hall of Fame (DWHOF), in which Marcus profiles a particular entrant into the DWHOF. What I particularly enjoy about this feature is not only does it feature less obvious players (Walter Tull, Martin Palermo and Jimmy McGrory, anyone), but also features tournaments (the guys have a real penchant for the Cup Winners’ Cup) teams (Cameroon 1990) and even stadia (the Azteca). It’s always a genuine surprise whatever they pick, and more often that not it’s a clearly a well-informed, well-considered selection.

What does set this podcast apart though is the humour. I often find myself laughing out loud in public listening to the Ramble (indeed the word “lolz” is used often), sometimes somewhat uncontrollably. From the revelation of one of Lionel Messi’s less likely nicknames (the Ice Rabbit…?) to the 5-minute diatribe-piss-take of Andy Gray’s “internal monologue” scoring thing for David Silva’s beauty against Blackpool last season, the Ramble is never knowingly unfunny.

This has turned out to be rather longer that I’d originally expected, so I will go for another list later on in the week.

Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL & others v. Jean-Marc Bosman; Case C-415/93

For some reason, Jean-Marc Bosman is a man who pops into my head a lot these days when I think about football. For one thing, it’s one of the few points where my career (law) and one of my main interests (football) cross over in a major way.

Bosman’s is some story (I’m surprised no-one’s made a film about it). He was once your average journeyman pro. In 1990, his contract with RFC Liege came to an end; FC Dunkerque in France wanted to pick him up, but the fee RFC demanded was out of their price range. Thus Bosman was therefore stuck in Liege. After his move to Dunkerque broke down, RFC decided, Bosman being surplus to requirements, that his wages should be slashed (by 60%). He sued the Belgian Football Association and the club, and won. The FA and RFC appealed; Bosman won the appeal. The FA and RFC appealed again, this time being granted a reference to the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”).

The ECJ finally gave their ruling on 15 December 1995, more than five years after Bosman had initially tried to leave RFC Liege. The ECJ ruled that, because people should be allowed to move freely among the countries of the EU to work (and that no special dispensations should apply for football), that Bosman was free to leave RFC Liege at the end of his contract, and sign for FC Dunkerque. Furthermore, this ruling was to extend to all footballers making their living at football teams in the EU; once they reached the end of their contracts, they could leave. If their club wanted to keep them, they would have to negotiate a new deal.

Of course, by 1995, Bosman had long since stopped playing football. His life had been consumed by hearing after hearing, making his case to the great and good of the European legal system. His marriage broke down, and by the time he finally won his case, he was famously sleeping in his parents’ garage. By that time, his career was over, but he had completely changed football forever.

The first big Bosman transfer I can remember (though no doubt there were other more important ones) was John Collins’ big move to Monaco from Celtic in 1996. I also vaguely recall Fergus McCann trying to argue that as Monaco wasn’t in the EU, the transfer couldn’t go ahead under Bosman. He was wrong, and the floodgates opened thereafter, and have continued to do so apace.

Bosman has served to completely alter the fabric of the transfer market, and the balance of power between club and player. The major effect of this has been two-fold. Firstly, wages in particular have become vastly inflated as clubs either seek to keep their best players from going for nothing. See Wayne Rooney’s recent exercise in brinkmanship for a more modern example of this, but there are plenty of them throughout the last few years. It has served to fundamentally shift the balance of power from the clubs to the players, and to a lesser extent the shadowy football agent.

Secondly, and more markedly from the point of view of a lower league club fan, but less so for probably most other people, the fact that one is likely to see a whole new team arrive and depart in every pre-season. Following a club at East Fife level can make for interesting viewing, trying to keep up with who’s arrived, who’s gone and who’s had the decency to sign on to the Methil dream for another year. There have certainly been a couple of seasons in the recent past where I’ve seen East Fife lose 10-11 players and sign up a similar number. Johnathan Smart, indeed, was at East Fife for 6 years, and was thus seen as something of a stalwart.

And what of Jean-Marc Bosman himself? Last accounts (in the Sun and on Wikipedia) put him as a lonely, depressed, penniless alcoholic, stuck in a rut because he had the courage of his convictions and he knew something was wrong with the system. Bosman suffered horrendously during the case, as I mention above. That he still, 16 years on, finds himself in such a state is quite a sad indictment on modern football. That the man who helped Keane, Rooney, Tevez et al earn millions is in that position is frankly tragic.

My mission would be this: that FIFPro (the world players’ union) organises is so that the top 10 paid players at each of the Champions League clubs donates £100 per week or their salary to Bosman. It should happen – the man has suffered so others may gain – but it never will, and that is why football is in the state it currently finds itself.