Mark Perryman reviews the best of this Summer’s Sports Books
English football’s Premiership (sic), the best league in the world? The same 4 clubs, well give or take one perhaps, could be jotted down on a scrap of paper every August with a cast-iron guarantee they will fill the Champions League places, year in, year out. Tedium, it's the brand value the Premiership has become past masters at providing, yet barely a word of dissent ever breaks through the breathless excitement football’s boosterists provide across the print, TV and radio media.
Meantime despite the sportification of society, levels of participation in scarcely any form of physical activity continue to rocket downwards. Football, the richest and most high profile of all sports has amongst the sharpest rates of decline in numbers taking part, unless of course we count watching it from the comfort of our own sofa.
Cutting through sport-hype takes a combination of a love for and understanding of sport with a critique of all that it threatens to become. Jules Boykoff is a renowned expert at precisely this kind of combination, his latest book Activism and the Olympics provides a chronicle of activist opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and London 2012.
Andrew Zimbalist does something similar over a longer timeframe, and taking in both the Olympics and Football World Cups. His conclusions in his book Circus Maximus are devastating, the socio-economic benefits of hosting are next to negligible and more often than not actually negative. Yet despite almost every pledge made by London 2012 remaining unfulfilled as Rio 2016 approaches the self-satisfied bandwagon that the Olympics has turned into will steamroll almost all critical voices into the margins.
Perhaps what is needed to resist is the kind of ideological rigour that features amongst those profiled in the pioneering collection Sport and Revolutionaries edited by John Nauright and David Wiggins. Lenin and Che Guevara, who would have imagined the centrality they both gave sport and physical culture in the cause of human liberation? Or likewise social movements spanning Irish Republicanism, the overthrow of colonial regimes, anti-racism and civil rights. Each in their own ways, as essays in this excellent book recount, saw the importance of sport towards their ends.
Two pleas though to an otherwise excellent publisher, Routledge. Why only the high-priced hardback edition limiting the sale to libraries? And why the standard, one-design-fits-all cover? Both factors will seriously reduce the potential popular impact of what is an important book.
Getting to grips with the enduring absence of a social, economic, political and cultural dimension of too much mainstream sportswriting is vital to any kind of appreciation of how sport is consumed. It is only via this kind of project that recreation and leisure will become framed by the contribution it makes towards human liberation rather than simply consumed as a big screen extravaganza.
Roger Domenghetti’s superlative From the Back Page to the Front Room provides an unrivalled account of the evolution of football’s monopoly of the sports media, with interviews and insights that are both informative and compelling.
Jamie Cleland provides something similar, if more wide-ranging, in A Sociology of Football in a Global Context. This is a textbook study of the new football, ranging over almost every subject the serious student of the game might want to consider. Same publishers as Sport and Revolutionaries so same two pleas apply!
Hugo Borst’s O, Louis is a supreme example of how sportswriting can capture the cultural and the social at its best without any negative impact on its ability to reach and engage with a mass audience. Van Gaal, despite his modest first season at Man Utd, remains set to be one of the great characters of English football for some time to come. His foreignness, his Dutchness, every bit as intriguing as Wenger and Mourinho’s otherness, if not yet framed by the same degree of success.
A Matter of Life and Death by Jim White is an alternative history of football told via 100 quotations from ‘There is Great Noise in the City’ describing 1314 street football to World Cup 2014. Jim White is a great sportswriter, he has chosen his quotes carefully while providing his own informative yet idiosyncratic narrative. Brilliant!
But words alone, however well-written, can never entirely capture the appeal of football. Edited by Reuel Golden Age of Innocence is a combination of the very best world photography of football in the 1970s with a skilfully written set of introductory commentaries about the decade. Age of Innocence? This is domestic football both before the Premiership but also prior to the Bradford Fire, Heysel and Hillsborough too. Three very different events but each in their own way defining football in the 1980s. A book of global reach too, the world of football depicted as much less of a corporate enterprise than it is now.
But how to push at the boundaries of the limited meaning that modern corporatised football has become? Firstly breakdown its gendering. A process that has accelerated in the twenty-first century, from let's say the near non-existent to the painfully slow. Events recorded very well in the new book by Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford, Football and the FA Women’s Super League (sadly though another academic publisher with a standard boring cover and high priced library edition hardback only, why?)
Second, confront and expose the corruption in the administration of the global game. Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s The Ugly Game investigates in breathtaking detail the sheer magnitude of the corruption at the highest levels of FIFA.
Third, provide practical examples of what an alternative might look like. Rather confusingly also titled The Ugly Game Martin Calladine’s book is a very welcome pioneering effort to do just that.
Fourth, dump the ridiculous rhetoric embraced by fans as well as the corporate brand managers, that the Premiership is ‘the best league in the world’. It’s the richest yes, but in almost every other regard it is inferior to several others, most notably the German Bundesliga.
Read Ronald Reng’s very good Matchdays to find out how German football gets by without foreign owners, clubs 51% owned by their fans, mainly German players on the pitch, drinking and standing on the terraces. Didn’t that used to be ‘the English way’ when Liverpool, Notts Forest and Villa won European Cups and an England side could make to it to a World Cup semi-final? All pre-Premiership no thankyou very much.
Few football books manage to provide the breadth and dept of insight with the very obvious passion for the game that Mark Doidge combines in writing Football Italia. From the country of Gramsci, Mussolini, post-war Eurocommunism, Beulusconi and more, it is no surprise that Italian football also is a game of extremes. What Mark Doidge manages, definitively, to explain is how a nation’s football can never be divorced from how a national culture has been shaped too, all with a neat line in understanding why sometimes, despite that process, Italian football retains a fateful appeal for fans the world over.
It is only in English football’s ever-shortening summertime off-season that much of any other sport gets any kind of look in. And even that is reduced in a year of a World Cup or a Euro. For a fortnight or so the media will go overboard for the tennis at Wimbledon. Such coverage aided when the rivalry that singles tennis generates reaches out beyond the strawberries and Pimms brigade. Peter Bodo’s account, Ashe vs Connors records just such a moment from the faraway summer of 1975. This is sportswriting as social history against the backdrop of towering personalities and supreme talent, all the makings of a really good sports book.
An Ashes Summer used to more or less guarantee a mass audience for cricket. But since the appallingly short-sighted decision of cricket’s governing body to dump free-to-air live TV coverage interest has plummeted and is unlikely ever to recover, despite what looks like a fast-improving England team.
In his newly published autobiography Curtly Ambrose provides a compelling picture of the heights of popularity Test cricket once enjoyed. A thrilling West Indies team becoming a symbol of resistance, diaspora and nationhood. This was international sport at its very best, fiercely competitive, individuals combining for the common purpose of the team, imagined communities acquiring some semblance of the real. Will we see the like of it on a cricket pitch again? Possibly not.
Rob Smyth like Jim White uses 100 quotations to track a sport’s history. This time, The Ashes in Gentlemen and Sledgers. Rob depicts the changes from the pre TV era, the broadening popularity of cricket via television and radio coverage, England’s return to glory in recent years and then the catastrophic decline on the pitch accompanied by the loss of terrestrial TV coverage. Despite all this the 5-day 5-test Ashes series remained throughout one of the most epic contests in the world of sport and Rob’s book helps us to appreciate the reasons why.
It is only in recent years that Le Tour has featured very much at all as part of the Great British sporting summer. In the era that William Fotheringham described in his classic biography of Italian cycling great Fausto Coppi Fallen Angel the 1940s and 1950s cycling up mountains was something best left to continental types.
And the domestic popularity of cycling hadn’t changed so very much by the time of his latest biography, the greatest French cyclist Bernard Hinault in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it is by reading William’s books the latter-day domestic popularity of this most extraordinary drama of human endurance can begin to be accounted for.
Alpe D’Huez by Peter Cossins accounts for the kind of physical achievement Grand Tour cycling represents via the challenge of just one epic mountain these cyclists are expected to climb on their two wheels. The greatest climb? Quite possibly, though the greatness perhaps lies in the realisation that for these cyclists once they have done one day’s climbing another follows, and another, with next to no respite.
It is a sport that borders on the inhuman, the biggest single reason for the scourge of performance enhancing drugs that for a while threatened to engulf cycling. Yet with dedication these climbs, or something like them, can be done. This is the dream of the sporting everyman, or increasingly everywoman too.
Ian McGregor’s To Hell on a Bike rather brilliantly tells just such a tale, an ordinary cyclist who trains himself to tackle Paris-Roubaix, widely regarded as the toughest of all the one-day classic cycle races.
Two Days in Yorkshire by Peter Cossins and Andrew Enton superbly captures with stunning photography and great prose the sheer magnitude of what Le Tour starting in Yorkshire in 2014 came to represent. An unforgettable experience and one that deserves to be remembered as far more important than London 2012 in terms of its possibilities for reshaping English sporting culture.
Rick Robson’s beautiful book, De Tour De Yorkshire again combines photos and prose, this time to point towards the kind of legacy Le Tour might yet leave behind. Showcasing Yorkshire as England’s capital destination for cyclists, to race or for pleasure and all points in-between.
The thrill of physical activity, recreational or competitive, for many is not only to maintain a decent level of fitness but to test what our bodies might be capable of. Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall gives the active reader something to aim towards, an approach to ultra-fitness that is almost philosophical in its gritty determination to inspire ever greater achievements of endurance. This is thriller-writing for fitness junkies.
Adharanand Finn achieves something similar in his new book The Way of the Runner a gripping account of the place of marathon running in Japanese sporting culture. If all these sound a bit macho read Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim, more than enough to reassure that both sexes are almost equally susceptible to the kind of physical obsession that can drive some in search of the very limits of our body’s potential.
Our sports book of the quarter? Opportunities to play sport, any sport at any level are inevitably socially constructed. The failure to understand this both narrows the scope of most mainstream sportswriting and at the same time ensures most writers on politics to wilfully ignore sport.
Gabriel Kuhn is an author who would never make either of these cardinal errors. His Playing As If The World Mattered is an illustrated history of sport as activism. Refusing to treat one as the opposite of the other Gabriel weaves together stories and episodes, some familiar, many not, to portray sport as a vital space for and method of human liberation. The writing is effortlessly informative and inspiring while the full colour illustrations do a similar job visually. Together this is a truly great book to savour for a better future as well as to read now to help improve the present, on or off the pitch, track , inside and outside the ring or pool, wherever your sporting fancy takes you.
No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid the offshore tax-dodgers, please do so.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.