Book review: The Football Men by Simon Kuper

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By Paul Morrissey – follow on Twitter here.

Following on from the excellent Why England Lose (no Irish schaudenfreude – just a fascinating book), and Football Against The Enemy, Kuper’s Football Men sees him change tack, and focus on the actual players; a shift from the macro- to the micro-perspective of football.

Even prior to finding out that the interviews are essentially rehashes (I’d figured he’d met with each person over the last year), my own gut reaction was a bit kaching kaching. It’s essentially some 30 condensed mini-biographies into one overpriced book. But then, when you’ve written such successful theses, you’ve probably earned the right to compile a more décontracté anthology. Why not?

And for followers of the game with a taste for the mondovision, it’s an appealing recipe. You wouldn’t go out and buy, say, Rino Gattuso’s translated autobiography – because you wouldn’t really care about the time he felt persecuted for being sent off after kicking a Reggina defender up the arse; but a short chance meeting with him would be of interest and worth a butcher’s.
But this is the crux of it, see: Kuper doesn’t actually meet each person he treats of, which damages the speculative authority he’d like to project throughout.

Still, with or without them, I was interested in what he had to say on certain people. The man’s got clout, and nous. Of all the names listed on the back, I was most intrigued by the mysterious Rivaldo. And anything on Johan Cruyff, a concept, is always worth a read.

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The result is a bit like a Radiohead album: some masterpieces, some duds, and a lot of fillers. Needless to say, anything Dutch is spot on. And German for that matter. His cultural insights on the likes of Seedorf and Davids are good, but too short. He’s met Davids, knows him – is even on casual banter terms with him. But no dice for an interview. Interview or no, he should have expanded here and cut out the small fry like Freddy Adu.

Some profiles, like the one on Lothar Matthaus, are glorified translations of their relevant biographies/diaries. The Matthaus diary is funny (Franz Beckenbauer standing up at a banquet to curtly say “You are a shit team” before sitting right down again), but it’s funny because it’s funny and not exactly to the credit of Kuper, as he is underhandedly trying to claim.

Others (Rivaldo, 2000) are pointless. He tracked the bow-legged mystery down, infiltrated his home and was about as effective as asking the Head of The Kwiki-Mart if he was really the Head of the Kwiki Mart. If you gave Karl “An Idiot Abroad” Pilkington the same opportunity I’d seriously expect him to elicit a more interesting conversation. Kuper’s included the Rivaldo piece based solely on the fact that he met him, but that would only be impressive if you have a subscription with a Wag’s mag. The Van Nistelrooy profile for example, who he didn’t meet, is far more pertinent.

Otherwise, some of his individual analyses are so wide of the mark it leaves you wondering if there’s any irony intended. His predictions that Fabregas (2008) had seven years to go before reaching his peak; and that Michael Owen (2007) 2.0 could still reinvent himself as a better player, were completely at odds with his theory of irrationality in the transfer market in Why England Lose. Even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I’d aver from these misplaced predictions that Kuper is much more at home on the macro aspect of football, as opposed to the micro.

Also, his insistence on constructing everything as a perfect anthropological dichotomy (there are two types of British footballer; there are two types of passer) is a half-baked intellectual tool upon which he relies too heavily. There are British players who are neither ugly nor pretty, like Steve Claridge or Steve Sidwell.

In Part II, he dissects the tomes of Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard, Carragher, and Ashley Cole; and this is where Kuper comes into his own, drawing on his sociological expertise to produce fair and balanced conclusions. After meandering casually along for much of Part I, this is where the book reaches its estuary and starts to flow into a well-worded river.

Part III on the managers is equally interesting, but just as it’s kicking into a rhythm it oxbows as before: the first piece on Maradona is totally unoriginal. Hold up. Didn’t Jimmy Burns say all of this about twenty years ago? (The same could be said for Xavi and Iniesta.)

Then his tendency to take a prop, any prop, and mould it into a semiotic signifier is evident once again. He’s describing El Diego’s incarnation of the Argentine nation, and uses “two Argentine street musicians singing a folk song” to prove the point. Problemita: the men he mistakes for faceless buskers are actually Manu Chao and Madjid Fahem (men of many origins but definitely not Argentine), which completely negates the point he is trying to make. Gee I hate to be a stickler, but he’s hung the strength of the outro to this piece on these men being Argentine; and if you’ve seen Kurstica’s biopic and know this was Manu Chao he’s referring to, you realise just how close you came to being had.

A final note on the utility of his Soccernomics. While many of its facets may work, I just don’t see the worth of penalty shoot-out stats (N.B. shoot-out, they can work just fine for in-game pens). The stat that 60% of teams to shoot first eventually win the shootout can’t be taken in isolation; I’d be interested to find out what percentage of teams win having forced the draw over the 120 minutes. Take Milan in Istanbul ’05 and Croatia in Euro 2008 for example : both let the games slip and both took the first penalties, and both lost. I’d argue the more important factor, especially in Croatia’s case, was having their morale shot in the dying moments of the match; who went first here was essentially irrelevant.

Then, when it comes to a player choosing his spot based on mountains of data, with adrenalin pumping through his veins; no, sorry, the situation’s too emotional for that. By the time he’s weighed up all the permutations and chosen his spot, the keeper’s been doing the same thing, rendering the elaborate exercise pointless. A bit like a cup of coffee with Rivaldo.

All told, Football Men is an enjoyable read, and that’s the aim. It’s just that it’s not a patch on his earlier stuff, and the frustrating thing is that it only really falls on its cast. Household names could have been cut for fresh content on curiosities such as Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez, and Shinji Kagawi. They’re not yet “Greats” but then that title was stretched to its absolute limit with the inclusion of Bruce Grobbelaar.

If Kuper can ease up on all manner of exaggeration and extrapolation, this anthology-style could become a reference point for future football documents, and a nice alternative to the traditional auto-biography.

And if that alternative can stave us off Gattuso’s tome, that can only be a good thing.

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