The Football Men, by Simon Kuper

This isn’t really a book about football. Football is all around it, providing means, motive and opportunity, but this is a book about a group of very strange people. It is an investigation undertaken with a lot of affection, a dose of hostility, and above all an incessant curiosity into their strangeness. What makes them men apart?

With one notable exception, about which more later, the book comprises short profiles — sketches, really, some more detailed than others — of forty-five footballers, fourteen managers, and six other “football men”, one of whom barely qualifies as such. None exceeds ten pages; the shortest barely fill three. Some come from one-to-one interviews, others from press conferences, others are simply descriptions conjured from Kuper’s contacts, knowledge, and critical eye. They were written across thirteen years, from September 1997 to October 2010, and have mostly appeared, in one form or another, in the Financial Times or other organs, though a few have been written specifically with the book in mind.

This has a couple of consequences. The first is a certain amount of overlap that might not be considered in a more cohesive work. Identical asides crop up from time to time, while the occasional anecdote is repeated or retold where a reference or a call-back might have been more appropriate. But Kuper and his editors have determined that the book should stand not as a traditional narrative but as a selection of largely unedited pieces, with the consequences that sometimes you’ll get a sketch of the same thing. It is usually from a different angle, though.

The second is a question of approach: just how are you supposed to read it? They are arranged chronologically but thematically, and it’s an odd jolt to rush back from 2010 to 1998 when making the jump from players to managers. (It’s even odder to realise just how far football has changed in that time.) I suspect that most will look at the contents, see a name or two that catch the eye, and just jump in. For my part, I saw the 1-2-3-4 of Xavi, Johan Cruijff, Andrés Iniesta and Eric Cantona, and have spent my days since dreaming about them playing together.

Once you’re in, though, it’s hard to get out. The compact sketches are for the most beautifully drawn and yet feel, probably deliberately, a touch on the slight side. While this may be a false impression — thirty pages of Dirk Kuyt might start to drag — the effect is that, like Pringles, you can’t stop once you’ve popped. A sketch of Ruud van Nistelrooy begets one of Michael Ballack, and in turn one of Rio Ferdinand, and pretty soon you’ve shot past Freddy Adu and Zinedine Zidane and arrived at one of the two most important chapters in the book, a charming diptych of Johnny Rep and Bernd Hölzenbein.

To my eternal shame, I didn’t know Hölzenbein’s name before reading this chapter, though I knew what he’d done. I knew Rep, of course, the genius who danced alongside Cruijff in that great, doomed team that threw away the final of the 1974 World Cup. Hölzenbein was on the opposing team – those bastard Germans that ruined everything – and it was he who fell/dived in the box under/near a challenge from Wim Jansen. The penalty was given and scored, in the teeth of Dutch protests, and so they became the greatest side never to win the World Cup.

Hölzenbein and Rep are sketched before, during and after a kind of town-hall meeting to discuss the final: that penalty, the chances that Rep missed, the dynamic of the game and the larger Holland-Germany rivalry. Kuper writes elegantly and with restrained force about the nature of this rivalry, and tells the stories of those Dutch players who carried the injustices of the war onto the field with them. Rep and Hölzenbein didn’t. Instead, as the evening winds down, and the players sit discussing football in a closed cafe with Kuper, a friend, and Frau Hölzenbein, the conversation takes an odd turn. Says Kuper:

Only now do I see how differently footballers do it from normal people. It’s a terrible realisation: all those things you dream about (World Cup finals, etc.) aren’t the things that actual players think about. […] The footballer’s syndrome explains why Hölzenbein was more interested in the World Cup of ‘54 that ‘74: in ‘54 he was still a fan.

And this is the point of the book, the theme that ties the sketches together: Kuper discovers that the men of football aren’t really Men Of Football as we might understand it; they’re not heroes and villains and demons and gods. They’re men doing a job, and playing football places you in a radically different relationship with the game then watching it, or adoring it, or even analysing it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the second of the most important chapters, and the longest piece overall: an analysis of five footballing autobiographies, written by five of the Premier League and England’s most fundamentally Premier-League-and-England players: Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, and Jamie Carragher.

The chapter is worth the price of the book on its own, but it’s also something of an oddity. First, it’s one of the few chapters that fails to fulfil the book’s tagline: you are not “up close with the giants of the game”. (Actually, it says “modern game”, but that’s clearly just some over-enthusiastic jobsworth at the publishing house; Rep and Hölzenbein are hardly of the now, while Bert Trautmann belongs to a long-gone age.) Instead, we are for once at a distance prescribed by the players and their people. As Kuper says:

The very fact that agents, lawyers and club media officers will have taken a red pencil to every line helps the players speak. They can trust this medium. Usually, the most we get from them is thirty seconds of platitudes after a match. These books are the longest statements that they will make during their careers.

Kuper tracks the accounts of the lives of Rooney et al through childhood and the various stages of becoming, then being, an England footballer of ludicrous talent, fame, wealth and accomplishment. And, while he is appropriately and predictably scathing about the quality of the books in themselves — the reader finishes Cole’s My Defence “feeling dirty and stupid for having read it”, while Totally Frank is “the dullest and smuggest of the five … a true reflection of the man as well as his ghostwriter” — he is also convinced and convincing: there is insight to be found here. These five benighted volumes can reveal even as they stultify, and can offer insight, albeit in banal and offensive packaging.

So in amongst the nuggets of trivia (Rooney, aged 11, got a B for PE) and insights into the cruel childishness of footballers (Gerrard and other Liverpool trainees hilariously imprison the club chiropodist for three hours; the chiropodist subsequently quits Melwood) he neatly draws out the contradiction between the fans’ view of the players and the players view of themselves: the fans need the players to act like fans — albeit super-talented, footballing fans — to validate their support. The players, on the other hand, are all clear: they are professionals. Boyhood allegiances and club loyalty are there to be used if required; if not, to be abandoned. So Rooney leaves Everton, and Cole leaves Arsenal, and Lampard leaves West Ham. Even Jamie Carragher — Mr Liverpool, a boyhood Everton fan — states that he would leave Liverpool if he were benched.

Kuper points out that football is “an uglier working environment than most of us will ever experience”, and that these men have all been immersed in it since before the first flutterings of anything that might one day resemble maturity. Furthermore, he points out, “being a professional footballer is often not much fun”. Again, it’s easy to see how this contradicts the simplistic fans’-view: you’re being paid a fortune to play the game I love for the club I worship. From the players’ point of view, they’re being paid a fortune to play the game they play for the club they play for. The emotional bonds, all agree, are there for exactly as long as they’re not needed; once tested, they melt into air.

Of course, the book is largely not about England players, and nor is it about personalities as odious as Ashley Cole. Indeed, Kuper’s individual sketch of Lampard is more sympathetic to the Chelsea stalwart; perhaps it was written before Kuper read the self-hagiography, or perhaps Lampard as Lampard is a more appealing entity than Frank, by Frank. The undercurrent of professionalism is entirely absent from some sketches, and appears more endearingly in others. Yet that sense of otherness endures. While the division between player and observer is, in most cases, not as easy to define as the velvet rope and tinted window of Premier League celebrity, it remains in place, most obviously during the interviews, but underpinning the whole work. And reading the book from start to finish, you can see the realisation dawning upon Kuper.

Writing in the moment, he inevitably makes a number of predictions and suppositions — his evocation of a glorious future for a paceless Michael Owen is a fine piece of retrospective facepalmistry — but here he follows any such error, of which there are remarkably few, with a postscript. So he writes in May 2008 that Didier Drogba, the coming summer, “will leave Chelsea, either to follow the man of his dreams, or to join his beloved AC Milan”; the man of his dreams, of course, is José Mourinho, newly installed at Internazionale. Looking back from 2010, he notes with perhaps a hint of regret that “I had overestimated the role of friendship — or even love — in football. Footballers do what’s best for their own careers”.

This is the disjunction. Men who do football view the game very differently to men and women who simply care about football, and look at it a lot. This should be intuitively obvious, and yet so much of the distance between fan and player is informed by this misunderstanding. Partly, as Kuper notes, this is down to the pretence on the part of players that they are loyal in a sense comprehensible to the fan, but partly it’s down to he fact that it’s not always obvious just how weird the life of a footballer is. That’s what this book gives you: sketch after sketch of oddball after weirdo, men whose frame of reference for their own genius is entirely alternate.

The managers profiled come across slightly less oddly, for the most part, and what oddness there is seems inherent to their personality than to their role. Indeed, a couple of them – Daniel Passarella and Diego Maradona – are not really managers at all, merely players in suits. (Well, not merely, it’s Maradona. But you get my drift.) Kuper returns again and again to the idea of a manager as a spokesman of a team, and the consequence of that is that we are familiar with them. We’ve heard them. We know Arsène Wenger is a transformative influence on young players, and we know that Sven-Göran Erikssen is a polite yet oddly compelling shade of beige. The sketches are still fascinating, and the account of Mourinho’s personality being formed in the collapse of Salazar’s fascist Portugal carries particular resonance. But here, instead of drawing, Kuper’s colouring in; we’ve already got the outlines.

An important exception to this is the interview with Glenn Hoddle, which is genuinely revealing. As Kuper notes elsewhere, it is rare that footballers give us an insight into the inner workings of their craft; the nuts and bolts of becoming a great player. Creditably, Hoddle tries, describing how he acquired his vision. And he also gives us a tantalising glimpse of where Hoddle’s England might have gone. For a football man as notoriously egoistical as Hoddle to remark, of Paul Scholes, “cor, he was the jewel in my crown”, is to be given a glimpse of a blessed otherworld, in which the ginger prince never found himself in exile, and nobody ever had to ask the Gerrard-Lampard question.

The five other football men that follow feel more superfluous; they are, in some sense, not men of football so much as men near football: a fan, an analyst, and even Franz Beckenbauer is profiled in his latter-day guise as an administrator, though his playing and management career casts a long shadow. They work as pieces — Antony Minghella’s sketch, for instance, is a sweet story, sweetly told — but as a coda they suffer from being almost tacked-on to the end of the volume; the equivalent of a team well in the lead playing keep-ball for the last ten minutes of a match. The hard work’s been done.

Ultimately there’s, so much glorious detail in here that it’s easy and wonderful to just be washed away in the trivia and the insight. The sketches are never less than interesting, even the peculiar tango of Glenn Hoddle and Tony Blair, and more often than not they fascinate and amuse. Occasionally they even startle. Kuper writes with a clarity and an insight that befits his theme, and he stays mercifully clear of any adoration or derision that doesn’t feel wholly warranted. Yet the over-arching theme of a deliberately fractured book is the simple otherness of these modern and ancient giants. The closer Kuper takes us, the further away these strange person-shaped things we call footballers seem to be. As he reflects, upon leaving the bar with Rep, the Hölzenbeins and his awestruck friend:

The history of football would read very differently if it were written by footballers.


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