Book Reviews: The World Cup

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GVEight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

By George Vecsey

 

It is always interesting to find how people fell in love with football. When they come from a country with little football heritage, even more so. George Vecsey’s career in journalism has been both help and hinderance to his love affair with the game but in time for the coming World Cup, he has produced an interesting travelogue that provides the narrative for a personal journey.

Stereotypically, he was seduced by football at an early age, in his birthplace of Jamaica, Queens, New York City. Introduced to the game through his school and college, he recognised the limitations of his abilities when at college, where his coaches were scouts for the Varsity teams but never invited him to the trials. The location squares the circle; five decades on, he returns to his alma mater viewing the youth of today playing the game. It’s a poignant moment where he agrees with the captain from his youth team that the current players are far better than they themselves had been. Vecsey realises that that each generation moves on technically, that the average players get better but greats, they transcend time.

Once into a journalistic career, he slips away from the game in a way that the rest of the footballing world perceives Americans to do. England’s triumph in 1966 provides the his Damascene moment, watching Goal!, FIFAs official documentary on the finals and “In that dark movie theater in Manhattan in 1967, I was hooked”. It wasn’t emphatic though, religion interfered with NASLs brief flirtation with the USA in the 70s; many would argue that Vecsey’s beat enjoyed a certain symmetry with football and there was little excuse, being in New York, to have not dabbled with the Cosmos original incarnation. He might argue that is exactly what he was doing.

As well as meeting the peoples of the world on his travels, his inspirations become clear and the improvements in technology and the infrastructure within the stadiums, waxing lyrical about Brian Glanville’s Olivetti and the content it provided. His admiration for the doyen of football writers illuminates his passage from awestruck fan to sports writer; there is something childlike in the pleasure he derives from discovering Claudio Gentile’s nickname was Qaddafi.

Using the World Cup as a backdrop gives a global feel to the book. Vecsey’s own love turns to Brazil, recognising his own epiphany in Sarria, Barcelona, 1982, caught up in Brazilian beauty and jogo bonito; “The gods came out to play in blue shorts and yellow jerseys.” There is a stark contrast between the love for the South Americans and the drab ordinariness of the group hosted in the Camp Nou; Belgium, USSR and Poland provided little colour compared to the Brazilians, Italy and Argentina.

In that decade came his first brush with the corruption that haunts football. The USA had failed to qualify for Mexico 86 but next time around, there was no mistake. Qualification came in Port of Spain where the “entrepreneurial” Jack Walker printed 45000 tickets for a stadium whose capacity was 28500. Team USA were going to Italia 90, a tournament where the tricks of the trade are learned via La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italian/English dictionary by his side.

Nothing fazes him after that with 1994s inclusion of Robin Williams as host as baffling as bemusing. Amusing as well, given Sepp Blatter’s apparent enjoyment of Williams’ routine. Sadness and contempt given their treatment of the footballing icon so willing embraced at every opportunity by Blatter; “FIFA did not care…Ban Pele from the World Cup draw show in America? What wouldn’t these people do?

Against the backdrop of the OJ Simpson saga, USA94 with its record attendances, left Vecsey underwhelmed: “But after the shootout [final Italy lost to Brazil], it did not feel like a championship. Where were Socrates and Falcao from Barcelona in 1982? Everybody staggered to the exits, looking to get out of the sun.” The soul of the game was lost in the build-up and commercialism destroyed it, in his mind.

And it is this theme that dominates the later chapters in the book. NBC is criticised for its lack of coverage of the women’s game – complaints that could levelled against most television companies – through to the demons which surround the 2018 and 2022 bidding processes. Vecsey is scathing about Blatter’s role, Warner’s pernicious dealings and the whole fiasco, offering an interesting perspective from someone whose continent was dragged into the mire by CONCACAF, particularly the shifting sands upon which Blatter stands allow him to change his position on anything football related.

It’s an interesting journey, a coming of age football story but based on a life where the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. You can buy Eight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer here.

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eitwc England In The World Cup

by Tony Matthews

Published by Amberley Publishing

It’s coming, the time when England gets excited over the World Cup. A time when expectations rise substantially above the abilities of the players. Yes, England’s first match is upon us.

At which point, it is well worth opening the history of England’s World Cup escapades. Those of you who read the history of Arsenal in the World Cup will be familiar with the self-imposed exile of the nation from the world stage, competitively speaking at least. England expected every man to do his duty unless their power had been usurped by the upstarts of FIFA, in which case they were all given the summer off. It’s a period Matthews covers off, setting what was to follow into context.

This England book nestles comfortably alongside his player record for those capped at international level by this country. As well as historical value, there is an assessment of the current squad, looking ahead to what will unfold in the next month in Brazil. 1950 is where it all began for the nation that gave the world football, 2014 offers a certain symmetry in that respect.

For me the value of book, as well the detailed coverage of the England matches which matter, was the stirring of memories. Depending on the importance of the game, a brief match report expands into more detailed narratives for the key matches such as the 1966 final. Each accompanies the salient details such as line-ups, venues, scores, scorers; it’s a useful compendium upon which to draw.

The narrative is completed by the missing spells, times between campaign ends and the finals with the results and performance sketched into place to give the fuller picture. It is a very useful book, well-written as you would expect from an author who has a track record of producing detailed histories of clubs. One of the strengths is not being afraid to celebrate the good times and analyse the bad, defeats in Norway, Switzerland in 1980, resurrected alongside the failures to reach 1974, 1978 and 1994 finals. The match reports cut to the chase and pinpoint exactly why the nadirs were reached objectively with no prisoners taken.

Memories of successful campaigns – relatively speaking – are also relived and for me, the books enjoyment came remembering where alcohol and time permit, the matches I went to when watching the national team was part and parcel of the football landscape.

You can buy England In The World Cup here.

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Brazil Futebol: Football To The Rhythm Of The Samba Beat

by Keir Radnege

The adventure began long before next week’s action kicks off in Brazil but I doubt that any other nation can boast such an affinity with the World Cup. What you need is a book which tracks that relationship through the nineteen tournaments FIFA has so far organised and in which Brazil remains the only constant competitor.

Carlton Books has produced Brazil Futebol which provides an excellent mix of authoritative text and high quality photographs, many of which we will be seeing for the first time in this day and age.

Tracing the history of the Brazilian game since Charles Miller first brought a football with him on returning to his homeland – six months after Thomas Donohoe had done the same in Bangui, then a small village near Rio – through the infighting and squabbles as the professional and amateur games sought primacy in the squads which would represent country at the finals, tracking the pain which led to the glory and into the modern era, this is the story of Brazilian football through the eyes of the World Cup.

An early win by Radnege, the former editor of World Soccer provides the attention to detail you expect from his background, crediting C.A.W Hirschman’s role in bringing Jukes Rimet’s dream to fruition when others choose to forget. Throughout the book, Radnege strikes the right balance between informed opinion on events and incredulity at the ability of footballing authorities around the globe to make a mockery of themselves, mixed in with nuggets that otherwise escape attention such as Brazil taking the lead in 1950 whilst a Yugoslavian player was receiving treatment for a head wound received from a girder in the unfinished Maracana. Brazil? World Cup stadia not ready when the finals began? It could never happen again, could it? This after the finals had been put back a year from FIFAs original intention of holding them in 1949.

Even though the book is primarily focused on the Seleção, the club sides are not entirely ignored. Indeed, understanding how the rivalries which beset the administrators, impeded managers and coaches of the national squad is fundamental to the history of Brazilian football. Suspicions and paranoia enveloped the early years of the national team, amateurs with pens brought territorial differences to bear which hampered their chances of success in the early years of the tournament. The first warning shot was fired in 1938 when following the disappointments of the two previous finals, they stormed to third place having lost to eventual winners, Italy, in the semi-finals. There is a fabulous photo of that squad at a French train station – suited and booted – playing ‘keepy-uppy‘ on the platform with no apparent care in the world. Or any French official storming down the platform to admonish them for being a nuisance or danger to other passengers.

It was a different world then and Radnege does well to steer clear of the life politics of the country; this isn’t a sociology book, it isn’t a story of the indigenous peoples and the struggles against discrimination, corruption and poverty that form a backdrop. Which brings us to this century, Ronaldo, Romario Ronaldinho through to Neymar and their obligation, their duty to win the World Cup. It’s a fascinating tale that has been woven through excellent research and well worth further investigation.

You can buy Brazil Futebol by Keir Radnege, here.
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2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Official Book

by Andrew McDermott

Years ago – and in researching the series of posts, ‘Arsenal And The World Cup”, memories flooded back – we could walk into our local newsagents and buy the “Official World Cup Programme”. It’s now an Official Book.

Alas produced too soon for the inclusion of the official squads – FIFA need to rethink their policy of leaving it so late in the day for their deadlines – it is nonetheless filled with the same materials that used to saté the seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge of this blogger’s youthful alter-ego. A simple piece of knowledge that gave you an edge in the playground jungle. Blue Samurai? I trump you with Team Melli.

The usual sections apply, venues, how the qualifying groups unfolded, accompanied by the team pages, the players, prospects and record sections. Such is the desire to furnish you with any information related to the World Cup that there is even a couple of pages on the draw, complete with photos. That is one of the book’s strongest points; get past the opening pair of photos of Blatter and you can believe it really is the beautiful game.

It’s the perfect companion to the coming month’s action, a similar size to the 1982 programme I still have but a firmer cover. Perfect for the table next to the tv remote control. You can buy the 204 FIFA World Cup Brazil Official Book here.

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Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life

by Alex Bellos

Published by Bloomsbury

Reprinted and updated ahead of the 2014 World Cup finals, Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life remains the ideal introduction to the country and its love affair with football. The preface by Socrates offers all the testament and recommendation you require to add the book to your collection,

Alex Bellos, with the characteristic patience of a sage and the charmed curiosity of a scientist, shows us, with irrefutable clarity, our face and our soul…with discernment and rare sensibility.

To cover a nation’s relationship with a sport is a tough job. Make it one where that relationship is the most romanticised is harder, especially when the reality is greyer and murkier than popular mythology. Through a series of essays, the book travels through the history of the game following its introduction by the British at the end of the nineteenth century until the here and now, with companions on the journey including players, journalists and politicians.

Bellos’ task to pull together the strands of sport and society is herculean given the geopolitical and cultural diversity of Brazil. Socrates referred to the importance of football and dance to the soul in his preface and cultural enrichment is a constant theme throughout with chapters embellished by references to poetry, lyrics and literature. The World Cup and Olympics have already left their social mark, focal points for dissent about the country today. Corruption’s ugly shadow is not avoided either, treated with disdain but acknowledged as a key ingredient of the dish now served. Nor is it glibly or fatuously attacked; the issue is not confined to football uniquely but recognised as a problem in society itself.

Players are recalled as champions but no vagaries attached, specific reference to the number of titles won. My first genuine encounter with Brazil was at the World Cup in 1974. In the days before Youtube, we survived the interim years between each jamboree by listening to others and the occasional friendly. Suffice to say, 1974 is remembered without any fondness following a cynical fortnight or so in the-then West Germany. Things only really got better in 1982 with everyone’s favourite modern vintage, rightly as Bellos points out, remembered more fondly than the successful team from USA ’94.

The intensity of feelings is captured in the chapter devoted to the 1950 defeat to Uruguay. Barbossa, the goalkeeper on that fateful afternoon, fell into poverty and the saddest moment of his life came when fifty years later, he was referred to as ‘the man that made all of Brazil cry’ whilst in a shop. In such a broad church, not everyone is readily forgiven it seems. Other players and the impact, notably Garrincha, and as an alternative to corruption and hollow commercialism, the conversation with Socrates is illuminating in the philosophy expounded. The antidote to the modern game, a realisation of the ills which beset the sport we love or a resignation to the fact that utopian ideals are at such odds with reality that they can never succeed. A lost dream?

Far from being a dry tome, the narrative is well-paced and even throughout, mixing humour and pathos. With informative appendices attached, this book is an amiable companion for the coming summer’s adventures. You can purchase Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos here.
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Death or Glory: The Dark History of the World Cup by Jon Spurling
Published by Vision Sports Publishing

The World Cup, the greatest show on Earth or so Fifa would have you believe. A parade of all that is good in the game, four weeks of sublime skill, derring-do and luck, the culmination of which proclaims the victors as Champions of the World for the coming four years. There is every reason to celebrate the tournament but that is not the tale Jon Spurling tells in this entertaining book.

Traversing the globe, Spurling has lifted the lid on the seamier and less salubrious side of the game, exploring the rivalries and misfortunes that underpin Fifa’s flagship, the tales of suffering and enmity, how despots have misused the event to further or prolong their tyrannical rule.

Kicking off with the story of the 1930 World Cup, telling the tale through Argentine and Uruguayan eyes, the fanaticism of the time explodes across the River Plate into Mwepu Ilunga and the ill-fated Zaire side of 1974, their suffering and humiliation not limited to the events on the pitch in that tournament, Mobutu’s regime exacting revenge for their failure on the pitch.

Tying the 1978 World Cup against a backdrop of the Junta, Nazis on the run and Mothers of the Disappeared, Spurling provides a solid background that puts the various finals into political context of the time. Did Peru throw the match? Squad members sift through the rumours since and conclude that they were scared into submission before they had even left the dressing room, such was the ferocity of the noise from the crowd. Truth or not, it is a substantiated conclusion.

Local and international rivalries are exposed with a dispassionate eye, England v Argentina forgoes the rampant nationalism that many writers cannot avoid. The 1974 clash between West and East Germ any is similarly thorough in its dissection. It is not all historical; Algeria and Egypt’s encounter in this qualifying campaign features.

Football writing has come a long way in the last two decades since All Played Out and this book rests comfortably with the best of them. Click to buy Death or Glory! – The Dark History of the World Cup.