Much like students across the country, football fans are beginning to feel the strain. The pressure of everything falling to pieces when it matters most is almost too much to bear thinking about. The wall chart’s blu tac’d above the telly, the Panini Album is bursting at the staples with shineys and swapsies and the request book at work has been meticulously filled in so as to avoid the indignity of missing a minute of Bosnia vs Iran or Algeria vs South Korea.
But, as is the case with exams, a last minute cram session never hurt anyone. So POAHT enrolled the help of Matt Oldfield, commander in chief at Of Pitch and Page, to recommend the books you need to be reading in order to be fully prepared for the month long smorgasbord of pig skin thumping that will explode into our lives a week today . . .
By Matt Oldfield
As hosts and favourites, Brazil has to be the starting point for any World Cup homework. For a fuller history of the nation and its dramatic relationship with the beautiful game, try Futebol by Alex Bellos or Futebol Nation by David Goldblatt. However, considering Brazil’s underwhelming performances in Germany and South Africa, as well as the solid but unspectacular look of Scolari’s squad, Shocking Brazil seems the most useful one-stop shop. Regular Guardian Football Weekly guest Fernando Duarte looks at six of the Seleçao’s worst moments, from the infamous Maracanazo defeat to Uruguay in 1950 through to Ronaldo’s convulsions in 1998 and the more recent disappointments of Ronaldinho, Robinho and Kaká. ‘A third consecutive failure in the World Cup could have serious consequences for Brazil’, Duarte concludes ominously.
While we wait impatiently for Jonathan Wilson’s mammoth history of Argentinian football, why not try Guillem Balague’s biography of Messi, or alternatively kill nine birds with one stone by reading ¡Golazo!, Andreas Campomar’s excellent history of Latin American Football. Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Brazil – each of these nations receives decent stage time, but Argentina and Uruguay are undoubtedly the headline acts. The stories of the Río de la Plata rivals make for fascinating reading; the former’s arrogance masking ‘the fear of being perceived as uncivilized’ and the latter’s individualism resulting in ‘winning when it mattered least and losing when it mattered most’. Throw in some of Eduardo Galeano’s flair (Soccer in Sun and Shadow) and you’ve got the perfect Latin education this summer.
For a nation boasting three World Cup victories, Europe’s trendiest league and some of the best players ever, Germany and its footballing history have got lost in translation for us English speakers. Luckily amongst the slim pickings, a jewel shines bright. Updated to cover the 2013 Champions League final, Uli Hesse’s Tor! is comprehensive and entertaining, and yet still small enough to get through before June 12th.
La Roja’s recent treble – Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 – was the culmination of a large-scale footballing initiative, started by the late Luis Aragonés and continued with phenomenal success by Vicente Del Bosque. At its core, their project has focused on ‘skill, vision, technique, planning, youth development and loving both the ball and winning’. Those are the words of Graham Hunter, whose book Spain brilliantly charts the meteoric rise of a team that had never bettered a fourth-placed World Cup finish in 1950. Many are writing off Spain’s chances in Brazil but as Hunter points out, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas and Ramos, we’re dealing with ‘some of the most remarkable men I’ve met and am ever likely to meet: hungry, dedicated winners.’
The successes of the French have never exactly topped the English reader’s wish-list. As a result, studies of their footballing history are few and far between. Fortunately, Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair’s biography of legendary frontman Thierry Henry, is brilliant on the highs and lows of Les Bleus in recent years, from the ‘black-blanc-beur utopia’ of 1998 to the humiliation of 2002, from Zidane’s grand farewell in 2006 to 2010’s strike of shame. If you learn one thing, it’s to predict France’s fate at your peril. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, the ‘Shattered Mirror of Knysna’ chapter is essential reading.
For the sake of the nation, every England fan should be prescribed a copy of One Night in Turin by Pete Davies. It may be nearly a quarter of a century since Italia 90, but ‘Ghastly press, oafish fans, and 4-4-2’ is a summary that still rings true enough. This year, a Gazza-esque hero will rise and a Psycho-esque villain will fall. The FA is still run by octogenarians ‘bereft of common sense or ideas’, our newspapers still prefer to vilify than to praise, our national side is still dominated by brave but unspectacular grafters, and disappointment, penalties and heartbreak are all still guaranteed. One of the best football books you’ll ever read.
If it’s the murky history of fascism and corruption you’re after, John Foot and Paddy Agnew are your men. But if it’s a more contemporary, positive spin you’d like, you can’t go wrong with L’architetto himself, Andrea Pirlo. In I Think Therefore I Play, the Bearded One emerges as ‘an Italy ultra’ with a ‘pathological devotion’ to the Azzurri. If you’re pushed for time, head for Chapter 5 on his penalty in the 2010 World Cup Final shoot-out, or savour these lines on Antonio Cassano: ‘He says he’s slept with 700 women in his time, but he doesn’t get picked for Italy any more. Deep down, can he really be happy? I certainly wouldn’t be.’ This is Pirlo’s last international tournament; don’t rule out a swansong to remember.
Remarkably, this is only Portugal’s sixth World Cup but their fourth in a row thanks to the golden generations of Figo, Deco and Ronaldo. Very little is available in terms of Portuguese football history, so visit portugoal.net for the latest news, or read Luca Caioli’s biography of the man on whom all hopes rest, Cristiano Ronaldo: The Obsession for Perfection.
Whether you’re looking to brush up on Dutch football past or present, make David Winner your guide. Go with Brilliant Orange for the whole history, but his excellent Dennis Bergkamp biography, Stillness and Speed, for the spectacular near-misses of the nineties. Player Power and Power Player are the key chapters, the first about the personnel problems at Euro 96, the second about World Cup 98, ‘that’ volley versus Argentina followed by the heart-breaking semi-final defeat to Brazil. Van Gaal‘s team look unlikely to buck that ‘nearly men’ trend this time around, but it’s never for a want of skill.
* You can follow Matt on Twitter @ofpitchandpage and can also discover more about the finest in football literature on his blog at http://www.ofpitchandpage.blogspot.co.uk