Here at Put Niels in Goal, we love a good football book. While the shelves of your local Waterstones might heave with shoddily written autobiographies, there has also been some genuinely insightful, intelligent stuff written about football. Here is a round up of some of the best football books on the market. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but if you’re looking to get started then here are some suggestions…
Comprehensive is a big word. So is encyclopaedic. But Goldblatt’s roving tome manages to be just that. A history of football from its early instantiations in Chinese and Mayan culture, right through to 2006, the book’s scope is extraordinary, peppered with anecdotes and references, but taut and lively in its style. Goldblatt’s achievement is magisterial, and if you choose to read only one of these books, make it his.
Football’s joy is that it is at once a personal and collective experience. You cheer or cry or swear with thousands of others, but the memory of what mattered, of what inspired or destroyed you, is also individual. Galeano pulls together a series of footballing vignettes that go towards making his own memory-horde. Beautiful descriptions of goals, players, and matches are penned with flair, as Galeano maps out his relationship with the game he adores.
The Dutch invented total football and gave the world the brilliance of Cruijff, Neeskens, and Krol. Winner sets this tale against a remarkable backdrop of art, architecture, literature, and history, and does it without ever sounding too clever or pompous. This is as canny a marriage of subject matters as you are likely to find, and hugely entertaining. In the same field, a mention must also go to Simon Kuper’s Ajax, The Dutch, The War, an at times tragic tale of football during the Second World War and how it affected a club traditionally associated with Amsterdam’s Jewish community.
In truth, The Blizzard is not a book, but a lavish quarterly magazine, edited by one of today’s foremost football writers, Jonathan Wilson. Frustrated by the paucity of good writing about football, Wilson lets a myriad of thoughtful writers off the short-form, quick-turn-over leash, and the result is a distillation of the best long-form sports writing around. Of course, Wilson has produced many other books, some of them definitive on their subject; his latest, a history of Argentine football, is sure to be as good.
This book made me cry a little and I am not ashamed to admit it. Robert Enke was a talented German goalkeeper who battled episodic clinical depression and took his own life as his career was reaching its pinnacle. Reng tells a story, with pathos and style, about mental health and the pressures of modern sport that has worth and resonance beyond the game itself.
Bill Burford was the editor of Granta when he indulged his gonzo journalism wont and produced this vibrant account of football hooliganism. Burford captures both the excitement of street warfare and the sadness it causes without ever rushing to judgement and, in doing so, provides a superb account of the social backdrop to 1980s football that, with recent events at Euro 2016, is worth revisiting now.
Ahead of the curve, Kuper and Szymanski use economic theory and big data to address the foibles of the transfer market, why certain teams do well in tournaments and others don’t, and apply game theory to penalty kicks. Cerebral and informative, this is Freakonomics for football. It can and perhaps should be read in concert with The Numbers Game, another excellent book on data use in the game and part of the inspiration behind various of my Football Manager saves!
There is not a lot of good fiction set in the world of football – a mystery to be addressed another time – but one author stands out. Peace’s complex book about the irascible Brian Clough’s ill-fated tenure as manager of the club he most hated, Leeds United, is dark, feisty, and staggeringly well-written.
Written for an academic audience, this is nonetheless an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to the study of football. It addresses everything from sports journalism to the origin of the sport in English public schools to the globalisation of football under FIFA.
A classic, Hopcraft’s fluid style and breadth of knowledge make this series of essays about the game one of the finest collections of sports writing in English. Written in an era when sports writers had a greater freedom to express themselves (in other words, a better time), this is prose that at times rises to poetry.
Not always the most popular side, there’s little doubt that the Leeds United of Don Revie changed the face of English football, perhaps simply by leaving stud marks on it. This well researched history charts Revie’s obsessive drive to transform the side into a dominant power in the game and also sets up the Revie/Clough schism that would have such an impact and give rise to works like number 8 on this list.
The Danish team of the ’80s, led by manager Sepp Piontek and boasting an array of talent including Michael Laudrup, Soren Lerby, and Morten Olsen, dazzled Europe while also managing to be a loveable bunch. This book conveys the enthusiasm of their football and also features a lot of original research on a previously overlooked nation. This was the side that laid the groundwork for Denmark’s triumph in Euro 1992 and their personalities, teamwork, and tactics all shine through in a very enjoyable read.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Phoenix Magazine. I have read some stuff since then, you see…