Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond the Froth

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks out the best of the autumn sports books.

I’m sorry but you won’t find here the just-in-time-for Christmas sports autobiography blockbusters. With enough manufactured controversy to ensure blanket coverage when they are launched even a skim read will reveal that on the contrary they tell the reader very little they didn’t either know or suspect already.

Instead I would recommend a weighty volume of this sort A Companion to Sport edited by David Andrews and Ben Carrington. The range of coverage from Monty Panesar to football’s 2010 World Cup is matched by the variety of insights, sport as a contested space being the overarching theme. As an academic book scandalously expensive, but  any well-stocked library. should have a copy. 

As a writer Rob Steen straddles that frustrating divide between the academic and the journalistic. His new book Floodlights and Touchlines reveals the richness of writing this mix can sometimes produce. A living history of the relationship between the spectator and his, or increasingly as Rob chronicles, her sport. This is social history of the very highest standard. Simon Inglis is rightly renowned for his writing on the cultural significance of stadia and other sporting buildings. His Played in Britain project has helped transform our understanding of what these structures mean to their localities, and his latest account of this relationship, Played in London not only continues the richness of Simon’s explanation but is unarguably his finest book in this extraordinary Played In...series yet.

Michael Walker’s Up There is a hugely entertaining application of the social and historical, along with the political and cultural, to the place of football in England’s North-East. Newcastle, Sunderland, ‘Boro, but also the likes of Hartlepool and Darlo, where would English football be without them? The First Game With My Father by Michael Tierney expertly, and movingly applies this macro-analysis of big picture football connectivity to the micro, the personal. A tale of how football frames many families' lives in the way it is a central influence in shaping both fatherhood and masculine adolescence, for good, and sometimes bad. Football once had this degree of influence because it truly was ‘the people’s game’. Today it dominates so many lives because it is big business, almost impossible to escape from. Alex Fynn is a renowned chronicler of the processes behind this very particular evolution, his latest book Arsène & Arsenal continues what amounts to an in-depth study of Arsenal both as a football club and a business, a brand even, what Alex terms a ‘superclub’. If such a notion fills fans with horror, have a read of Ian Plendereith’s  rip-roaring Rock n Roll Soccer an account of the 1970s North American Soccer League which serves as a warning of what happens when football chooses to be simply a branch of a global entertainment industry and forgets where it came from on the way. 

Of course wholesale resistance to any change amounts to a conservatism, few progressives should welcome. Has the penalty shoot-out spelt the end of football as we know it? No, an occasional thrilling end to a tightly-fought match. Ben Lytlleton’s carefully researched Twelve Yards contains plenty of original insight into how to take penalties successfully and turns this quirky idea for a book into a fine read along the way. The last tournament England exited following a penalty shoot-out was Euro 2012. The high point of Roy Hodgson’s England managerial reign to date getting out of a tough group consisting of France, Sweden and Ukraine. In the year of London 2012 and Wiggomania however few took any notice and England have been down ever since. Peter Kennedy and Christos Kassimeris have put together a really excellent academic survey of the tournament, Exploring the Cultural, Ideological and Economic Legacies of Euro 2012. A legacy for the Ukraine which in essence was a tournament which united the nation instead of the bloody separation which followed so shortly afterwards. 

No figure better represents the world English football fears lost to the excesses of commerce as it monetised our sport better than the late Bobby Moore.  Matt Dickinson’s new biography BobbyMoore: The Man In Full reveals both Moore’s supreme achievements, with England and West Ham, but also the flaws even the most heroic contain within themselves. In Moore’s day the media spotlight was nothing like as intense as it is now. We even have the phenomenon of the anonymous insider dishing whatever dirt that might otherwise be hidden from public gaze. Guide to the Modern Game is the third volume of  home truths from the suspiciously well-informed ‘Secret Footballer.’ Who is he? Who knows? And who cares as he continues to open the changing room door to put all behind it on show for his readers. And this time it is the tactics board, team talks and training he treats us to.

Two books kind of book-end the romance and the misery of modern football. Both happen to be about Arsenal, they could have been written about almost any club. Amy Lawrence’s Invincible tells the story of the club’s 2003-2004 unbeaten season. Amy is a writer who will help you to appreciate the football on the pitch with an understanding of how the game is played few can match. At the same time she never fails to appreciate the passion that makes us fans. The Arsenal Shirt by James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft is a beautifully designed art book visually detailing the history of the club’s most iconic of shirt designs. But of course since the advent of sponsors logos and merchandising profits any legendary kit simply becomes a moneymaking billboard. Unwittingly perhaps the book eloquently reveals the death of tradition that football’s monetisation has successfully engineered.  Progress? In some areas certainly, but at what cost? It is the shift over the past twenty years from the positives Post Italia 90 to the negatives after two decades’ worth of the dire Premier League (sic) that Martin Cloake charts in his new book Taking Our Ball Back. This is writing with well-informed anger. Martin carefully unpicks the causes, and effects of a growing discontent with  how what was once the people’s game is being transformed.

Sport of course doesn’t simply collide with economic forces it is indivisible from the political and social too. This is the basis of these quarterly forays into reviewing the best of current sportswriting. The Nazi Olympics of 1936 remain the strongest example yet of this combination. a platform for Hitler, sport used to seek to prove the physical superiority of the Aryan race, brilliantly demolished of course by  black American athlete Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track and in the long jump pit. A superb achievement that has been allowed to mask countless examples of large sections of the sporting establishment’s effective covering-up and collaboration with the Nazi regime in order to save their sports’ relations with Germany. An England football team ordered to give the Nazi salute before an England v Germany game an incredible, and shameful, moment in football’s history. Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell uncovers a part of sporting history from this period which I suspect even the most well-informed sports fan would be unaware of. The 1937 English cricket tour of Nazi Germany! The impulses and reasoning behind such a bizarre adventure for the Germans and  the English were many and varied. What Dan Waddell’s account reveals though in this most extraordinary of settings was how the cricket was framed by Germany’s fast-moving descent into Nazi barbarism while England remained divided by tendencies towards appeasement and collaboration  versus popular and militant anti-fascism. When being knocked for six could land Hitler a propaganda victory cricket is not quite the gentle sport we’re used to Dan Waddell’s tale is scarcely believable. The fact it is just the makes the book an even better read.

Herbie Sykes covers a different sport , cycling, and a different era for Germany, the East German GDR years of state socialism and the Berlin Wall. Of course comparisons with the Nazi era are both crass and ill-founded historically yet the clash between politics and sport all the same was a constant across these two contrasting period in German history. Herbie’s wonderful book The Race against the Stasi details the career, life and times of one of the sporting heroes of East Germany,  Dieter Wiedeman. The culture that turned him firstly into an elite athlete, then into an icon of GDR socialism the disillusionment that led him to escape, turn pro, ride Le Tour and the efforts of the Stasi to repatriate hum. This is sport as a record of post-war politics with a plot good enough to make it as a thriller.

The cycling intrigue we are perhaps more used to are the drug scandals, particularly of the Lance Armstrong era. Michael Barry is the latest rider to break ranks with the peloton to reveal the consequences of the sport’s drug culture and how cycling has to change in order to rid itself from this scourge. Michael’s autobiographical Shadowson the Road is both brutally honest while elegantly moving in terms of his vision for what riding clean means. Restoring the undoubted romance, heroic endeavours and idealism of road cycling at its best is what Jan Cleijoine’s graphic history of Le Tour achieves. Jan’s Legends of the Tour is a stunning graphic history of what remains the greatest race on earth. Until relatively recently British cyclists wouldn’t be much more than an honourable footnote in such a history, Ellis Bacon’s Great British Cycling tracks the irresistible rise of the sport on these shores from modest beginnings. to such achievements at World, Olympic and Grand Tour level to be thought of as worldbeaters. At the core of that achievement in recent years have been women cyclists. Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Armistead, Laura Trott and others. Nicole Cooke’s autobiographical The Breakaway is both a powerfully-written testament to the measure of that achievement by a former World and European champion on the road plus a well-argued critique of the barriers that stand in the way of women's cycling.

The latest edition of The Cycling Anthology remains the must-read collection of the very best writing on two wheels. Keep Calm and Pedal On is a great collection of quotes on cycling which gives us an idea of the breadth and depth of inspiration riding a bike fast, slow or in-between can provide. Getting our hands dirty fixing what might have gone wrong with a bicycle might not seem  much of a radical act. Sam Tracy would dispute this and has written a Bicycle Repair Manifesto full of useful diy maintenance tips to keep the bike, if not a revolution, on the road. Still not convinced? Bike Mechanic is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve ever read. In words but, most of all with arthouse standard photographs and layout a homage to those who build and maintain bikes. 

Sport of course should never be treated as a fixed, unchanging, entity. It is shaped by powerful cultural and economic factors as well as the political and social. It demands investigation and often a critique too. Allyson Pollock’s pioneering Tackling Rugby provides both with a sparkling abundance of well-researched writing. Her target? Children and youth rugby, the risk of injury, especially head injuries, and the failure of the sport’s governing bodies to react, with practical suggestions for how to safeguard both young players’ health and the future of the game. A textbook example of how to  investigate sport, expose and help to make change possible.

And my sports book of the quarter? David Goldblatt has already produced one definitive work The Ball is Round, his global and social history of football. His latest book The Game of Our Lives is both a social history of the domestic game and a critique of its modern, monetised manifestation. David combines a sympathetic and original explanation of why football is of such importance to so many while accounting for why it deserves nothing resembling a hagiography because of its many, mostly self-inflicted out of commercial greed, failings. As such it is a book that informs and inspires, a truly great piece of writing.

No links are provided to Amazon. If you can avoid buying from tax-dodgers please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka PhilosophyFootball

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dear Jose Mourinho - A Letter on Racism

Dear Jose Mourinho,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch sooner. I’ve been meaning to write ever since you joined the discussion about black managers in the English game by saying, “there is no racism in football”. That really was one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. I mean, fair play to you, it takes some real front to make that claim and also retain John Terry as the captain of your side, but you should really engage your brain before you let the words slip out of your mouth.

We know you’re arrogant. Dare I say it, some of us quite like your trademark persona. It brightens up our football days. Our eyes widen in mock incredulity when you have the temerity to describe yourself as “The Special One”; we snigger as you go to shake Roy Keane’s hand minutes before the final whistle. But tell me, Jose, how does it feel to be the multi-millionaire manager of one of the world’s richest clubs and tell struggling black coaches that racism doesn’t exist?

And it takes a special kind of arrogance to state there is no racism in football and offer no evidence whatsoever in support. Instead you say: “If you are good, you are good. If you are good, you get the job. If you are good, you prove that you deserve the job. Football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top.” Yes, Jose, we all know that this is how it should work. The problem is that something is quite obviously wrong with the supposed meritocracy. Can you honestly say that football truly reflects the talents of black managers in this country?

I suppose you might respond by arguing that the burden of proof rests on those of us who seek to confront racism in football. Fair enough – there’s plenty of evidence. Only two of the 92 managers working in the top four divisions of English football are not white. And both Keith Curle and Chris Powell were appointed at the start of the current season. The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, claims “there is a hidden racism which holds clubs back” from appointing black managers. In this interesting segment from Football Focus both Dion Dublin and Paul Ince discuss the difficulties facing black people in football and say that action is urgently needed.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Perhaps you’re waiting for a smoking gun. Perhaps you’ll only accept that racism exists in football if you see video footage of dozens of white club chairmen sitting in a room discussing their favourite racial slurs. Jose, there are none as blind as those that will not see.

By ignoring the evidence that does exist, you not only belittle the struggle of ethnic minorities in English football, you also pander to the worst sort of class prejudice. Everyone is quick to point out the problems of racism as long as it is being perpetrated by working class people on the terraces or on the pitch. And rightly so. But is it really so inconceivable to you that bigotry and racial prejudice can also be found in the boardroom? Are the great and the good, the movers and shakers and king-makers immunised against intolerance by virtue of their education and their riches? The answer, in case you were wondering, is no.

All the time racism exists in society then it will exist in football – at every level of the game. Burying your head in the sand won’t change that. Instead we have to look at ways to fight it. That is why so many people are looking towards a version of the Rooney rule. First adopted in American football the rule states that clubs seeking a new head coach must interview at least one person from an ethnic minority.

There is a debate over how effective this would be. Les Ferdinand seems to be against it while Rio Ferdinand is for it, which should make for fun conversation at the family Christmas get-together. Let’s be honest. Such a regulation would hardly change the world. What it would do is show that English football is taking the issue of racism seriously,

Sadly it feels like we have been here before. It’s nearly 40 years since Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis played together for West Brom and were booed by racist sections of their own fans. It’s nearly 30 years since John Barnes back-heeled a banana thrown at him from the crowd in one of the most iconic anti-racist images football has ever produced. As these generations of black footballers moved into coaching they faced the old racism in a new setting and have stared long enough at the glass ceiling. They have never enjoyed your privileged position Jose. The very least you can do is to acknowledge their struggle.

Yours sincerely

Inside Left