The turn of the millennium heralded very little change in modern football history; the decision that would alter the global game forever had already been made 8 years earlier. Football League Division One clubs’ choice to join the new, financially rewarding Premier League in 1992 beckoned in an age of growing commercialisation for the sport. Soon, million-pound transfers and lucrative television rights deals would become the norm; football had lost its soul to greed.
Except that it hadn’t, quite. It had certainly lost large swathes of itself to the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Sky Sports, and it was less accessible for the ordinary supporter. Even so, football is a global culture and it prevails in all its differing forms.
So, naturally there’s a plethora of excellent writing to do with ‘The Beautiful Game’ and here, we’ve picked out some of the best non-fiction writing on the sport. If you’ve never explored this genre, maybe you’ll even decide to delve into some football literature for yourself.
1. Thirty One Nil by James Montague (2014)
Montague charts the plight of the smaller nations pursuing qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which was held in Brazil. It’s a fascinating book and what’s more impressive is Montague’s willingness to travel all over the globe to hear tales that would otherwise go untold. The book is an unflinching insight into the very real lives of footballers, managers and supporters globally.
Perhaps the thing that makes Thirty One Nil so alluring is its uniqueness. Montague’s insatiable hunger to learn and retell the stories of some of the world’s ultimate footballing minnows isn’t exactly something that every writer wants to do. He ventures to the likes of Haiti, American Samoa and Lebanon, investigating the geopolitical climate, as well as the football itself.
2. A Random History of Football by Colin Murray (2009)
A highly entertaining read that seeks to unravel the weirdest and most wonderful football-related stories. Murray isn’t the most brilliant author in the conventional sense, but this likeable book transcends age categories (mostly) and has something for everybody.
From an all-star team comprising footballers who smoked, to insights into the weirdest injuries sustained (including Liverpool goalkeeper Michael Stensgaard, who had to retire due to an ‘ironing-board incident), Murray succeeds in creating an engaging, random read. It’s not the most challenging book you’ll ever peruse, nor is it supposed to be.
3. Outcasts! The Lands that FIFA Forgot by Steve Menary (2007)
Focusing on autonomous states, unrecognised nations and islands scattered across the world, Menary gives a voice to the voiceless in Outcasts. A globe-trotting look at nationality and belonging in sport, it features minnows such as Northern (Turkish) Cyprus, Tibet, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. Outcasts is an impressive, unique piece of football journalism that strives to inform.
As with the aforementioned titles, the best thing about the book is that Menary makes it less about the football itself. He goes to lengths to explain the problems facing each team/nation, as well as the socio-political situations. Like Thirty One Nil, this is groundbreaking football writing that defies borders.
4. The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt (2006)
Goldblatt hits the 900-page mark in The Ball is Round as he dives deep into international football history. For such a heavy read, it moves fluidly and the author’s attention to detail is impressive.
The focus on the intertwined state of football and politics is a sign of Goldblatt’s perception of the modern game. He tracks the game’s development from its English origins to a global sport, charting football’s links to fascist dictators, corruption and racism. As much as anything else, The Ball is Round is a book about global history and politics, and an essential read for anyone interested in either.
5. The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin (2013)
The great thing about this book is that it offers a rare insight into some of the sport’s most anonymous and underappreciated figures. Calvin tells the tale of football scouts, who face being left behind as football technology and talent pathways continue to evolve. The focus on the scouts’ lives is hugely interesting and the author succeeds in creating a sincere, honest book.
It’s a good read. The author reflects on hard-working, lonely professionals that receive little in the way of reward or recognition for their efforts.
6. Running with the Firm by James Bannon (2013)
Unlike the rest of the books in this article, this is a deeply personal recollection. Bannon was an undercover police officer sent to infiltrate The Bushwackers, a Millwall football club hooligan gang. It’s a humorous, slightly disturbing read that introduces the reader to some odd characters.
As a book it’s pretty raw; its shock factor perseveres throughout. Bannon goes beyond football, allowing the reader to understand the life of an undercover police officer. Running with the Firm isn’t the most complex read, but it’s terrifying at times, and a bestseller for a reason.
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