Monday, January 05, 2009


Thinking Football

The idea for this book was, and is, excellent. A series of essays, each by a different scribe, and each relating to one of the teams, or rather the countries, that took part at the 2006 World Cup. The aim, one supposes, was to provide outward-looking football fans with a broader taste of the international melting pot on show in Germany. It's refreshing that almost every contributor takes a different line, too. The editors were clearly not after a simple historical overview, or an assessment of a team’s chances. They wanted colour, and by and large they got it.

In a sense, this is not even a football book. Many of the essays deal with football only tangentially (if at all), and consequently the collection comes across as half travelogue, half pop cultural analysis. But the mix is generally satisfying, and football is stirred into it often enough to retain the interest of football, erm, tragics.

The best of the essays provide a quick, often quirky look at the country and the culture in question while briefly sketching the history of that nation’s engagement with the world game. The grand prize here goes to Jim Frederick’s crisp, engaging and deftly-written piece on Japan; significantly, Frederick is a journalist rather than a trendy novelist (of whom there is something of a surfeit among the contributors). A close runner-up is James Surowiecki’s thoughtful, if grim, account of the Polish national character and how it relates to football.

The worst of the pieces take the personal viewpoint to the narcissistic extreme, with the result that essay ends up being about the author, and not much else. The nadir is reached with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s eleven-page self-pitying account of his failed attempt to visit Iran (the country he is meant to be writing about). William Finnegan’s tedious tales of surfing adventures in Madeira test the reader’s patience as well, while Tim Adams’ self-indulgent review of his literary trainspotting in Prague is best skipped.

Yet the general standard of the writing is high, even if (as with most attempts at cultural analysis via football) the metaphors often induce a cringe. But there are some imaginative means of approaching the material, such as Eric Schlosser’s visit to a Swedish prison, and Alexander Osang’s plaintive account of an East German football fan’s frustrations.

A couple of the authors have written about football before, and it is no surprise to find old hands Nick Hornby (England) and Tim Parks (Italy) finding the mark with their dryly witty vignettes. Some of the other contributors, however, clearly don’t know much about the game, and the result is a few factual errors and spelling mistakes, whose removal was probably precluded by the need to rush-release the book prior to the World Cup.

The decision to append some of each nation’s vital statistics to each essay – socioeconomic beforehand, football-related afterwards – is an inspired one, and helps to “fill out” some of the brief sketches contained in between. There are more substantial facts ‘n’ figures lists contained in two separate chapters at the end, which are intermittently interesting.

Although both the quality of the essays and their relevance to football varies widely, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup is a worthwhile read…even two and a half years past its use-by date.

who wrote the aussie section? How was it?
A guy called Ben Rice did the Aussie section.

It's long and largely pointless. Focuses mainly on the fatuousness of the Oceania qualifying route.
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