Top 50 books finale: Puskas, politics & Palinesque jaunts

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"And now, the end is near..." We've reached the end of's best 50 football books ever, dear reader, and hope we've helped you sort the wheat from the chaff of the oodles of footy-based books out there at your disposal.

If you missed any of the run-down, numbers 50 to 41 can be found here, while 40-31 are here, 30-21 here and 20-11 here.

Read on to uncover the top 10...

10 Puskas on Puskas: the life and times of a footballing legend
Rogan Taylor & Klara Jamrich 1998
A warm, intelligent and revealing biography which fuses history and politics with the study of genius to produce a unique portrait of the great Hungarian, Ferenc Puskas.

A labour of love, it was born of Taylor’s urge to know his boyhood hero. One early fruit of this was an unmade film script with Stalin dying in the opening scene with the word “Puskas!” on his lips. In 1993, researching the TV series Kicking and Screaming [see No.33], Taylor met Puskas and persuaded him to tell the story of his unparalleled career, first with Hungary and later as kingpin (with Di Stefano) of the great Real Madrid.

Some of the most mesmerising passages deal with the star’s status as the only free man in the vast prison camp of Stalinist Hungary in the early-’50s. Tragically, Taylor’s Hungarian co-author Klara Jamrich has since died of cancer at the age of 35.

Di Stefano scores three and Puskas four in 7-3 win vs Eintracht Frankfurt 

9 Football In Sun And Shadow
Eduardo Galeano 1997

American sportswriter George Plimpton said the smaller the ball, the greater the literature.

He hadn’t read this remarkable, poetic, episodic history by a left-wing Uruguayan writer who once asked “Why is football like God? Each inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals.” The book consists of short stories on a theme – a famous game, a spectacular goal, a great player – written in a lyrical style which could quickly grate yet somehow doesn’t.

Some episodes, like the tale of Brazil’s greatest goalscorer – Artur Friedenreich, not Pele – read like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realist fiction.

Unlike many authors who dwell on Albert Camus’ goalkeeping for spurious intellectual credibility, Galeano gives it a twist: Camus, he insists, liked to keep goal because that way his shoes didn’t wear out so fast.

8 Tor!
Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger 2003

Few football cultures inspire as many clichés as Germany’s: ruthless, defensive, boringly efficient. Such labels are proved hopelessly inaccurate by this book.

In Hesse-Lichtenberger’s capable hands, the history of German football seems more entertaining, unpredictable and scandal-infested than England’s. Part of the attraction is that when German players insult each other – and they do so incessantly – their jibes are a cut above the “not fit to tie my bootlaces ” routines which pass for abuse in UK footy media.

While British mavericks have usually been confined to the margins, Germany’s social misfits and rebels – from Franz Beckenbauer to Gunter Netzer and Lothar Matthaus – have often taken centre stage. And the startling chapter on East German football says more in a few pages about totalitarian football than most books on the subject.

7 Full Time
Tony Cascarino & Paul Kimmage 2000

Initially, it seemed Paul Kimmage would struggle to find a publisher for Full Time: “I’d spent a lot of time with Tony and had already got four chapters done before Simon and Schuster agreed to publish it,” he explains. Famously, one publisher said: “Tony Cascarino? He’s not exactly David Beckham, is he?”

“I could see what they meant,” confesses Kimmage. “Tony hadn’t played in England for a few years. But I always had the gut feeling that the book would be successful because Tony was prepared to be totally honest, which is the key to a project like this. And having been a professional cyclist for four years, I could identify with his fears as his football career drew to a close, and real life began.”

"I thought we were supposed to be posing with David Beckham..." 

Full Time works on two levels. On the one hand, there are the testosterone-fuelled stories of dressing-room banter, numerous references to Jack Charlton’s potty mouth, and Glenn Hoddle’s suspect humour. But it also transcends football issues. Cascarino’s troubled relationship with his father and his painful separation from his wife and sons are themes which run throughout the story.

Then there is the doubting inner voice – “Come off it Cas, you won’t fucking score. You shot it years ago” – which plagues him each time he bears down on goal. “Tony didn’t need to confess to that,” says Kimmage. “But it’s about trust between author and subject. The writer can only push the buttons, the player is the one who must unburden themselves.”

Since its publication in 2000, Cascarino has adapted well to “real life” and enjoys a fulfilling media career. “But for every Cascarino,” explains Kimmage, “there are two players who can’t adapt at all. The money makes little difference at all.” Gazza would doubtless concur.

6 Keeper Of Dreams
Ronald Reng 2003

A riveting memoir, Reng’s book tells the strange and fascinating tale of Lars Leese, a goalkeeper plucked from the German minor leagues (and computer software industry) to play for Barnsley in the Premier League but soon returns to obscurity in Germany

The culture shock is immense: Leese puzzles over tactics, watches his team-mates rogering strippers on stage at the Christmas party and tries to handle the claustrophobic hysteria of a small Yorkshire town desperate to bask in football glory. He commits one early, unforgivable sin on the pitch: throwing the ball to a team-mate.

To correct this ‘mistake’, the coach stands on the flank near the halfway line to show Leese where he must always kick the ball to. Among the many delights is the revelation that German keepers shout “Leo!” if they’re going to kick the ball in the air so defenders know to duck.

5 A Strange Kind Of Glory
Eamon Dunphy 1974

Just the title reveals that this biography of Sir Matt Busby is no ordinary football book.

“I called it A Strange Kind of Glory because that’s what it was,” explains Dunphy. “Here is a man who created all this legendary magnificence, the first modern football manager, who made Manchester United into more than just an ordinary club and yet was ultimately powerless, ending up in a semi-detached house in Chorlton.”

Dunphy was inspired by admiration for the man and by his service at United as youth and reserve-team player from 1960 to 1965. He knew that the real story of how one man conceptualised much of modern football had never been properly told and, financed by the profit from his U2 biography The Unforgettable Fire, spent months in Manchester and Scotland researching his biography.

“Busby was a great man,” he says. “Even great players – like Bobby Charlton and Denis Law – were in awe of him and professional footballers don’t do awe. He was the first manager to lay down how a club should be run, how players should behave, how the game should be played. And he had vision – he took United into Europe, advocated floodlit football and was one of the first managers to take a risk on young players, throwing youngsters like George Best into the team.”

But he was, Dunphy concedes, “ruthless beneath the charm – when Fulham paid Johnny Haynes £100 a week in 1961, he gave stars like Bobby Charlton a fiver so they were on £25 a week.”

The book traces the corrupt and corrupting rise of professional football to put Busby into context. Dunphy makes you feel as if you are inside the club: with Busby and Jimmy Murphy on the training ground; watching the Busby Babes and the 1968 European Cup-winning side emerge; and eavesdropping as players bicker and, in the early-1960s, wonder if Busby has lost it.

In its own way, this book – the best biography of a football manager ever written – is as much of an achievement as winning the European Cup.

Sir Matt keeps watchful eye over Old Trafford 

4 Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football
David Winner 2000
“I wanted to be provocative. I wanted it to be quirky and unusual and to ensure it looked at football in a different way,” explains Brilliant Orange’s cover designer Will Webb.

This book, which takes an idiosyncratic look at the enigma that is Dutch football, leapt off the shelves by virtue of the ball of Edam and Astroturf on the front framed by, well, brilliant orange. “Like a football, but not quite. Like grass, but not quite. David’s book proves that Dutch football is rather different; the cover is in keeping with the content,” adds Webb.

Winner interviews quirky former stars like Rep and Rensenbrink, but also offers a unique insight into the psyche of the Dutch, and goes some way to explaining why the team underachieves in big matches. Winner confesses to being “fascinated by the correlation between football and space, and football and architecture”.

Not your average football book. Not your average football team.   

3 All Played Out: Full Story Of Italia 90
Pete Davies 1990

This riveting, passionately-written inside story of the England team and its fans during Italia 90 made ‘football literature’ mean more than daft ghosted biographies.

“There had been good football books before,” recalls Davies, “but they were rare, and there’d been bugger all in the 1980s. I wanted football to have a proper place in popular culture; I thought someone should say ‘Not all of us are lunatics. We have legitimate emotional reasons for watching this game, which is incredibly important culturally and matters to everyone in the world.’”

Even more remarkable than winning the trust of England boss Bobby Robson and his players was persuading a major publisher to take a gamble on a genre that didn’t yet exist. Davies then wrote the book in just eight weeks after the World Cup to hit the Christmas market.

“I’m 45, but it’s still incredibly vivid to me,” he once said. “I’ll never forget being in Turin.”    

2 Fever Pitch
Nick Hornby 1993

A completely original book. Hornby didn’t start the new wave of football writing – Pete Davies did – but he was the first British writer to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a fan.

Following the theory of fandom as therapy, Hornby describes how he used Arsenal to escape from his parents’ divorce, problems with women, the question of what to do with his life, and so on. He treats his fandom as a problem, as something not entirely healthy.

This set him apart from the previous notion of fandom as a hobby, and from his imitators who wrote cutesy accounts of watching bad football in the rain without any of Hornby’s honesty about their own lives.

It helps that Fever Pitch is hilarious and beautifully written and that it offers a social history of Britain from the 1960s through the early-1990s. Its only flaw is its formlessness: it’s a book to dip in rather than to read through.

"And it's up for grabs now..." 

1 Football Against The Enemy
Simon Kuper 1994

“I had mixed feelings when I began work on the book,” confesses Simon Kuper. “I felt that the whole thing might be too big for me, and I was concerned about what friends would say when they read it. Yet I also had a sort of blind confidence in my writing ability. An established author probably wouldn’t have taken on such a project. It’s the sort of thing that a young writer needed to do.”

With a small(ish) £5,000 budget, the 22-year-old set off on a Palinesque jaunt which saw him visit 22 countries in a crazy nine-month period – “I’d go around Europe for three months, using mainly Inter Rail tickets, then come home to London and wash my clothes, fly to Cameroon, come home and then fly off to South Africa.”

His aim? “To investigate precisely how politics and football intertwined throughout the world. It was a subject that always fascinated me, and I was conscious that such a book hadn’t been written before.”

In the course of his epic adventure, he interviewed an eclectic mix of players and officials, including an Argentine general with unique views on the way the game should be played, a Berliner who’d suffered persecution at the hands of the Stasi simply because he supported his local team, and most bizarrely, Cameroon star Roger Milla, who had made headlines with his attempts to organise a tournament for pygmy tribes.

Kuper planned the trip carefully, but the actual interviewing process was distinctly ad hoc. “In the pre-internet age, it could be difficult. I’d arrive in Argentina, speak to someone in basic Spanish, and arrange to meet the friend of a friend. At first, I had a vague idea of meeting up with people in bars, but I quickly realised that I needed to b
far more proactive in speaking to people. Sometimes I just got lucky, and bumped into people in airport queues – like a Dynamo Kiev official who spoke perfect English.”

Groundbreaking though Kuper’s book is, he denies that it was responsible for the mushrooming of more insightful football literature. “Nick Hornby and Pete Davies created the idea in publishers’ minds that football
books could be good and sell, not me. Maybe I did influence some authors to carry out studies on football in other countries, but the process of excellent books being published was already under way.”

Saturation football coverage and internet access means that fans are far more cosmopolitan in their outlooks than ever before. However, Football Against The Enemy remains the only book to take a definitive sweep on world football, and explain how political and cultural issues influence the game across the globe.

For that reason, it deserves its title as the Number One football book.


Top 50 books: The countdown
Chapter 1: Fashion, fighting & Fish (Billy the)
Chapter 2: Managers, mavericks & Madridistas
Chapter 3: Priests, demons & golliwogs
Chapter 4: Randy Africans, hairdryers & Communists
Chapter 5: Puskas, politics & Palinesque jaunts

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