Top 50 books part III: Priests, demons & gollywogs

Hello and welcome to the third installment of's best 50 football books ever. If you missed numbers 50 to 41, they're here, while 40-31 can be found here.

Read on for the next batch...

30 Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life
Alex Bellos 2002

The format was familiar: by the time Futebol appeared, in 2002, we’d already enjoyed excellent books on football in one country by David Winner (Holland) and Phil Ball (Spain), with several others in the pipeline. Yet nobody had tackled the ultimate football country since the American sociologist Janet Lever wrote the obscure but wonderful Soccer Madness in 1983.

What makes Futebol special is its legwork – Alex Bellos is a Stakhanovite. In dangerous countries like Brazil, there are foreign correspondents who never leave town, and barely even their neighbourhood, except to go to the airport for the flight home. But Bellos travels around Brazil as if it were Luxembourg.

Interviewing Brazilian beauty queens? Sounds awful 

Not only does he speak to everyone – the man who designed Brazil’s yellow-blue-white strip, the man who scored the winner against Brazil in the 1950 final, beauty queens, priests – but he also goes everywhere and does everything.

He visits three Brazilians who are playing for a club in a village of 1,000 people in the Faroe Islands. He appears in the Sao Paulo carnival for the samba school of Corinthians’ hard-core fans, wearing purple feathers. Futebol’s hundreds of interviews, facts, drawings, photographs and even maps will spare researchers trouble for generations to come.

There are problems. When Bellos wrote this, he was Brazil correspondent for The Guardian, and like many daily journalists he has trouble structuring a book. At times it descends into a parade of cameo football obsessives.

Secondly, he is shorter on theory than on fact. This is something of a relief after the many half-baked football-as-national-character arguments, but since Bellos knows so much, and seems so comfortable with Brazil’s history, language and music (like all good football books, Futebol is about much more than football), we want more of his insights.

However, it’s an irreplaceable book.

29 Managing My Life 
Alex Ferguson 1999

After his side won the treble in 1999, publishing houses fought the mother of all bidding wars for the rights to publish Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography.

Hodder Headline’s successful £1.1 million bid was met with ridicule. How could they possibly make that back in sales, asked ‘those in the know?’ “Explosive” extracts in the Telegraph and The Sun – including criticism of his former assistant Brian Kidd – were met with consternation in some quarters.

But all publicity is good publicity – the book sold in bucketloads, and HH had the last laugh. Michael Crick’s book on Fergie [see No.15 tomorrow] presents a far more rounded view of the Scot: the bullying episodes and the United boss’s rocky relationship with several journalists are entirely absent from Managing My Life.

But if you want to know why United dominated football in the ’90s, this book goes a long way to providing the answers.

Fergie celebrates sealing the Treble in '99 

28 White Angels
Jon Carlin 2004

In 2004, too many trees were felled by publishers wanting to tell us what we already knew about El Becks and Real Madrid. This is the best of them, elevated by Carlin’s astonishing access and his talent.

Carlin offers a lovingly detailed portrait of the club and the galacticos experiment, which soon looks passé as sides like Porto win with teamwork, not individuality.

At times, it feels like a well-written, intelligent hagiography of Florentino Perez. Directors even joke that they could win with a fan playing. Such hubris is rewarded with defeat by Monaco and Morientes – a reject deemed insufficiently galactical, giving a valuable insight into what happens when a club believes its own hype.

27 Ajax, The Dutch, The War
Simon Kuper 2003

Ajax, The Dutch, The War offers a kind of secret history of Dutch football and Holland.

Kuper may or may not have been inspired by Brilliant Orange, which includes a chapter identifying Ajax as ‘The Jewish Club’. But where David Winner’s tale is inspiring and captivating, Kuper’s book is full of anger, disillusionment and pain as he confronts the myth that the Dutch resisted the Nazi death machine, finding, as he digs into football history, damning evidence of collaboration and conformity.

Sparta Rotterdam, for example, expelled Jewish members (while refunding their membership fees) yet agonised over the size of the lettering on its ‘Forbidden for Jews’ sign.

The uneasiness lingers on with Ajax officially denying it ever was a Jewish club, although, as Kuper painstakingly establishes, the club once drew heavily on Jewish support and owes its most glorious years to Jewish returnees.

A troubling, meticulous masterpiece.

26 Keane
Roy Keane & Eamonn Dunphy 2002

Keane’s unflinching description of the retribution he meted out to Alf Inge Haaland (who accused him of faking his cruciate injury in 1996) during a 2001 Manchester derby nearly resulted in a messy court case. The offending “Take that you c**t” section was removed from the paperback.

Keane’s torrent of abuse at Ireland boss Mick McCarthy, and subsequent walk-out on the eve of the finals, is recorded in all its gore, as are scathing criticisms of former Republic boss Jack Charlton.

In a FFT interview, Charlton claimed that co-writer Eamon Dunphy was simply using Keane to settle old scores with him. “Not true at all,” argues Dunphy. “Do you really think that Roy would allow anyone to speak for him? The language and style of the book simply reflects the way in which he has always played the game.”

You can say that again.

"Dear Diary. Roy's still giving me mean looks and i don't like it" 

25 Tackling My Demons
Stan Collymore 2004

Just as young Stanley isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s fair to say that Tackling My Demons isn’t everyone’s idea of a great read.

Clashes with managers and team-mates at Aston Villa, Liverpool and Forest, the assault on Ulrika Jonsson in 1998, an early retirement, and the recent “dogging” revelations have seen Collymore (all too frequently) in the news for the wrong reasons, and TV presenter Kirsty Gallagher labelled him “desperate and sad” after he disclosed intimate details of their relationship in the book.

Collymore emerges as a deeply troubled man, and cites John Gregory’s criticism of him as evidence of how he remains persecuted. Others claim that Collymore just messes up all the time; the dogging revelations that destroy his burgeoning Five Live career being the most recent example.

You may love or loathe Stan, but he is living proof that money can’t buy personal happiness.

Stan and his story, on offer apparently... 

24 A Season With Verona
Tim Parks 2002

Fan-lit is much-maligned, and often rightly so. After Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch, legions of fans felt the urge to commit their tales of wet midweek nights in Grimsby to paper, but none had his wit, insight or narrative ability.

This is the only other book about a fan’s experience in the Top 50, and if the format – tracing the 2000-01 Serie A season – is familiar, its ambition in exploring masculine identity and Italian character sets it apart.

One passage mocking football’s role in the Catholic jubilee was so controversial that some in the church wanted the book burned.

Parks is a unique example of an established writer turning to football, and he admits he was surprised by the reaction of the literary establishment. His German hardback publisher, for instance, refused even to read it, a decision she regretted when the paperback was well received.

“If I had written about elephants, plenty of non-elephant lovers would’ve read it, if only because they trust me as a writer,” he says. “Football is an insuperable obstacle for some people.”

Yet it was partly football’s odd position, as an obsession treated by many with suspicion or disdain, which prompted this book. “It developed from being aware that I was embarrassed to admit my enthusiasm for the game and a growing interest in that embarrassment, a desire to understand what lay behind it.”

His concept of the fan is different to Hornby’s. “I reacted against his presentation of the fan as a man wounded by psychological problems. His is a description where fandom is simultaneously made endearing and subtly disparaged by the idea that fans suffer from arrested development. This hides all that is intelligent about fandom for experiencing certain emotions without being destroyed by them.”


23 Passovotchka: Moscow Dynamo in Britain 1945
David Downing 1999

When Dynamo arrived in London in November 1945, British football still reigned supreme. In the 33 days that followed, the Russians served notice of the decline that was to come, winning twice and being unlucky to draw their other two games.

This meticulously researched book captures the spirit of a controversial tour, when the USSR, although still an ally, was viewed with grave suspicion.

As cultures clashed, Dynamo seemed in perpetual dispute with the FA, clubs, refs and the press, and were even accused of fielding an extra man in a fog-bound game at Ibrox.

Crowds, desperate for top-class sport after six years of war, came in their droves, yet for all their delight in Dynamo’s brilliance, British football stood by its traditional approach, offering a metaphor for the empire.   

22 Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football
David Winner 2005

A classic, if only for its finding that modern football was invented in Victorian public schools to keep boys from masturbating, the idea being that if boys were expending energy in teams, they couldn’t be alone engaging in “self-pollution.”

The book takes the familiar idea of studying football culture in one country, and applies it to England itself, as if it were a foreign land.

Winner seizes on the rich and bizarre popular culture that has accreted around the English game – Roy of the Rovers, The Italian Job, Neasden FC in Private Eye, etc – and mines these artefacts for truths about England.

Funny and illuminating, the book’s one problem is that it was researched mostly in libraries, so it lacks the weird first-person encounters that made Brilliant Orange [see No.4 on Friday] so good.

Emlyn Hughes finally gets to meet his idol 

21 The Football Man
Arthur Hopcraft 1968

When this was first published in 1968, managers were sacked too quickly for too little cause, the game was complaining about bad publicity and violence among players was a cause of national concern.

There’s much in this oft-quoted study of British football to reinforce the cliché that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but there are revealing differences.

Agents are barely mentioned, while professional referees are a pipe dream. This enduring great owes much to Hopcraft’s obvious, anxious love for the game, the candour he inspires in his interviewees (Bobby Charlton and Don Revie among them) and his descriptive powers.

Of one amateur game he notes: “Escaped poodles frisk among players’ legs, lads with Rolling Stones haircuts collide with static veterans like gollywogs flung against a nursery wall.”

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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