Doing their talking off the pitch
THE Champions League final is almost upon us – and reading the steady drip of pre-match “analysis” that has been emanating from both the Barcelona and Manchester United camps over the past week, you’d have to conclude that Simon Kuper is right. In his new book, The Football Men: Up Close With the Giants of the Modern Game, the award-winning football writer insists that the main aim of both players and managers during interviews is to say absolutely nothing, as fluently as possible.
You don’t believe it? Well, listen to Alex Ferguson squaring up to Barcelona: “We’ve got to find a solution to playing against them . . .” Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, had this to say about Manchester United: “We have to know how to interpret the final, depending on how they play, and play the game on our terms. . .”
Riveting, or what? Mind you, compared with what the players are coming out with, it looks like Nietzsche.
Given his feelings about the meaninglessness of such public exchanges, it might seem a bit strange that Kuper’s new book consists of a series of profiles and interviews with the game’s top players and managers. But Kuper does interviews differently.
Since winning the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award for his book Football Against The Enemyin the early 1990s, he has been an astute observer of the game at both club and international level. He has an anthropologist’s eye for the telling detail, he wields a dark, deadpan humour, and he writes like a dream.
What The Football Men aims to excavate, he says, is what lies beneath the miasma of fluff and chatter that surrounds the game these days.
“I grew up in Holland, and I get the sense that people in Holland are more interested in actual football, whereas often in England they’re talking about the personalities,” he explains. “I’m interested in both, and in where these people come from. What makes Messi Messi, and what makes David Beckham David Beckham – as a player? I try to see them as practitioners of a craft, and not just as weird celebrities.”
Kuper is clearly fascinated by the physical alchemy of professional football, the how-do- they-do-that? which, on a good day, still has the power to amaze those of us who watch it, open-mouthed.
How did Roberto Carlos swerve his free-kicks? (By hitting the ball with his outside three toes.) How come good goalkeepers, like good wines, get better as they get older? (“An older keeper is so familiar with the structure of attacks that he has time to organise his defence. Younger keepers can’t. All they have is their talent. And when they make mistakes they start doubting themselves.”) How did Zidane become Zidane? (“Football is about the ball. Everyone who has ever touched the thing has struggled to master it. Zidane comes closest to achieving it.”)
KUPER BELIEVES FOOTBALL is “a dance in space”. Can he explain what he means by that? “Erm, that was me trying to explain it to my wife once,” he says.
“How to watch football so that it makes sense: that you’re seeking space all the time. Dance is something that men sometimes find a bit embarrassing because it’s not, you know, manly. But I remember this famous TV programme in Holland when I was growing up, with a dancer and a centre-forward being shown side-by-side.
“The grace of movement, the parallels are obvious. When you see ballet you realise it’s a version of football. Also, dance is about space between people, and groups of people, and football is about space between people and groups of people.”
The book also offers glimpses of the lives behind the scenes, many of which are not as glamorous as glossy magazines would have us believe. He gives us a peek at the screen of Rivaldo’s mobile phone just after the Brazilian won the Ballon d’Or award in December 1999. (It was going bonkers.)
He paints a portrait of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s background, which drops the bad-boy Swedish international right into one of Henning Mankell’s Insp Wallander novels: “Grew up in the harbour town of Malmö among the ghetto flats of Rosengard, son of a Croat mother and a Bosnian father.”
He has fun with Johan Cruyff’s working-class Amsterdam accent.
There’s a long day with Bruce Grobbelaar in Cape Town and a brief encounter with Kaká: “Willowy and fat-free, brown hair shiny as in a shampoo advert, with white middle-class skin that reveals he has never eaten a duff meal in his life, Kaká could be the Brazilian Rupert Brooke . . .”
Some characters come out of it better than others. Paolo Maldini, apparently, really is brilliant, handsome and nice. Ashley Cole, well, isn’t. Dennis Bergkamp is “a southern Englishman with a Dutch passport”.
The book would be worth reading just for the superb pieces on Beckham and Rooney, and for the chapter in which Kuper scrutinises the autobiographies of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the aforementioned Rooney and Cole. He’s also good on Ruud Gullit and Glenn Hoddle.
How did Kuper choose who to put into the book and who to leave out?
“Well, I’ve been writing about these guys for more than 20 years now, and so I had an enormous amount of material, a mass of information,” he says. “I chose the ones that, looking back, I liked most. But also the ones the reader is still interested in, because, obviously, some of the people I’ve written about are now long forgotten.”
Some players fade into obscurity. Others, among them Pep Guardiola, grow older and wiser and morph, sometimes with startling suddenness, into managers.
“You say they’re wiser . . .” Kuper begins. He begs to disagree. “I think there’s an egomania tendency among managers,” he says. “You have to be crazy enough to believe, in the teeth of all the media saying that you’re screwing up and doing things terribly. And being sacked all the time, which, obviously, is a very upsetting experience. You have to be crazy enough to believe that you are the guy who can make the difference, and make it work. Very often on scant evidence.
“Managers are older and tend to be a bit more articulate, because it’s very hard to become a manager if you’re not. So much of the job is public speaking. But a lot of them, I think, are lunatics. Whereas the players, quite often, are ordinary people.”
One of the strengths of the book is Kuper’s understanding of how talented young boys are plunged into “an uglier working environment than most of us ever experience, let alone in our teens”.
“The players live in a crazy world,” he concludes. “The managers often are crazy.”
Meanwhile, the officials, if the current eruption of scandal over the hosting of the 2018 World Cup by Qatar is anything to go by, are more cynical than a mistimed tackle. But if you feel football has gone to the dogs already, it may be that the future of the game won’t even bear thinking about.
In a recent column for the Financial Times, Kuper raised the spectre of Chinese betting syndicates and their insidious influence, not just at high-end games but all over the football shop. It’s a chilling prospect.
“I’m starting to think that all of that could start taking over football,” he says. “One day we may well look back on this as the glory age when we actually believed the game was real.”
As for the more immediate future, would he like to make a prediction for the Champions League final at Wembley on May 28th? “Erm, Barcelona?” he says. “But I’m famously wrong.”
Booked: great football writing
AS THE AUTHOR of some of the most intelligent football writing around, Simon Kuper would have a right to be critical of his opposition. In fact, however, he takes issue with the suggestion that worthwhile books about football are few and far between.
“Obviously a lot of bad books have been written,” he says. “But in the past 20 years, there have been a lot of intelligent and good ones. Two decades ago there was no tradition of football writing; but now, really, there is.”
Does he have favourites? “Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch would obviously be on anyone’s list as a classic. But then, Pete Davies wrote this book called All Played Out, about England in Italia ’90, which has been called John the Baptist to Nick Hornby’s Jesus in that everybody remembers Hornby and nobody remembers Davies.
But Davies came first – and he showed that it could be done. And then David Winner’s Brilliant Orangeis just a stonkingly original book.”
From our own bookshelves we’d like to add a couple of classics to the list. From the South American writer Eduardo Galeano comes a wide-ranging, lyrical selection of snippets, Football in Sunand Shadow. And Hugh McIlvanney’s incomparable On Football, first published in 1994, but still insightful, incisive and inspirational.