By J Hutcherson (Mar 17, 2020) US Soccer Players - Let's start with the not at all problematic idea that the best soccer books were mostly written years ago. There's a reason almost every list mentions Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, a book that is closing in on its 30th birthday. Harry Pearson's The Far Corner came out in 1994. So did Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy. Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro in 1999. David Winner's Brilliant Orange in 2000. All are still in print for a reason. Some of those titles created an audience as much as they found one.
I'm going to go in a slightly different direction. Instead of the greatest hits in soccer writing, I'm focusing on the books that mattered to me. I started writing about soccer professionally in 1999, but I started paying too much to have books shipped over from the UK a few years earlier. I read a lot of sports books, and I've followed the ebb and flow of publishing over the last couple of decades with concern bordering on frustration.
That said, I'm not going to criticize the contemporary state of sports book publishing. Writing books is difficult. It requires not only the work, but the belief that the audience will be there in the end. I've read enough disappointing soccer books in recent years to suggest a trend, but that's part of a larger issue with lack of support, editing, promotion, and money. Ultimately, it's the audience showing they care enough about interesting stories well told. That's not a given, and it hasn't been for awhile now.
With that in mind, here are the five soccer books that I've read more than once and that I think are worth your time. I'm not going to argue it's a better use of that time than delving into yet another TV show with multiple seasons a click away, but it's certainly an option.
Parklife - Nick Varley
Hugely influential on me when I first read it in the summer of 1999 and a book that I've bought twice in print and again as an ebook. Varley was on the scene at the Hillsborough disaster, using it in an almost analytical way to show what happened to professional soccer in England with the rise of the Premier League and the inevitable next steps for ambitious clubs turned multinational businesses. Even with this early attempt at working through those issues, he doesn't fall for the simple narrative. Unlike too many people writing about the same things then an now, his version isn't a foregone conclusion that the business of the game will ruin everything. Instead, he gives the fans more agency than most pundits while not leaning on the "take back our game" crutch that shows up far too often. His book still deserves the audience it didn't get back then.
All Played Out aka One Night In Turn - Pete Davies
This is the closest soccer book to what baseball writing was like in the 70s into the early 80s. Access wasn't an issue, with journalists embedding with pro sports teams seemingly whenever they wanted. There are shelves worth of baseball books with access that seems ridiculous now. The best of the lot is Bill Madden and Moss Klein's Damned Yankees, a book that's a predecessor to the type of work Davies did with England's National Team during the 1990 World Cup. Calling it a great book is nothing new. What might get lost is it's more than just the access. Davies figures out England before they do. Though he has control of the narrative, there's the feeling that this happened in real time. It's what makes this book so special.
Cloughie: Walking on Water - Brian Clough
This is Clough's second autobiography with sportswriter John Sadler, so he's streamlined the kind of things that normally drag biographies down. You know what I mean. The biggest moment and then the flashback to where it all began. The tearful bordering on trite reminiscence of that very important person who made all the difference. It's the whole pack of cliches that made the "As told to" books by Dick Schaap so much better than the standard ghostwriter approach. This is similar, with Sadler well known enough that Clough doesn't have any need to pretend he was writing this on his own. Clough books became a tiny industry over the last decade, but it's still the best to get close to how Clough might have seen himself. That gets to how he wanted the rest of us to see him, something that too many of the other books about him can't seem to figure out.
The Rough Guide to European Soccer - Multiple editions
Back in the early 2000s it was too easy at times to tell which American soccer writers had read the Rough Guide from those who hadn't. It was a specific understanding of European soccer from a book that was part encyclopedia and part travel guide. The last edition is 20 years old now, but it's still the best single book version ever released to get a solid understanding of the professional game. More to the point, it was better at explaining the history of leagues than some of the specialized books on your choice of La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, and another library of English titles. You only really need to know so much, and the Rough Guide was great at that. Even though there was a version just for England and a cult football edition, it's the European title that's somehow still worth reading as a guide that's more than a reference work.
Matchdays - Ronald Reng
Shocked looks, it's a book published in the last decade rather than the last century. Reng did two things I normally find tiring. He used one person to tell a larger story and he did it about an entire league. The subtitle of the book is "The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga," which might be a reach. What Reng does well here is using Heinz Hoher to get at what changed about professional soccer in Germany and the role of the sport in that country over multiple decades. It only works because Hoher's story arc is surprisingly narrative. It's worth the reminder that the Bundesliga only went professional in 1963, and Hoher was a player during that transition before becoming a coach. It seems like at every point where the narrative needs Hoher to do something, he does. Whether it's getting or losing a job, Hoher stays on trend for the larger project of telling the story of what happened with German soccer. Since most probably wouldn't namecheck Hoher, Reng picked well. It's the best example of what soccer books can still accomplish and a challenge for anybody with a soccer story to tell.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Is the Concacaf Champions League important?
- Why would Manchester United change now?
- The BeneLiga and remapping European soccer
- Setting up a super league
Photo compilation courtesy of the publishers