BOOK REVIEW / Two halves, one world: Football: Against The Enemy - Simon Kuper: Orion, pounds 14.99
Sunday 10 July 1994
Simon Kuper's stories of football people in 22 countries, from Argentina and Cameroon to the Ukraine and Zaire, make an instructive contrast to the television pictures transmitted from the Rose Bowl, the Giants Stadium and the other venues of World Cup USA 94, which portray a refreshingly harmless, good-humoured family entertainment. The banishment of Diego Maradona and the murder of Andres Escobar last week suddenly put the competition back in touch with football as the rest of the world knows it, and as Kuper describes it: a simple game that has become an obsession with peasants to presidents alike.
His survey of the depth, extent and variety of that obsession begins with the Dutch defeat of West Germany in the semi-finals of the European championship in 1988. It was an event of national significance, transcending sport and bringing more than 60 per cent of the population of Holland on to the streets in celebration. 'German fans were less interested,' he writes of the build- up to the match. 'After all, Holland was not the only country Hitler had invaded.' That's the authentic Kuper voice: witty, a bit wry in a Dutch kind of way, and always ready to own up to some of the less admirable human instincts, in this case the enjoyment of a long-postponed revenge.
In Berlin, he finds a former Ossie who was divided from his beloved club, Hertha, when the Wall went up. For months, he and his fellow amputees spent Saturday afternoon beside the Wall, listening to the cheers. Later he took such extraordinary measures to attend matches featuring any team from the West that his activities attracted the attention of the secret police and he found himself being trailed around the football grounds of Eastern Europe by a personal Stasi agent.
In Brazil, Kuper learns about the Malandro, the black confidence trickster of legend, and decides that he provides the archetype for Pele, Garrincha, and the other great stars of the finest football teams ever assembled. In Argentina he explores the complex relationship between the political regime and the national team, describing the infamous 6-0 victory of Cesar Luis Menotti's squad over Peru in the 1978 finals, during the time of the generals (a little matter of free grain shipments, millions of dollars in unfrozen credits, and goodness knows what else).
In Africa, Kuper meets Roger Milla, the goalscoring idol of Cameroon, a world away from the sponsored opulence of Silvio Berlusconi's AC Milan or Martin Edwards's Manchester United. In South Africa he talks to Terry Paine, the former Southampton and England winger, about the African players' reliance on muti, or black magic, sometimes involving witchdoctors and animal sacrifice: 'He began telling me about British muti: some players take a hot bath before a match, some put on their right boot before their left, and some insist on going out of the tunnel eighth. Playing 825 league games in England had given him a great respect for African witchcraft.'
He's right: for all the stylistic and commercial differences, the essentials of football are the same around the world, which is why his book works so well. For its characters, the personal dividend of a life in football may be profit, or political power, or merely some form of personal revenge. But however diverse they or their environments, football people are bound together by a mutual fascination with a game which, at its best, can rise above all its circumstances and make the heart sing. Even its casualties and tragedies - its Maradonas and Gascoignes - carry a special resonance.
But Kuper does not stop with football's famous names. One of the most enjoyable encounters takes place in a Venetian palazzo, where he meets an opinionated old man named Helenio Herrera, the arch-priest of defensive football. As manager of Internazionale of Milan in the Sixties, Herrera created a team whose devotion to destruction - to stopping their opponents from playing the game - had no equal in Europe, and few in South America. It is Herrera's tactical legacy that is still being worked out of the system this month on the playing fields of Pasadena and New Jersey.
There are at least a few small errors of detail, but they don't come close to spoiling the pleasure of a book that, like the game it describes, takes pleasure in expanding its horizons.
Review: Of Mice and Men
By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work
Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar
What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?
Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings
The actor has confessed to his own insecurities
Allotments are the focus of a new reality show
Arts & Ents blogs
The best movies on Netflix: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Game of Thrones season 4 episode 2 breaks torrent record as fans watch online
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'
Mrs Doubtfire 2: Robin Williams set to star in sequel to 1993 comedy
Game of Thrones: Jack Gleeson is as delighted by [spoiler] as you are
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
US Navy christens huge $3 billion destroyer ship USS Zumwalt that appears as a fishing boat on enemy radar
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
Nigel Farage on Have I Got News For You: Ukip leader ridiculed over expenses and party 'fruitcakes'
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
- 1 Poveglia: 'World's most haunted island' up for sale...is anyone brave enough to buy it?
- 2 Babies cry at night to stop mothers procreating, scientists claim
- 3 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 4 Andre Johnson: Wu-Tang Clan-discovered rapper severed his penis and jumped from LA building
- 5 Mrs Doubtfire 2: Robin Williams set to star in sequel to 1993 comedy