Boyd Tonkin: Global sport may have sunk into barbarism - but its stars can still be gents
The Week In Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 12 May 2012
On this side of the Channel, French thinkers sometimes have a reputation for bamboozling obscurity. In certain cases that might be justified; in others, not at all. Soon the English edition of a short, sulphurous polemic by the academic Marc Perelman will appear from Verso Books. It's called Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, and it does exactly what it says on the boîte.
Many readers here will, I suspect, warm to Perelman in his indictment of the money-crazed, power-hungry, people-eating monstrosity of globalised sport as a curse on humanity. With the London Olympics looming, and its tyrannous lockdown on the city dictated by the grotesque and over-mighty shadow-state of the International Olympic Committee, sport's bitterest enemies have their case made for them in every security-driven stunt.
And yet ... this "barbaric" system, at his wealthiest levels, depends for its renewal as a mass spectacle not on barbarians but on gifted young men and women whose own perspective on their bizarre lives could reveal so much about the way our world now works. Good novelists have begun to notice – for example – that up-and-coming soccer stars suddenly transported to a seething metropolis can serve as witnesses to our media-framed urban modernity. In A Week In December, Sebastian Faulks had his Polish striker turn a quizzical eye on London. For John Lanchester in Capital, a Senegalese teen prodigy and his father did the job. Over in Madrid, Learning To Lose by the Spanish novelist David Trueba features a naïve Argentinian star import, adrift in a place that defies easy understanding.
Reading these novels, I did sometimes wish for a real-life counterpart to these wide-eyed but keen-witted observers of a billionaires' circus sustained by the – expensively exploited - dreams of millions of fans. Needless to say, most football "autobiographies", ghosted and airbrushed to the point of utter nullity, do little more than feed the PR machines of owners, sponsors and the media. So when a memoir by a football star packed with frankness, insight and self-knowledge appears, even sporting sceptics might want to raise a cheer.
To say that Louis Saha's Thinking Inside The Box (Vision Sports Publishing) is not your average kick'n'tell apologia would do it, and him, scant justice. Saha eschewed the services of a ghost, and is now published in English thanks to a flavourful, idiomatic translation by Georgia de Chamberet.
He reflects on his upbringing in the poor Paris banlieue, on football in France and England, and on its wider role as big business and as popular obsession. The book shines with candour, modesty and intelligence. A player who knows that "the world of football spins on an axis of money and sex" both outlines the temptations of "barbarism" and shows how strong roots, sturdy values and a certain ironic detachment can safeguard humanity.
It helps, I think, that Saha – now at Tottenham after spells at FC Metz, Newcastle, Fulham Manchester United and Everton – never quite rose to the first rank of stardom. Injury-prone, not consistent enough, he's something of a nearly man, as dramatised in a wrenching chapter about his anguish when stranded on the bench during United's 2008 Champions League final in Moscow against Chelsea: "a living nightmare". As Saha puts it, he could never "reproduce the magic of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi". Moreover, as a potential celebrity, "I am not bankable or eccentric enough on the pitch to get caught in a paparazzi frenzy".
This slight marginality makes him the perfect observer, whether of media intrusion, racism and the long fight against it, or homophobia in football – hardly a staple topic of strikers' memoirs. Rather than hog the limelight, he also quotes a squad of colleagues, from Patrice Evra and Phil Neville to William Gallas; Zinédine Zidane has especially sage advice for "Petit Louis". And he gives his wife, Aurélie Saha-Gillet, a rather moving chapter of her own on survival as a tabloid-branded "WAG". Global sport may have turned barbaric. But its top performers, as Saha's deeply civilised book shows, need not succumb to this dehumanising force. How can international sport ensure that, when the whistle blows on playing days, people like him run the show rather than the reptilian apparatchiks of Fifa and the IOC?
Nordic noir with a British passport
Travel far enough north in the UK and you reach the rugged settings for our home-grown "Scandinavian" crime fiction. Later this year, one of the four Shetland-set mysteries by Ann Cleeves will migrate to the TV screen with BBC Scotland's two-part adaptation of Red Bones. Cleeves, pictured, already commands the Sunday-night screen with her Northumbrian cop DI Vera Stanhope. Given the appeal of her Shetland novels, might we see a mini-boom in Nordic noir with a British passport? Wannabe bestsellers and location scouts may be scouring the islands of Orkney even now. But then, according to one reading of history, the Scottish annexation of 1468 had no validity and Orkney still belongs to Norway.
Could Man's fall kill the Booker?
The hedge-fund giant Man Group reshuffled its management on Tuesday, the latest anxious measure during a grim spell that has seen shares in the "alternative investment" firm drop by almost two-thirds and takeover rumours swirl around the City. Shares have plunged to their lowest valuations in more than a decade and, in the first quarter of 2012, investors removed a cool billion dollars – net – from the company.
The reason I'm telling you this rather than my financial pages colleagues is, of course, that without Man funding we would have no annual Man Booker Prize, no biennial Man Booker International Prize – and nor would the increasingly influential Man Asian Literary Prize exist either.
At last year's Booker, Man announced its commitment to another decade of literary sponsorship. What would happen to that pledge should new owners take command? I suspect that nurturing Commonwealth and Asian fiction might come pretty low on the list of priorities for the sort of US asset manager likely to show interest in acquiring the group.
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