The Thinking Fan's Guide To The World Cup, edited by Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey

An almost pitch-perfect companion to the biggest event in sport
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There is a widely held belief in the former Yugoslavia that the most recent Balkan conflict kicked off, as it were, at a football match. In 1990, when Red Star Belgrade, darlings of the Serbs, entertained Dinamo Zagreb, standard-bearers of the Croatians, there were ferocious clashes on the terraces beforehand. By kick-off, the Serbian police were laying into away fans. Zvonimir Boban, then one of the world's best midfielders, drop-kicked a policeman and became an icon of the independence movement.

When Croatia entered the World Cup in 1998, they reached the semi-finals. Shaking off Communism also saw Bulgaria and Romania advance beyond expectations, while a Solidarity-inspired Poland reached the 1982 semi-finals. Germany went one better: in the throes of reunification, they won in 1990.

A clever afterword to this fascinating book lays down the ideal conditions for securing football's biggest prize. Recent liberation ranks high on the list. Social democracies have been most successful, followed by military juntas; Communism will get you through group games but let you down in the knock-out rounds. Don't tryneoliberal reforms (Argentina haven't gone beyond the quarter-finals since 1990), and don't produce oil.

I'm not sure anything like The Thinking Fan's Guide has been attempted before. It's an amalgam of facts, analysis, impressions and love letters - part travelogue, part memoir. Each contribution is accompanied by a stats package, and revealing juxtapositions emerge. Angola's life expectancy is 38.4 years at birth, but spending on arms is 10.6 per cent of GDP. Which, if this World Cup were to be judged on military expenditure, would make them winners.

Some contributions are straight pen-portraits of a country and team; one or two barely mention football at all. So, for example, the French contribution is a memoir of adolescent lust during the climactic 1982 semi-final against Germany; and Isabel Hilton hangs out with the Guarani Indians of Paraguay, looking for contraband crocodile skins.

But could the editors not have found more contributors to write about their national team? There are three: Nick Hornby for England, a former Mexican foreign minister, and an East German, providing a left-field view of West Germany's finest. But that doesn't detract too severely from a hugely satisfying grab bag of unexpected perspectives on sport's biggest event.