Brian Viner: Foreign players have a head start over English team-mates in the book club

Foreign players generally seem more thoughtful then their English mates
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The Independent Online

For some years now it has been bugging me that overseas footballers playing in the Premiership seem, as a general rule, to be brighter and more articulate than their British counterparts. Why, I wondered, might this be? After all, they all tend to come from similar backgrounds. Very few foreign players belong to educated, middle-class families - Gianluca Vialli being a notable exception - and I don't suppose there was significantly more privilege in the childhood of Thierry Henry than there was in the childhood of Wayne Rooney.

I'm not accusing Rooney of being thick. Einstein had no more intelligence in his head than Rooney has in his feet, and besides, how many mathematicians have demonstrated a clearer grasp of trigonometry than Rooney does, every time he makes an angled run towards the penalty area? It's reasonable to assume that he doesn't invite Cristiano Ronaldo to join him in forming a co-ordinate plain by intersecting the abscissa axis with the radius vector, but it's a form of trigonometry all the same.

Moreover, it's not Rooney but one of his England team-mates - I'm mentioning no names - who is said to be so far from being the sharpest tool in the box that he's practically a spanner.

But I'm meandering from my own sharp point, which is that foreign players - exemplified these days by Henry and in days past by Osvaldo Ardiles - generally seem more thoughtful than their English team-mates (not that Henry has many of those). Maybe it's because footballers who ply their trade in foreign countries have, ipso facto, wider horizons than footballers who stay at home. And I'm not talking about the Ipso Facto tipped to become the next coach at Hearts.

Of course, few top footballers from the British Isles need to seek employment on the Continent nowadays, and there was never more than a trickle of them, but generally it tended to be what passed for football's intelligentsia - Gary Lineker, Liam Brady, Graeme Souness, and before them Kevin Keegan, and after them Steve McManaman - who thrived on foreign fields.

Generally, too, it was those not blessed with the sharpest of intellects who found that they couldn't prosper overseas. There are all sorts of stories of how Ian Rush floundered in Turin, for example, and the one I enjoy most - told to me by a Liverpool team-mate of his, who swears it's true - relates to the very day Rush arrived to join Juventus.

For weeks he had been trying to master some basic Italian, but with lamentably little joy, so instead he concentrated on learning just a few words: "Tanti grazie per la vostra accoglienza", meaning " Many thanks for your welcome". Obviously, a few words of Italian to the Juve supporters gathered at the airport would go down a storm. So he duly rehearsed the line over and over on the plane, but when finally he took the microphone his nerve failed him, and instead he uttered the single word "welcome". In English.

Anyway, all this brings me to the news this week that each Premiership club has been asked to pick one player as a "reading champion", spearheading an admirable campaign to encourage people to read more.

These 20 players each selected the book that they had found most pleasurable or thought-provoking, and sure enough, the British/foreign intellectual divide is dispiritingly evident. Arsenal's Philippe Senderos chose The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Fulham's Moritz Volz chose The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, while Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy plumped for The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank and Portsmouth's Lomana LuaLua picked Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

And the lads from the British Isles? Paul Konchesky of West Ham chose The Krays: The Final Countdown by Colin Fry, and Stephen Kelly of Tottenham wanted Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling. Both Stephen Caldwell of Sunderland and Wigan's Matt Jackson chose stories by Roald Dahl. Admirable books all, but much simpler fare.

Maybe our boys were just being more honest. Is LuaLua really to be found with his head in Oliver Twist? It's easier to imagine Kelly grappling with Harry Potter.

Yet the same trend was apparent in the favourite books selected earlier this month by 15 managers, in a survey conducted by the National Football Museum. Martin Jol chose The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, while David O'Leary preferred Kane and Abel, by Jeffrey Archer.

Somehow, it figures.

When you start matching up the players' books to their managers' books, the two lists get even more interesting. Stephen Clemence of Birmingham City chose the cyclist Lance Armstrong's autobiography, the inspiring story of a man who triumphed over terrible odds, while his manager Steve Bruce picked a biography of Frank Sinatra, the inspiring story of a man whose most famous song starts "And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain..."

At Chelsea, meanwhile, they were predictably self-absorbed. Eidur Gudjohnsen, rather challenging my theory about the superior brainpower of foreign players, chose My Season by his team-mate John Terry as his all-time favourite book. And Jose Mourinho chose The Bible. Written, of course, by himself.

Who I like this week...

The late Johnny Cash, whose 1963 hit "Ring of Fire" was improbably credited as the inspiration behind England's marvellous final-day performance in Bombay.

From beyond the grave he helped them to win the Test and level the series. I've heard it said that the song is popular with England's cricketers not least because its title evokes the problems some of them have been experiencing with the sub-continent's spicy food, but whatever the reason, a burst of it in the dressing-room at lunchtime on Wednesday seemed to do the trick.

Of course, I could make Flintoff the object of this week's affection, but I don't want to be too predictable. All the same, what a guy!

And who I don't

The BBC Six O'Clock News presenter George Alagiah, who wasn't nearly as apologetic as he should have been for the almighty cock-up which led to Tuesday's Test highlights being played on Wednesday's bulletin.

Honestly! It was England's first Test victory in India for more than two decades and the BBC played the tape from the day before.

While I ranted at the television screen, my wife, herself a former BBC producer, observed that the person responsible would "be hanging themselves in the toilet", but frankly that was no consolation.

Alagiah, meanwhile, passed it off as a minor hiccup of an error, when in fact it was a tubercular coughing fit.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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