AT A moment when football is subjecting itself to a billion-dollar version of in vitro fertilisation, this book could hardly have been better timed. The author, an Anglo-Dutchman in his twenties, sets out to examine the game in countries where its implantation occurred naturally, in the days when English and Scottish railway engineers, rather than multinational television moguls and footwear companies, were the agents of insemination.
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.
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