European Football Book Reviews

Looking for a good European football book to read? Soccerphile reviews some of our favourite books on European soccer from Spain, Italy, Holland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and other European countries.

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Forza Italia - A Journey in Search of Italy and its Football: Click on the image to purchase.

Forza Italia: A Journey in Search of Italy and Its Football 

Paddy Agnew

Ebury Press

ISBN: 0091905613
Paperback, 320pp

There could not be a timelier book as the Italian national team prepares to travel to the World Cup in the midst of a scandal engulfing its entire football culture.
Paddy Agnew is the perfect person to write this part memoir, part analysis of what makes Italian football so unique: The Irish journalist has lived in Italy for twenty years and during this time has encountered the likes of Diego Maradona, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Silvio Berlusconi, whose political party - named after a football chant - gave the book its name. He also has his eye on the ball and is eerily prescient about the current scandal, which he saw coming over the horizon.
Front line reports of the big names and events in Italian football are interspersed with tales of Roman life seen through a foreigner's eyes. These interludes are fascinating and sometimes jaw-dropping but serve to illuminate why Italian football is the way it is, an enormous sub-culture that springs organically from its parent country.
Brimming with colourful anecdotes and adroit analysis, Forza Italia is the must-read for those with an interest in the pressure-cooker of calcio who want to know what it really feels like on the ground.
With the current mega-scandal exploding on the eve of another World Cup, tournaments which tend to be cataclysmic affairs for the azzurri, there could be no better accompaniment.

Sean O'Conor

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Calcio - A History of Italian Football: Click on the image to purchase.

Calcio

John Foot

Fourth Estate

ISBN: 0007175744
Paperback, 592pp

Tackling the Mount Everest that is Italian football has been a peak too high for English authors in the past. If there is one country where football is more than life and death it is surely Italy. This is the country where the best-selling newspapers are football ones, where Abramovich-style industrialists were buying up clubs as far back as the 1920s and where the Prime Minister not only owns the nation's top team but named his political party after a football chant.
But with "Calcio - A History of Italian Football", John Foot has finally scaled the mountain and 592 pages later planted a flag of academic authority at the summit.
Highly readable, the book is part chronicle of the game in Italy and part probe into the issues that make Italian football so particular. The early years of football have been meticulously researched and throw up alternatively charming or eye-opening anecdotes, such as Reading trouncing Milan 5-0 or a game between Lucca and Viareggio that ended with an armed uprising the Italian army took two days to put down.
Further chapters explore the famous teams, players and managers as well as the media, political and commercial interference and the myriad scandals that have given calcio a shady reputation overseas. The running theme is that football in Italy resembles a gigantic bonfire, fuelled by an addicted population, bewitching everyone while growing ever more grotesque and dangerous by the day. While our word fan is the shortened form of fanatic, the Italian one, tifo, is short for typhoid-sufferer.
If Foot has any axe to grind it is rightly with the ultras and their unacceptable grip on Italian clubs, who are still running scared of them in 2006. One can only hope books like this will help open Italian eyes to the outrageous way these semi-hooligans carry on with impunity, and free tickets, while attendances across the board in Serie A are falling.
At the end, Foot admirably confesses he has almost fallen out of love with his subject matter, but like Italy itself, calcio goes on, ugly and beautiful in equal measure.
There are several memorable photos throughout the book and an accompanying glossary of Italian football terminology. "Calcio" is not just the first English-language survey of Italian football but has set an impressive benchmark for football histories in general.

Sean O'Conor

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The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: Click on the image to purchase.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro
A Real Life Footballing Fairy Tale

Joe McGinniss

ISBN: 0767905997
Paperback, 416pp, 16pp b&w illustrations.

American journalist, Joe McGinnis spends the 1996-97 season in the Italian boondocks with impoverished small town club Castel di Sangro, who by a 'miracle' have risen to the heady heights of Serie B.
More than a fly-on-the-wall account of proceedings on the pitch, McGinnis, like him or loathe him, paints a tragi-comic picture of provincial life that tourists never see. Tension mounts as the team face the drop back to obscurity while McGinnis draws the reader deeper into the unfolding events, which climax in a sudden, unexpected and disturbing finale. A classic footballing story with a human touch.

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Faroses Football.

Ronaldson's Directory of Faroese Football

When Alex Bellos kicked off his critically acclaimed history of Brazilian football "Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life" with a chapter on Faroese football, there were no doubt eyebrows raised at the bold choice of starting from one of football's most remote outposts.
Yet if Bellos introduced a host of readers to a league brimming with club-names seemingly borrowed from the dregs of an alphabet soup, "Ronaldson's Directory of Faroese Football" goes one step further.
Sub-titled "The Comprehensive guide to football in the Faroe Islands," - with no hint of irony given that it's almost certainly the only English-language guide to Faroese football - Ronaldson's guide is nevertheless a fantastic addition to the canon of football literature.
Beginning with the contact details of those in charge of administering Faroese football and indexing the island's two national stadia at Tórsvøllur and Svangaskar, the guide then meanders through the various clubs that make up the Faroe Islands Premier League and First Division.
The layout is pleasing to the eye, with a clear fact box sitting atop a black-and-white photo of each club's ground, while notes on each team provide brief details of club history and team colours.
Concise directions ensure you'll never get lost on the way to the big Tórshavn derby - and all the clubs are here - from HB and B36 to KÍ Klaksvík and the league's most recent champions EB/Streymur, as well as the many minor clubs that also compete in this rugged North Atlantic island nation.
"The Rough Guide To European Football," it is not, but editor and publisher John Ronaldson deserves praise for his concise, yet unquestionably effective guide to Faroese football.
Whether a fan of Faroese football or a conneissuer looking to add another niche title to the collection, "Ronaldson's Directory of Faroese Football" is a worthy addition to any book shelf.
To obtain a copy, email ronaldsonpublications[at]googlemail[dot]com or visit www.ronaldson.tumblr.com for more details.

Mike Tuckerman


Spartak Moscow

Spartak Moscow - A History of the People's Team in the Workers' State

Robert Edelman

ISBN: 0801447429
Cornell University Press; Hardback, 346pp

Spartak Moscow - A History of the People's Team in the Workers' State is as well-researched a history as you could hope for. That is no surprise given the author Robert Edelman is Professor of that subject at California University.
As Edleman says about his book, "I finish it as a scholar whose vocation is history." But that is the problem with this otherwise informative tome: It reads more like sociology than football history.
There is a top-heavy emphasis on the socio-political backdrop to the fan base at every turn that begins to nag after a while. Spartak were at the heart of the Russian nation so were anything but immune from the seismic changes Moscow witnessed in the 20th century. But the football writing feels drowned amid a relentless analysis of Sovietism.
Spartak's tale is certainly an interesting one - they positioned themselves as the people's club as opposed to the party tools of Dinamo (secret police) and CSKA (army) Moscow and their home the Luzhniki became a semi-oasis of free speech for an otherwise closely-monitored populace, in much the same way the Camp Nou did for Catalans under Franco.
The club's story is interwoven with the lives of the four Starostin brothers - Nikolai who died in 1996 was founder, player and manager. He was also rounded up in the Stalinist purges and sentenced to ten years' hard labour in Siberia before making a triumphant return to Moscow in 1953, where he went on to coach the Soviet Union's national team. It is quite a tale, which made me long for fewer dry paragraphs with stolid statements one after the other and more detail on the fan experience and the football itself. After the nth analysis of whether the supporters were for or against the system and what economic class they hailed from, the exhaustive research had become exhausting.
The brushing over of Spartak’s recent adventures, American sports terminology and frequent references to baseball may lose most football fans, which makes you wonder who exactly this is aimed at outside a small constituency of historian soccer nuts in the United States. Howlers such as 'Maradonna' and 'Olympique Marseilles' I am prepared to blame on the soccer-free editors.
But all that is not to take away from the meticulous chronicling Edelman has carried out. Spartak Moscow belies years of study and is a welcome addition to the as yet meagre English-language library on East European football - Jonathan Wilson's Behind the Curtain, Marc Bennetts' Football Dynamo and Andy Dougan's Dynamo - Defending the Honour of Kiev. Oddly there is no mention of Jim Riordan and his controversial memoir of playing for Spartak in the sixties, Comrade Jim. [see below]

Sean O'Conor

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Comrade Jim

Comrade Jim - The Spy Who Played For Spartak

Jim Riordan

ISBN: 0007251149
Fourth Estate; Paperback, 240pp

A few years ago a man pretending to be George Weah's cousin hoodwinked Graeme Souness into giving him a run-out for Southampton.
Portsmouth-born Jim Riordan's appearance for Moscow Spartak in 1963 was equally amazing, given he was in Russia not as a footballer but as a translator and communist activist, yet unlike the fake Saint, he was called back by the club to play for them again.
Imagine taking part in a Sunday league game and later that day arriving at a stadium as one of 50,000 fans, only to discover you are going to be on the field!
While that is an amazing tale in itself, this engrossing and touching memoir is far more a valuable document of the failed communist dream. Like many others from across the globe, Riordan travelled to Moscow fuelled by the desire to forge a better world from the ashes of the war.
Football does not get much of a mention until halfway in and despite the title, does not form the centerpiece of this engaging autobiography, but the author's vivid recollections of Soviet life, and the famous faces he mixed with make this the most enjoyable book I have read this year.

Sean O'Conor

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When Beckham Went to Spain: Click on the image to purchase.

When Beckham Went to Spain: Power, Stardom and Real Madrid

Jimmy Burns

ISBN: 0718147472
Paperback, 272pp
Michael Joseph

The prospect of another hagiography of Goldenballs would sink the hearts of all but the starry-eyed teenager, but this one is different. What makes this worth reading is the fact that Becks' celebrity circus has touched down in Spain, a country a world away from England, and specifically at Real Madrid, a galaxy away from Manchester United. In fact, those of us jaded by the prospect of more Beckhamology will be pleasantly surprised by the fact Jimmy Burns largely ignores him.
Few are better qualified to write this tale than Burns. The author is half Spanish, grew up in Madrid and has published a guide to Spanish literature as well as working for the FT, BBC & The Economist amongst others. His two football works, 'Barça - A People's Passion' and 'Hand of God - The Life of Diego Maradona' were top-drawer football texts and not Harry Harris-style sycophantic potboilers. The book weaves between Beckham's celebrity and Spain's story of Franco, Catalonia, corridas, cojones and futebol.
Beckham comes across as a tool for Real, a man of little intrinsic substance who will ultimately not amount to much. We learn little here we do not already know about Goldenballs and there is more evidence that the end of his Real days will come to pass thanks to the increasingly destructive provincial mindset and xenophobic tantrums of his far from 'posh' wife Victoria.

Sean O'Conor

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Morbo - The Story Of Spanish Football

Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football

Phil Ball

ISBN: 0954013468
Paperback, 256pp
WSC Books

Having emerged from Serie A's shadow in the late 1990s, La Liga is Europe's No.1 destination right now with Real Madrid's Galacticos, Beckham and all, and a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona at the helm of a new golden age of Spanish football.
In this superb guide, Phil Ball really gets under the skin of el fútbol, tracking it from its origins in the dusty town of Huelva in the 1880s to the Bernabeu and Nou Camp of today via the fierce local pride of teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña and the sorry saga of a national team that never delivers.
As much a cultural history of modern Spain as a guide to its football, Ball proves that the two in this case are one and the same.

Sean O'Conor

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Ajax, The Dutch, The War: Buy this book from Amazon.

Ajax, the Dutch, the War - Football in Europe During The Second World War

Simon Kuper

ISBN: 0752842749
256 pp

Simon Kuper's second book after "Football Against the Enemy", a collection of intelligent football essays that won the William Hill Sports Book of The Year Award is a heartfelt study of football amidst society in World War Two. Kuper himself is a Jew who grew up in Holland loving football and imbibing the national myth of the Netherlands as a beacon of tolerance. In this book he shines an uncomfortable light on the truth of Dutch's less than stellar war record - more Jews were deported per capita than in any nation outside Germany whilst millions stood by and did nothing, all set alongside the parallel world of Ajax, the 'Jewish club' of Amsterdam, who lost one of their players, Eddie Hamel, to the gas chambers. A well-written and engrossing read that crosses the boundaries of sport, history and politics.

Sean O'Conor

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Tor!: Click on the image to purchase.

Tor! The Story Of German Football

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

ISBN: 095401345X
WSC Books
pp 304

"Tor! The Story of German Football"- is a fascinating account of the game in Germany: its roots in the athletic clubs of the eighteenth century; World War 1; the rise of the Nazis and World War II; the first international successes, especially the surprising win against Hungary in 1954; the subsequent formation of the DFB in West Germany; the game in East Germany; the lows of the 80s; and up to the present state of the game. Written by Dortmund fan Hesse-Lichtenberger, who doesn't shirk passing judgment on those with whom he disagrees or mentioning his own wardrobe of torn jeans, the book also goes into the geo-political reasons for the health or otherwise of German football. Together with the lesser-known figures he mentions, there are all the famous players of the game in Germany: Günther Netzer, Overath, Paul Breitner, Berti Vogts, Uli & Dieter Hoeness, Rudi Völler, Kevin Keegan, Effenberg, Jürgen Klinsmann, Fritz Walter, et al, as well as the five German European Footballers of the Year - Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Matthäus and Matthias Sammer. And the teams: amongst others, Borussia Moenchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen, Hamburg, Nuremburg, Fürst, Kaiserslautern, Schalke 04, Köln, Stuttgart, 1860, and, of course, the most powerful, successful and hated team in the land: Bayern Munich.
The book successfully manages to put many ill-conceived notions of the nature of German football to bed, such as the aura of invincibility that surrounds it due to consummate professionalism. In fact, the German leagues teams' players were still amateurs when the national team won the World Cup in 1954, and corruption has surfaced periodically in the game.
At club level, German teams have not fared as well in European competition as English, Spanish or Italian teams - a point overlooked by Hesse-Lichtenberger.
However, it is in the international sphere where Germany has achieved real success, with three World Cup victories to its name, equal to Italy and surpassed only by Brazil. Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger recounts not only the excitement of the wins, but also details such as the tentative national feelings aroused in the post-World War II period. It's a must-read for anyone curious to know the game as it is played in Germany, and would be particularly interesting for those fans planning to watch the upcoming 2006 World Cup in Germany. That's four billion of us, then.

Peter Rodd

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Dynamo: Defending the honour of Kiev: Click on the image to purchase.

Dynamo: Defending The Honour Of Kiev

Andy Dougan

Paperback - 254 pages (4 March, 2002)
Fourth Estate; ISBN: 1841153192

This is a book for those interested in the space between football and morality. It's the tale of everyday folk caught by surprise by Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. These shocked citizens included footballers, and these in turn included the talented members of the Dynamo Kiev team. How did they react to the Nazi occupation of their homeland? Under what conditions did they live and die? Dynamo starts brightly yet gently with a sentence designed to catch the eye of a publisher: "Valentina and Alexei were very much in love, a blind man on a galloping horse could see that."
From this description of a wedding party the story wends its way to a darker, uglier place. Author Andy Dougan seems to be playing the role of a counter-attacking sweeper in his attempt to inform the reader of last thousand years of Ukrainian history whilst blending in the personal tales of the footballers involved, the fear of Stalin's legitimised thugs (the NKVD) and the death and terror brought by the brutal Germans. For those acquainted with John Houston's 1981 film "Victory," in which a group of WWII prisoners of war - including Pele and Mike Summerbee - play a match against the Germans for propaganda purposes, this book will strike a chord.
The film is pure invention, but Dynamo describes real matches between subjugated people and the occupying 'master race'. Should the more highly skilled Kiev players let the Germans win the game for fear of the consequences to themselves and the general population; or should they soundly beat them to show they were not cowed? It's an exciting read whether or not you are interested in history or football. Moreover it's a true story. Dougan also has done his homework in refuting the official Stalinist line concerning the events.
There are, however, a few annoying features of the book. The Dynamo Kiev goalkeeper, we are told, is not "unbeatable", as though there once existed a player possessing such a quality, which I doubt. And there is a small but unnecessary amount of hyperbole: the same keeper's "..eyes burned with a passion and intensity which spoke of his total love of football" and "..they won the USSR Cup for the first time in 1954 trouncing Ararat Yerevan.." A one-nil "trouncing"?! There is also, and strangely for a history book, no index; and this despite the range of personalities mentioned: from the composer Mussorgsky to the Mongolian Golden Horde, from Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl to AC Milan star striker Andrij Schevchenko. Editing quirks aside, this is a very interesting work that reminds us that these evil happenings occurred only sixty years ago. It begs bigger questions, too. Could the world slip back into the dehumanised chaos of state-sponsored violence? Is the war-peace cycle inevitable? Verdict: one-nil to Andy Dougan.

Peter Rodd

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