20140612

Brazil 2014: A selection of World Cup books to read as the drama builds on the field

The World Cup that begins in Brazil today has triggered a run of new World Cup books and the re-release of a few classics.  Here is the Sports Bookshelf's choice of titles worth a look.

And Gazza Misses the Final, by Rob Smyth and Scott Murray (Constable) £8.99

This is a history of memorable World Cup matches, but revisited and recorded from an entirely new perspective, faithfully reported in the style of the modern internet phenomenon: the minute-by-minute online report.

Minute-by-minute is increasingly becoming a staple of football websites with large enough resources to have a man on the ground (or in front of a TV monitor) for the matches that matter, and of the websites run by the traditional news sources - local and national newspapers.

In a way it is a throwback to the ball-by-ball reports that newspapers carried in the pre-internet days when apart from Sports Report on BBC radio they were the only source of real detail when it came to what happened on the field.  The  Saturday football editions -- the Green Uns and the Pink Uns that were printed and on the streets even as the crowds were still dispersing -- were hugely popular for that very reason.

The modern has added elements. As well as the essentials of who passed to whom and who scored, there was colour, context, humour, irreverence.  To be read, moreover, within seconds of the action being described.

Minute-by-minute specialists began to appear and this new take on the World Cup is the work of two of the best, Rob Smyth and Scott Murray, who have cleverly used the skills they developed writing their sharp and witty match day blogs for the Guardian in a unique re-assessment of the World Cup's greatest games.

In 22 matches they regard as classics in World Cup history, they relay the build-up then follow the action from first kick to last as if they were watching live, not knowing how the game might unfold.

Smyth and Murray managed to obtain full 90 minute tapes of all except one of the games selected  -- "for the other one we had to rely on a radio commentary in Portuguese" -- and watched them from start to finish, making notes along the way, then watched again.  "We got a feel for the circumstances surrounding the game by researching what was written in the build-up, which was sometimes not what you would imagine now, knowing what happened," he said.

A good example was England's quarter-final against West Germany in Mexico in 1970, when the British press were so confident that England, the defending champions, would reassert their superiority that a young Hugh McIlvanney, citing England's nine wins in 11 matches against West Germany in a piece for The Observer, said that the Germans needed "to overcome more omens than Julius Caesar on assassination day" to deny England a place in the semi-finals.

"What you find too is that in match reports written after a match has finished, the result inevitably informs the tone and detail, which means bits of action that cease to be relevant are omitted," Smyth said.

It is a terrific, fast-moving read that brings the action vividly back to life, in some cases revealing forgotten moments that might have reshaped history -- David Platt's disallowed goal in the England-West Germany semi-final in 1990, for instance -- and providing some thought-provoking evidence that some of the received wisdom in World Cup history does not necessarily tally with events as they happened.

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith

Rob Smyth has been busy too co-authoring another interesting offering, Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football's Greatest Cult Team (Bloomsbury) £12.99. It is a story about a team that never won the World Cup, but made an enormous impact nonetheless, at the 1986 finals, when the team that brought together such brilliant individuals as Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjear, Morten Olsen and Frank Arnesen captured the imagination of so may fans.  Collectively they were known as Danish Dynamite.

Their impact was short but explosive. First they waged an incredible 'group of death' campaign in which they beat Scotland (1-0), the intimidating Uruguayans (6-1) and the strongly fancied West Germany (2-0). But at the first knock-out stage they crashed to earth just as dramatically, thumped 5-1 by Spain, for whom Emilio Butragueno scored four times.  It had been Spain who shattered Danish dreams at the European championships two years earlier, beating them in the semi-finals, on penalties.

It was a performance typical of Denmark, whose players loved to be seen as the most laid-back in the tournament off the field but magnificently dynamic on it. They acquired a live-fast, play-hard and party-hard image in which they appeared to revel and even their red and white kit, the unique design of which is replicated on the book cover, acquired a cult status.

Danish Dynamite, co-written by Smyth and fellow journalists Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons, tells the full story.  Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

I Think Therefore I Play, by Andrea Pirlo with Alessandro Alciato (BackPage Press) £9.99

If Denmark were a cult team, then Andrea Pirlo is a cult player, the orchestral director of the Italian team on the field. A winner in Germany in 2006, the Juventus star says he will retire from international football after the Brazil tournament so this will be his third and last World Cup finals.

Football's laddish dressing room culture tends to suppress intelligent thought, particularly in the English leagues.  Older fans will remember the rumours that surrounded Graeme le Saux after he revealed he preferred to read the Guardian rather drool over Page Three of The Sun, sparking suggestions that he must be gay. And then there was Eric Cantona, condemned but ultimately excused for his karate kick on an Crystal Palace fan but whose metaphorical allusion to seagulls and trawlers was interpreted as the ramblings of a crackpot.

Pirlo plays practical jokes on teammates but sees no reason to fall back on banal cliches to describe events in his career. His autobiography, first published in Italy in 2011, is informative, insightful, gently humorous and illuminated with language as cultured as his performances on the field.

For example -- just one of many -- he describes his feelings as he prepared to take his penalty in the shoot-out that decided the 2006 final. "My thoughts were all over the place, drunken ideas at the wheel of fairground dodgems," he wrote.  The post match demeanour in defeat of Antonio Conte, his head coach at Juventus, he likened to "an inner torment without a start or end point, a song on some kind of loop where you can't tell what's the first verse and what's the last, you can only make out the chorus."

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, by Alex Bellos (Bloomsbury) £9.99

The Alex Bellos classic Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, first published in 2002, is reissued to coincide with football's return to the spiritual home of the beautiful game.  The original chapters have postscripts and there is a new chapter to update the story, plus new notes and appendices, the most poignant of which records the death in 2011 of the 1982 Brazil captain Socrates, who wrote the preface to the original book and whose contribution as a Bellos contact brings much clarity to what is myth and reality in Brazilian football.

Bellos wrote the book during his five years as the Guardian newspaper's correspondent in South America, during which time he was based in the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro.  The deep knowledge of the country he acquired included an appreciation of how football both shaped and reflected the nation's character.

It examines football's place at the centre of Brazilian society, where the game somehow maintains aspects of its beauty despite the violence and corruption with which it co-exists, how its humility rubs shoulders with obscene excesses, making it a mirror of life at so many levels in a country notable for its extremes.

Bellos in essence wrote a series of essays, about the characters and events that have defined the history of football in Brazil, that together tell the story of Brazilian football and its domination of the greatest tournament in the world.

In turn it is a depressing story and an uplifting one, where the great players are feted as gods and even those of more modest talent enjoy the respect of their peers.  Yet in some cases their status is no more than a commodity for export, like coffee or cotton, as greedy clubs and agents seek to exploit the demand for Brazilian players abroad.

It begins with a tale of three Brazilian players whose placement in European football takes them to the most unlikely of destinations, signing for a team in the Faroe Islands, a remote corner of the globe as far from Brazil in all kinds of senses as can be imagined. They have to work as well as play and Bellos discovers they are required when not training to rise at dawn to unload fishing boats in the local harbour, in the icy depths of winter.  Yet they consider themselves fortunate.

Bellos unearths some wonderful stories and tells them with humour, warmth and humanity.

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

The Boy in Brazil: Living, Loving and Learning in the Land of Football, by Seth Burkett (Floodlit Dreams) £9.99

According to one of the notes Alex Bellos has added by way of update to Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, the number of Brazilian footballers who were transferred abroad in 2012 amounted to 1,429. It was not an untypical year.  Footballers have become a significant Brazilian export.

It makes Seth Burkett's story stand out even more, a rare and unlikely tale of a journey made in the opposite direction.

Brought up in a village just outside Stamford in Lincolnshire, Burkett's dream had been to play for Peterborough United. They released him when he was only 10, after which he was taken on by Northampton Town, only to be disappointed again at 14.  By the age of 18, however, he was playing for Esporte Clube Sorriso, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, 3,000 miles north-west of Rio de Janeiro, almost at the very heart of the South American continent.

He ended up there because one of those thousands of Brazilians who had headed for Europe in search of fame and wealth in football somehow arrived in Stamford.  Anderson da Silva, who achieved success as an agent rather than a player, organised a 16-day trip to his homeland for the Unibond League club Stamford's Under-18 team, whose number included Seth Burkett.  It was while he was on tour that Burkett was spotted by a scout and invited to join the Sorriso club, an offer he could hardly refuse and which turned him for a while into something of a celebrity

By remarkable coincidence, Burkett's great, great uncle, the former Arsenal goalkeeper Charlie Williams, had been one of the English trailblazers of football in Brazil in the early 1900s as manager of Flumenense, which made Seth's return a century later even more extraordinary.

It was an experience he decided to write about in a memoir that was ultimately published by the author and journalist, Ian Ridley, to whom Burkett had sent the manuscript, hoping simply for feedback. Ridley was so taken with the charm and honesty of Burkett's writing that he published it.

Buy from Amazon, or Waterstones.

Also recommended:

Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, by Ben Lyttleton (Bantam Press) £14.99

Penalties are part of football, a pretty unremarkable part at that. A free shot at goal that either provides a team with a just reward or passes by as an opportunity missed.  At a World Cup a penalty in open play may decide a match but only in the same way that a penalty might decide another important match; it is simply one of the many ways to score a goal.  But when there are five penalties taken one after the other, as a tie-breaker, those kicks from 12 yards acquire an altogether different status.  Suddenly they are imbued with a mystique that no other part of the game can match, particularly for England, particularly in World Cups, where they are usually an instrument of national agony.

Football writer Ben Lyttleton probably goes into it all far too deeply in Twelve Yards but must be applauded for his efforts to identify all the factors that go into the perfect penalty.  He spoke to many of the protagonists in some of football's greatest shoot-out dramas and also provides some impressive statistical analysis, revealing among other things that more penalties are successfully converted by players faced with a chance to win a game than are converted when to miss means elimination, that 30 degrees is the optimum angle from which to run in and take a kick and that a goalkeeper should seek to delay the kicker for between 1.7 and 4.5 seconds to maximise the chance of a penalty being missed.  Every England player should have a copy by the bed in his hotel room.

Buy from Amazon , Waterstones or WHSmith.

Brazil Futebol: Football to the Rhythm of the Samba Beat, by Keir Radnedge (Carlton Books) £14.99

Widely-respected world soccer expert Keir Radnedge presents a well-crafted and lavishly illustrated history of more than a century of football in Brazil that captures the essence of the world's premier football nation.  Radnedge begins his story in the 1870s when the Scottish expatriate Thomas Donohue first introduced the game to the native Brazilians and goes on to detail the unprecedented success of the national team, the great players that have worn the famous colours and what the passion for football brings to the nation.

Buy from Amazon , Waterstones or WHSmith.

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