The Football Men: Up Close With The Giants of The Modern Game, by Simon Kuper, Simon & Schuster, RRP£16.99, 384 pages
As Barcelona’s Lionel Messi cruised by tens of million pounds’ worth of defensive talent and rolled the ball past Real Madrid’s sprawled goalkeeper last month, I found myself shouting, cavorting and – most important, this – demanding that the world should agree with me that the goal was pretty well as good as the one scored by another small Argentine, Diego Maradona, against England 25 years earlier. My companion that night did his duty and acceded. And that, I thought, was enough for a good evening’s football entertainment. But not a bit of it. Courtesy of Italian television, which is risible in all editorial matters except, predictably, football, I was able to listen to more or less all of Real Madrid manager José Mourinho’s press conference. (British television tends to cut quickly to the sludge of postmatch clichés masquerading as analysis.)
It was a virtuoso demonstration of the Portuguese Mourinho’s ability to talk rubbish beautifully in many languages (this time Spanish). As the conspiracies tumbled forth, I found myself laughing out loud at his fury and looking forward to several days of the world’s footballing media mulling over every one of the rancid grapes he was emitting for our benefit.
But there was no need to wait. In Simon Kuper’s collection of essays, The Football Men, there are two on Mourinho, and in one from more than four years ago Kuper, who writes for the FT, captures his man perfectly. He lists some of the bleats from Mourinho, vintage 2004, his first year of managing Chelsea. Although there is nothing quite as good as the idea that Barcelona win matches because of their connection to Unicef, it is still impressive stuff, from rigged fixture lists to Sky TV’s supposed hatred of Chelsea and the English press concertedly undermining his star midfielder Frank Lampard.
But Kuper does much more than gawp at Mourinho’s barminess. He gives a learned and ambitious account of the history of Portuguese football conspiracies and their relation to the country’s history. The people and politicians of Porto, where Mourinho made his reputation as one of Europe’s leading coaches, still feel put upon by Lisbon. Further, Mourinho’s family lost significant property when the 1974 revolution swept away Portugal’s authoritarian Estado Novo regime – as did his wife’s as a result of Angolan independence a year later. Kuper, therefore, sees Mourinho’s brittleness and love of conspiracy as rooted in something deeper than a desire to gain tactical advantage.
No one else writing in the UK has tracked the careers of footballers and managers in Kuper’s fashion. He knows and cares about their family backgrounds, education and early years. He also has a rare international perspective, drawn from decades of travel around the continent and the ability to speak and read in several tongues.
The chapter dissecting the ghosted autobiographies of Messrs Carragher, Cole, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney is a masterful piece of sports literary criticism. The knife goes in. Ashley Cole, whose book contains his wedding speech, gets the severest treatment. It is, says Kuper, one of the two worst books he has ever read. Lampard’s memoir fares only a bit better. It is “the dullest and smuggest of the five ... a true reflection of the man as well as of his ghostwriter.” Only Jamie Carragher, much the least gifted footballer of the bunch, emerges with credit for his 500-page tome. He is prone to honesty, above all when admitting how much more his club Liverpool mean to him than playing for England.
Kuper’s jokes and stories, mostly good ones, about footballers’ crassness do not come without sympathy. The players’ lives have been shaped by the tabloids and thus: “If you are a talented Englishman playing in England your almost unlimited access to sex is balanced by having to perform it in front of the nation.” Kuper is convinced the clubs don’t want players to have opinions and one of the book’s main themes is that it is understandable that footballers see themselves as employees – and not as fans of the teams they play for. He simply wishes that the players would drop the pretence.
But the satisfyingly hard-bitten and detached Kuper does not go far enough in demolishing the England team of the so-called golden generation that was supposed to do wonderful things from 2002 onwards. More than once it is described as “having everything except intellect”. He even thought before the World Cup in South Africa that Fabio Capello had sorted that out. But in an otherwise highly perceptive collection of essays I cannot help but think that this is all too generous. The England team went to South Africa with a lot of strikers who do not score goals, defenders with a very limited range of passing, midfield players who give the ball away with alarming frequency and a goalkeeper who would not rank in the world’s top 100. They were never going to be a match for Germany, let alone Spain. And it won’t be better next time either. I hope Kuper will now go on the attack and tell us all why this is so.
Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and a former controller of BBC Radio 4