African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game, by Peter Alegi, Hurst & Co £12.99, 192 pages, FT Bookshop price: £10.39

Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, by Steve Bloomfield, Canongate £12.99, 352 pages, FT Bookshop price: £10.39

Death or Glory: The Dark History of the World Cup, by Jon Spurling, Vision Sports Publishing £14.99, 242 pages, FT Bookshop price: £11.99

The Anatomy of England: A History of the England Football Team in Ten Matches, by Jonathan Wilson, Orion £14.99, 432 pages, FT Bookshop price: £11.99

It now seems normal for nations to obsess about the football World Cup. Yet when the English did so in 1990, Jonathan Wilson notes in his scholarly Anatomy of England, it “was unprecedented and unexpected”. Only quite recently have World Cups turned into occasions for countries to debate who they are. Those 11 young men in their team shirts have become the nation made flesh, and the tournament the foremost contest for prestige among countries.

Twenty years ago, very few serious studies of football existed. Today there are enough to fill a mid-sized library. The four books under review here build on this body of knowledge, add to the library’s tiny African room, and distil patterns from that knowledge.

With the World Cup kicking off on June 11 in South Africa, this is the one moment in history when books on African football might find a wide audience, which explains why two are out at the same time. These books raises questions: is Africa a place? Can anyone know this diverse continent well enough to write a book about it? (You don’t see many books about Asia.) Nonetheless, it’s a relief to find any account of contemporary black Africa for non-specialists, as opposed to the raft that get written about whites in Africa.

Nobody understands the background to African soccer better than the Italian-American historian Peter Alegi. This World Cup is his moment. His African Soccerscapes crams daunting erudition, gleaned over many years of study of African football, into under 200 pages of history. African footballers and fans of the past played and cheered and cared, and have been all but forgotten. Alegi feels a moral impulse to salvage them for posterity. He provides moving vignettes of men such as the Cameroonian Eugene N’jo Lea, who played the trumpet, loved Kafka, got a PhD in law and, en passant, scored 29 goals to help St Etienne win the French league in 1957. But Alegi is more than an antiquarian. This book is a sampling of his main themes.

The European colonisers, especially the British, taught Africans football for their own good. “It is our hope in these our games to stiffen the backbone of these our boys by teaching them manliness, good temper, and unselfishness – qualities …which have done so much to make many a Britisher,” wrote a missionary doctor in Kenya in 1909. But Africans soon made the British game their own. Black South Africans, for instance, adapted their tribal traditions of “praise names” to give favourite players nicknames such as Junior Certificate, Kalamazoo or Scotch Whisky.

Later, the sport helped turn randomly created African territories into nations with a shared nationalism. The lines that colonialists had drawn on old maps became independent states in the 1950s and 1960s, but often it was the national football teams that gave these new states a shared national feeling. Sometimes the national team was about the only thing that bound the different ethnic groups together. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, recalling watching his initial homeland Austria play in the 1930s, wrote: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”

The Algerian case is striking. In 1958, as the country fought France for its independence, 10 Algerian professional footballers based in France snuck home and founded a “national team” of the FLN, Algeria’s National Liberation Front. One player, symbolically, abandoned the French national team then preparing for the World Cup. The FLN team played fundraising matches as far afield as North Vietnam, attracting global attention. When they played, writes Alegi, “the imagined nation of Algeria was made real for 90 minutes”.

Steve Bloomfield’s Africa United is a breezier book, a journalist’s continental odyssey. Bloomfield was Africa correspondent of the Independent newspaper until recently and parts of Africa United are written in the breathless tones of a daily reporter. However, it’s a brave journey – Bloomfield should never have taken that old Russian aircraft in Sierra Leone – and carries us to countries most of us will never see. The highlight, a beautiful piece of writing, is Bloomfield’s visit to Mogadishu, the wrecked yet splendid Somali capital. A Somali who works as a school janitor in Finland takes him to the abandoned building by the Indian Ocean where he dreams of opening a restaurant. “We could do it together,” the exile suggests. Bloomfield writes: “I laughed, and instantly regretted sounding so rude. It was such a ridiculous idea, though. I’d needed four gunmen to protect me and even then we weren’t safe. There was no way, no way I was ever going to move to Mogadishu and set up a seafood restaurant.” A page later, he is already thinking about how they could shield diners from the wind.

As so often in football books, the best bits in Africa United are not about football itself. You wish this book had more local colour and fewer outdated match reports. Still, there are telling details. Dinkas, Darfuris, and Arab women in headscarves cheer on the Sudanese national team together. Rwanda is so short of young men after the genocide that its “national” team recruits Ugandan, Burundian and Congolese players. Eritrea’s autocratic president tells Bloomfield he is an Arsenal fan. Horribly, Sierra Leone and Liberia lead the world in amputee football. And if you’re ever arrested in Sudan, claim to be David Beckham’s friend.

At times, Bloomfield overreaches. He wants football to matter more than it does. It almost certainly didn’t stop the Ivorian civil war, as he likes to believe. Football reflects societies but hardly ever changes them. If you want to understand nations and nationalism in the media age, however, football may be the best place to start.

There was a book waiting to be written about the political history of the World Cup, and the schoolteacher Jon Spurling has written it in his spare time. He began making research trips in the late 1990s mostly to South America, and Death or Glory is at its best when the reporting is first-hand rather than done online.

One difficulty of football writing is access – people in football are often hard to get to – but Spurling has tracked down some vivid characters. You have to like a book that features an elderly Italian fascist with happy memories of the national teams of Mussolini’s day, plus his disgusted anti-fascist son. A 95-year-old Argentine beats Spurling at arm-wrestling in a bar, and then recounts how he didn’t quite make it to the first World Cup final in 1930; Spurling pays a house call on the East German coach whose team defeated West Germany in 1974, and speaks on the phone to some Zairean “Leopards”, who spent that same World Cup being terrorised by the secret police of Zaire’s dictator Mobuto. Today, Spurling tells us, some of those players live as tramps. “If I could do it all again, I’d rather have worked hard at being a farmer,” one Leopard reflects.

Spurling barely pretends to produce new insights. Certain stories are familiar but Spurling tells them in more depth than before. There are frequent resonances with the present. When Brazil spent fortunes on the Maracanã stadium for the tournament of 1950, critics said the country should have spent the money on schools and hospitals. A journalist retorted, absurdly but magnificently: “I want you to be in favour of stadiums. It could well be that hospitals could become less necessary.” Today South Africa has spent fortunes on stadiums that will mostly become white elephants the moment the tournament ends, all in a bid to prove the country is “world class”.

But other stories in Death or Glory show how much the world has changed. The first half-century or so of World Cups coincided with an age of hysterical nationalism. To read Brazil’s coach of 1982 urging people to avoid Argentine corned beef, or England’s coach of 1966 calling Argentines “animals”, or El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 fighting a war over a football match, is to realise how much saner most countries are about these matters now. Each age gets the World Cup it deserves. Today the sentiments around the tournament are more universalist – the whole world sharing a party – and less nationalist and racist.

It’s a shame Spurling mars good stories with errors. Maria Laura Avignolo is not a man, Der Biltung was not an East German newspaper, African countries were not declaring independence in the 1940s, and so on. Google makes these slips unnecessary.

Great claims are often made for football’s significance. In fact it’s almost always a mirror rather than a gun: it reflects society, rather than changing it. Usually the sport has just one significant effect on real life: it makes people happier. At least, it usually does. In England during World Cups, it often seems to make people unhappier. Just as Alegi’s life was a preparation for African Soccerscapes, so Jonathan Wilson’s life equipped him for The Anatomy of England. Wilson, who writes for the FT and The Guardian, belongs alongside David Goldblatt and the daddy of them all, Brian Glanville, in the triumvirate of great British football historians. Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid is the seminal modern work on football tactics. Anatomy of England is its companion volume.

The book crashes with aplomb right through a basic rule of football literature: avoid match reports because nobody wants to read them years later. In fact, Anatomy is built around 10 reports of landmark England matches, from 1929 through 2007. Some games – the 3-6 defeat to Hungary in 1953, for instance – are choked in myth. Wilson has gone back and endlessly rewatched the DVDs. As probably nobody else on earth has done that, he has authority.

His aim is to produce “close readings” of these games, like a literary critic analysing poems. Indeed, Wilson writes about unthinking old English football with the fond impatience of an intellectual in a Mitteleuropa coffee house. Though wary of theory himself, he does find a few constants of English football history. There is what he calls the “headless chickenness”: the reversion to blind pace when under stress. There is the endless struggle to adapt to the tactical innovations of crafty continentals. There are the rigid English lines across the pitch, whereas opponents are more flexible. There are the eternal complaints from English fans and media about their spoiled, unpatriotic footballers. For some players “the triple lion badge of England could be three old tabby cats”, lamented the Daily Express in 1966, and quite likely again next month.

England’s defeats are always blamed on individual scapegoats, because in this country of empiricists hardly anyone studies tactics. The solution is always to show more passion next time. Thankfully, the English do learn a little from history. Wilson shows that since 1990 the team has trended towards more flowing continental lines. Yet even against Croatia in 2007, they reverted to ancient “headless chickenness”, as if impelled by a defective gene.

The book has flaws. Not all the detail in the match reports is telling. At times Wilson’s style is straight from a prewar Oxbridge High Table: “It was, of course, ever thus.” Also, Wilson knows so much more about tactics than others, so at times he seems to be having a conversation with himself. Still, his enjoyment is infectious, and if there is such a thing as an important football book, this is one. He will be there next month, collecting the next draft of history from his base in Rustenburg. Football studies is a young discipline. There’s so much more to discover.

Simon Kuper is the FT’s sports columnist and co-author of ‘Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained’ (HarperSport, £7.99)

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