Football – as we all know – is far more than simply a game, it is a culture all of its own, a culture influenced by the societies within which it has flourished and grown. This great variety of footballing cultures and their social and political impacts has been reflected in some of the game’s best literature down the years, a deep and rich source through which the game’s great evolutionary patterns can be traced.
With that in mind, we’ve picked our five favourite football books and given a brief description of each, you know, just in case you’re stuck for something to read on your summer holidays:
1. Brilliant Orange (David Winner)
Written by an Englishman in thrall with Dutch football and Dutch culture in a more general sense, Brilliant Orange is a quirky, alternative and riveting look at the ways in which the predominant social attitudes of the country and its architectural use of space have impacted upon the philosophies and styles of its football.
Though unconventional in its approach, Winner’s book – with its randomly numbered chapters and focus on art and design – manages to provide the reader with an accomplished and sophisticated portrait of the aesthetic surface of Dutch football as well as the social and artistic habits that shaped it throughout the twentieth century.
This is not just a book about football, but a mirror held up to an entire culture. Brilliant Orange is all that is good about modern football writing.
2. Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life (Alex Bellos)
Much in the same way as David Winner’s offering, Alex Bellos’ Futebol does not attempt to be over-analytical in its approach to the game, instead taking a broader view of Brazilian society’s relationship to football and being all the better for it.
With a dry wit and vivid writing style, Bellos takes the reader on a cultural and historic journey as he tells the story of football in Brazil and how South America’s biggest country fell so madly in love with the game. Through a mixture of historical detail, amusing anecdotes and contemporary interviews Bellos is able to paint a clear picture of both Brazil’s infatuation with the beautiful game and of how the country has come to impact upon the way the game is followed and played across the globe.
As well as being a wonderful insight into the sporting mindset of football’s most decorated country, Futebol is also a rich depiction of life in South America and the multi-layered nature of Braziliana.
3. Inverting The Pyramid: The History Of Football Tactics (Jonathan Wilson)
Unquestionably the finest book ever written on the subject of tactics and their historical evolution, Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid is a veritable education in the development of tactical systems over the years and the philosophies and methodologies of the managers who constructed them.
Not only does Wilson introduce us to a multitude of systems, he also assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each and explains precisely why they have either survived through the ages or been brutally exposed and died a rather public death. In many ways it was this book that brought tactical method and thought to the mass market and, in my opinion, has done wonders for the knowledge of the “average” football fan (if such a thing exists) since its publication in 2008.
Now the go-to man for tactical analysis in the mainstream media, Wilson carved out his niche with this book and has rightly built up an excellent reputation as a result. If you haven’t yet read Inverting The Pyramid then make sure you don’t leave it much longer.
4. Morbo (Phil Ball)
For those interested in the intricacies of Spanish football, Phil Ball’s Morbo is required reading. Another Englishman abroad, Ball is clearly steeped in an impressive knowledge of the history of Spain’s regional politics and the role football plays in these divisions.
The main focus of Morbo is the rivalry between the various regional sub-cultures in Spain and the factors and individual characters behind the foundation of some of the county’s most influential football clubs. Ball’s enthusiasm for his subject comes through strongly in his writing and makes his book a thoroughly engaging read as he guides you through the many quirks of Spain’s extraordinarily unique sporting culture.
If you want to learn more about Spanish attitudes towards football or even just get to grips with the social and political landscape of the country then Morbo is a more than useful companion.
5. McIlvanney On Football (Hugh McIlvanney)
A collection of some of the best pieces by one of Britain’s finest football writers, McIllvaney On Football is a wonderful read if only to marvel at the Scot’s unfussy and yet beautifully crafted writing style.
Spanning the majority of the second half of the twentieth century – there are articles ranging from 1966 to 1997 in the book – the collection covers a multitude of subjects from Celtic’s 1967 European Cup triumph through to the form of Romario during the 1994 World Cup, all moments brought vividly to life by McIlvanney’s flawless prose.
Unfortunately, such superlative writing is all too infrequently seen in the modern mass media, something which makes immersion in the work of the likes of McIlvanney and Brian Glanville all the more important. McIlvanney On Football is a smooth and rewarding read and a journey through the thoughts of one of British sports writing’s great craftsmen.