“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.” – Don Delillo
Much, if not everything, has changed in and around the culture of football over the course of the last fifty years. The game is now a truly globalised product, an ultra-professional pursuit which has been relentlessly marketed to within an inch of its life. While the majority of us were born into the midst of football’s transitory journey into the ruthless clutches of modernity, one man has witnessed and recorded these events with remarkable clarity down the years. He is, of course, Brian Glanville.
Five or six years ago I was rummaging through the book shelves in my local charity shop and came across a rather dusty copy of ‘The Story of the World Cup’. I recognised Glanville’s name, but at the time I hadn’t read any of his work and his study of past World Cup’s meant relatively little to me. I bought the book regardless and proceeded to be swept up by the author’s majestic prose; his vivid descriptions and elegantly arranged arguments capturing my imagination and bringing the history of the tournament to life.
That book, however, was the culmination of Glanville’s years of experience. His career had started decades earlier, this most gifted of sports writers having first appeared in the press as a teenager when he was given the job of ghost-writing Cliff Bastin’s autobiography in 1950. Shortly afterwards he had a critique of British sports journalism published in Encounter magazine, Glanville expressing his disenchantment with the flimsy mundanity of sports reportage and clamouring for a shift towards writing in a similarly thoughtful and well-constructed vein to much of that available in North America.
From the very start of his career Glanville’s distinctive approach to sports writing was clear. Here was a writer who was comfortable straying from the formulaic style of mass news reporting and instead producing articles that were of excellent literary merit in themselves. Over the years his reputation grew and he came to be employed by The Sunday Times, La Stampa, Sports Illustrated and New Statesman amongst others. Glanville was established a writer who was propelling football writing into the realm of the aesthetic and the academic; throughout his career he has been nothing short of a pioneer in his field.
Of course, Glanville’s prose has always been noted for its abrasive undertones and its refusal to skirt around the difficult issues of the day. He has been a constant critic of the Premier League’s apparent promotion of financially-motivated greed amongst its clubs through television money, and has continually attempted to hold its administrators to account. Glanville has also voiced considered criticism of FIFA over the years, deriding Sepp Blatter’s presidency and what he perceives to have been the poor decision making the Swiss has overseen. He may occasionally come across as cantankerous and curmudgeonly, but Glanville has often been a lone voice of reason amidst a veritable din of media sycophancy.
However, it is not only in the sporting arena that Glanville has gained plaudits for his work. With over twenty works of fiction having been published, the World Soccer columnist is a celebrated novelist in his own right and is one of the few British sports writers who has successfully bridged the gap between literature and reportage. In an environment where news is instant and often drearily predictable in its presentation, we should treasure writers like Glanville who do their utmost to provide their readership with intelligently and insightfully penned work. If we are not careful in terms of the route modern journalism is taking, writers of his calibre could well disappear before too long.
Glanville’s particular style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nobody can deny his wealth of experience nor the elegance of his prose. A veteran of fourteen World Cups, the former Charterhouse pupil has a deeper knowledge of the game than the majority of his fellow professionals and communicates it in a beautifully expressive way. A master of his art, Brian Glanville is football’s very own laureate.