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Football is not football
Simon Kuper
07 June 2021
published in Issue Zero – Opuscule

Before the 1990s, « football book » was considered an oxymoron. Down at the bottom of the literary totem pole, even below self-help books sold in airports, was football writing.

When I was growing up between England and the Netherlands, I read what there was. Most football books in those days were terrible, ghostwritten players’ autobiographies, aimed at nine-year-old fantasists like myself, which said things like, « I was lucky enough to score the winning goal in the Cup final, so it was like a dream come true. » So I grew up mostly reading cricket and baseball books instead, and they helped me see what football writing could be.

Cricket had always been the game of educated, upper-class literary Britain, favourite sport of the boarding schools, where most British writers went. If you had spent a summer around 1900 playing friendly cricket in London, you’d have encountered some fairly big names. J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, also created the Allahakbarries cricket club. (He believed, wrongly, that ‘Allah Akbar’ meant ‘God help us’.) Among his occasional teammates were P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells. One can only imagine the quality of the tea-time conversation over cucumber sandwiches. Inevitably, cricket made it into a lot of English fiction.

When I was ten, in 1980, we moved to California for a year. My father bought me an anthology of baseball writing. I still have it in my sports library (one of the best in Europe; I often just stand there gazing upon it fondly) and the copy has been read to pieces. The book included a wonderful profile of Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox batter. The guy who wrote it, I vaguely noticed at the time, was someone called John Updike. I had never heard of Updike, but I could see: he had produced a portrait of a three-dimensional human, a lot better than the stuff I was used to reading in European football magazines.

Hemingway, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac all dabbled in sports journalism. (At the time and until the last few years, almost all sportswriting everywhere was almost exclusively male.)

Sportswriting was a higher-status activity in the US than in Europe, because Americans never drew as rigid a line as Europeans did between « high » and « low » culture. Americans even put sports in their novels, right at the top of the literary totem pole. My favourite example of the genre is Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, which features the worst major-league baseball team of all time, the Ruppert Mundys.

Reading the Americans, I came to realise that sportswriting could be about more than just sport. Eventually I developed an idea for an anthropological travelogue about football around the world. What could a country’s football tell us about the country’s life, its « culture »?

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