worldat

Pitch Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Pete Brooksbank
From WSC 414, November 2021
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If we’re being honest, “man goes to some football matches and writes about them” is not a hugely original premise, so there’s a slight sense of foreboding when picking up Tim Hartley’s The World At Your Feet that you’re about to be subjected to a series of laboriously written, glorified match reports of little interest to anyone but the people who happen to have been there on the day.

Happily, the reality is somewhat different. This is not, as you might fear, a paperback version of a groundhopper’s blog, mainly because the bulk of Hartley’s tales have been filed from a surprisingly eclectic variety of locations. One moment we’re with Hartley as he watches prisoners in Wales using football to rebuild their lives. The next, he’s in Gambia watching goats being cleared from a field prior to a local cup final. Then he’s in Gabon for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. There are matches in Hong Kong and Serbia. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, we’re then off with the author to Pyongyang of all places, where he attempts to start a British football chant in front of bemused locals and in defiance of joyless local guides. It’s fair to say Hartley’s probably accrued a substantial number of air miles.

The huge geographical range here is the book’s main strength, and Hartley is inquisitive enough about the countries he visits to provide useful historical and cultural context to the games he watches. Then there are chapters devoted to more traditional loves of football fans closer to home – like floodlight pylons, or joining the 92 Club. True, there is the occasional duff chapter but these are mainly when Hartley abandons his travels to deliver a chapter entirely to an opinion. A report from a 2012 game at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, along with a complaint about Team GB, feels long past its expiry date. A strange chapter about the “football family” seems very much out of place among dispatches from places like Sarajevo and could easily have been omitted. But these missteps are thankfully infrequent; Hartley is soon back out in some far-flung corner of the globe.

He writes with a light touch that never gets too serious or preachy. A trip to Clapton, for example, does dip into the politics of their fans and the influence of German sides like St Pauli, but it remains largely neutral and never gets bogged down too much in the intricacies of left-wing ultras. He does a fine job conveying the sheer oddness of his trip to North Korea but does so with gentle humour, his description of two competing marching bands being particularly funny.

Reminiscent in many ways of James Montague’s Thirty-One Nil, by getting out there and experiencing football in places many of us will never visit, Hartley’s turned in a charming, entertaining read, never mocking or judgemental, and one that reminds you of the joys of football abroad. You’ll be booking flights to Pyongyang the moment you finish it.

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This article first appeared in WSC 414, November 2021. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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