Up Close with the Giants of the Modern Game
by Simon Kuper
Simon & Schuster, £16.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 295 September 2011
Though it shares a near-identical title with John Giles's recent memoir, The Football Men is several galaxies removed from the pockmarked pitches, pitiful wage packets and gnarled enforcers of that book. The world upon which it gazes is one of big names, bigger contracts, jawdropping skill, lucrative endorsements, expensive sunglasses and public tantrums.
In the introduction to this collection of profiles, Simon Kuper references yet another book with a similar title: Arthur Hopcraft's The Football Man, a tome that captures the same mildewed milieu as Giles's. Kuper posits his own offering as a contemporary update of the snapshot that Hopcraft took in 1968. He is half-correct. In its own way, it is a lucid panorama of the garish, wasteful pantomime of modern top-level football but, his undeniable gifts as a writer notwithstanding, Kuper ain't no Hopcraft and he doesn't always reach deep enough to draw the starkest conclusions.
The 60-odd people featured are European and Latin American superstars with a few Englishmen thrown in. The pieces were written mostly for the Financial Times and the Observer. Inevitably, this gives the book an air of profiling-to-order, with Kuper training his sights on whichever big name happened to be in the spotlight that week ahead of a vital Champions League or World Cup encounter.
Anyone familiar with Kuper's other books will be aware that, while he is perceptive and can write to a good standard, the observations he makes are frequently smothered by an arch, all-knowing tone. That's the case here too. To pick just one example among many, there is no excuse for calling someone like Bobby Charlton a "dullard".
Not that The Football Men is all sneer and no substance. The six profiles of his fellow Dutchmen (Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Johan Cruyff et al) are uniformly excellent. An evening in a Rotterdam cafe with Johnny Rep and Bernd Hölzenbein turns out entertainingly. The thumbnail sketch of a clapped-out Thierry Henry, written a few days after the Ireland handball, perfectly captures the pathetic, universally derided state of the player at that time.
But while many of the pieces remain prescient several years on, quite a few others read deeply strangely now. Describing Fabio Capello, a week before the 2010 World Cup, as having "largely banished the old frenzied, blind, English game" in favour of "intelligent continental football", Kuper ends by saying that he has "redefined the [England] job for a generation", almost like "a soothing leisure pursuit". Similarly, the chapter on Freddy Adu describes a completely different person from the one who, his recent Gold Cup cameo notwithstanding, has been conducting a whistle-stop tour of subs' benches in European football backwaters since 2007. (Kuper is big enough to admit this in a brief footnote.)
Still, that's the passing of time for you. And The Football Men is by no means a poor or remotely dull book – the writing is decent and the reporting sound. It's just that Kuper's apparent wish to position himself above the rest of the hack pack and come across as a deeper thinker than his contemporaries all too frequently leaves him looking too clever by half.