We know, we know, geeks are geeks, and jocks are jocks, and never the twain shall meet – hang on, though, that’s utter horse-manure. After all, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott’s a big fan of Harry Potter, and Owen Hargreaves, formerly of Manchester City, says he likes to kick back with a copy of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. Not only that, but soccer – or plain old football if you’re of the British persuasion – is a literary phenomenon in its own right. Here are five of our favourite top-scoring texts:
Fever Pitch by Nick Horny
The author’s autobiographical account of the trials of being an Arsenal supporter before the team hit the big time, this is by turn hilarious and super-depressing, and thanks to Hornby’s superb comedic skills, it’s hugely entertaining even for people who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about football of any variety. It’s crammed with football trivia and personal anecdotes and is considerably better – we promise – than the Colin Firth movie that followed. Read this and you’ll want to rebuild Highbury Stadium.
The Damned Utd by David Peace
Peace’s shtick is the fictionalizing, or novelizing, of true events – he’s got a chilling series on the Yorkshire Ripper for the more morbidly inclined reader – and The Damned Utd is his take on Brian Clough’s doomed forty-four day stint as the manager of Leeds United in 1974. It’s all from Clough’s point-of-view and intersperses his memories of better times at Derby County and the problems he faced when taking over the team at Leeds, whom, according to the book, remained savagely loyal to the departed manager, Don Revie. It’s a fascinating read and was very well received by critics and the public, but Leeds player Johnny Giles took Peace to court over it, claiming he was grossly misrepresented in the text. He won his case for libel and Faber had to edit the book accordingly in subsequent editions.
The Unfortunates by BS Johnson
The weirdest of the bunch here, The Unfortunates is more usually known as ‘the book in a box’, because it comes as 27 separately bound sections that you can read in almost any order (the first and the last are marked as such). While it’s more obviously about a man trying to come to terms with his friend’s terminal illness, the action actually centers around a football stadium: the main character is a sportswriter send to an unnamed industrial city (which is usually identified by critics as Nottingham) to cover a match between the town’s City and United teams. Like all Johnson’s work, it’s as haunting as it is crazy, and we’d call it the saddest soccer story we’ve ever read.
The Match by Alan Sillitoe
We’re cheating a little here because ‘The Match’ isn’t a whole book, but a short story in Sillitoe’s most famous collection, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (incidentally, also a good one if athletics are your bag). ‘The Match’ is the story of one fan and his disastrous, violent home-life, but alongside its grim account of the cultural misogyny we’ve come to associate with the football industry, it’s also one of the best game commentaries we’ve ever read, as it recounts a clash between Notts County and Bristol City.
Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos
A final non-fiction title to round us off, this is not only a riveting account of Brazilian football for fans of Pele, Garrincha and their fellow-players, but it’s also brilliant guide to the country and its passions, its geography and cities, its history, its people and their love of the beautiful game. Unlike, perhaps, a contemporary account of UK soccer, it’s not all about sponsorship deals and million-pound contracts, but, rather, mudfut on the beaches of Ipanema and balls chased through Rio’s slums. We’re sold.
That’s five-nil to us: can you do any better? What are your favourite football tales?