Why European sports books are so hit and miss
PUBLISHED: 12:00 12 October 2017
Despite plenty of opportunities being created, when it comes to European sports books, writers are just not putting their chances away, says CHARLIE CONNELLY.
If you were to name one book that pricked your interest in Europe, what would it be? Grimms’ Fairy Tales? Pinocchio? the Chalet School books?
If I tell you mine, promise not to snigger as, for a small boy growing up in south-east London in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it’s a little bit, erm, left field. It was Captain of Hungary by Ferenc Puskas, the 1955 autobiography of arguably the greatest European footballer who ever lived.
Puskas was the freescoring talisman of the Magical Magyars, the extraordinary Hungarian national football team of the 1950s who showed England up as the hopeless international duffers they were at Wembley in 1953 and who have gone down as one of the greatest and most innovative football teams ever to lace on 11 pairs of boots.
Bought for me for 10p at a jumble sale by my mum on the grounds it had a footballer on the front, it’s a strange source book for a lifetime of Europhilia, but then I was a strange child. Still, if I am destined to lay dying in the ruins of the Brexit catastrophe and Captain of Hungary is to be my Rosebud, so be it.
It’s not even a good book, to be honest. Ghostwritten, bland and peppered with so many exclamation marks you wonder if they were actually shot out of a blunderbuss, Captain of Hungary was written when Puskas was only 27 years old and had defection and years of glory with Real Madrid still ahead of him.
Despite boasting a promising opening chapter title – ‘The Sausage Championship’ – it never remotely threatens to capture any sense of being the greatest footballer in the world.
What it gave me, however, was an early whiff of European exoticism. Hungary was largely unknown back then, certainly to a kid from south-east London who regarded Lewisham as the height of cosmopolitan sophistication. But leafing through the book there were photographs of Puskas playing for his club side Kispest Honved, drawing back his left foot to shoot, with trees and terracing in the background that looked at once familiar and strange: that knot of people on the terraces was standing exactly as I did at Charlton Athletic most weeks, only they were all Hungarians. They were the same as me, yet they were different.
Even a photograph of Puskas as a boy in a junior team could have been my own team of the time: the mischievous faces, the shirts you’d grow into eventually, the mugging for the camera. Our teams were separated by nearly 40 years and hundreds of miles but we were essentially the same kids.
In hindsight it was the photographs that captured me all those years ago more than the text. Flicking through Captain of Hungary today I realise what the book lacks. Well, it lacks many things – a distinctive authorial voice, any sense that you’re being taken into Puskas’s confidence, an editor with a special exclamation mark scalpel – but most of all it lacks context.
The secret to a good sports book always lies in its context. Ferenc Puskas was the pin-up boy of a nation, he was living through an extraordinary time, yet – perhaps understandably given his circumstances – there’s little of substance here beyond the football pitch and the odd bit of lame dressing room banter. Lines like, “All that remained was for us to play well. And we meant to play well, for we wanted to win,” give you an idea of the depth of analysis.
There is no talk of life under communist rule, no reactions to what he saw when travelling from behind the Iron Curtain to other countries. No sense at all, in fact, of Hungary or being a Hungarian. “We are a diligent, creative people. We like hard work but we are devoted also to music, literature, art, gaiety – and sport!” is about as far under the Hungarian skin as we go.
With ours being such a diverse, nuanced continent and with its range of sports from the cross country skiing of the frozen far north to the bullfights of the hot, dusty south, it’s a surprise that there are so few great books about European sport.
Even since the early 1990s when Pete Davies’ All Played Out laid the foundations and then Nick Hornby built the genre of intelligent sports literature with Fever Pitch, there have been surprisingly few notable books that capture the essence of the continent and its nations through sport.
There are few more overt expressions of national identity than sport. In the stadium or the arena we can invest our national pride in the representatives on the field, court, pool or course. Sport provides some incredible stories, of achievements against adversity, of teams overcoming insurmountable odds, of individual glory, failure and heartbreak. Europe is dripping with such stories yet there are few notable literary accounts of them.
Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy (Orion, £9.99), published in 1994, visited 22 countries around the world, but the European chapters are particularly strong. Kuper’s account of the Dutch celebrations following their team’s victory over West Germany in the semi-finals of the 1988 European Championships, for example, is eye-opening: more than half the population of the Netherlands took to the streets in celebration, with Amsterdammers throwing bicycles into the air in Leidseplein square chanting, “we’ve got our bikes back” – during the German occupation of the Second World War the Germans confiscated all Dutch bicycles. A former Resistance fighter told a TV reporter, “it feels like we’ve won the war at last”.
Arguably the finest distillation of Europe into a football book also concerns the Netherlands. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (Bloomsbury, £9.99) examines the national team through its context: placing their extraordinary skill, creativity, teamwork and capacity of self-destruction against the culture of the nation itself.
It’s a fantastic concept, examining how the football team’s use of space on the field reflects the cramped, overcrowded Netherlands themselves, and even examining Dutch football in the context of the nation’s art.
Yet Brilliant Orange was published 17 years ago and for the life of me I can’t think of a football book since that has captured either Europe or a single European nation through the filter of sport as acutely since.
Away from the beautiful game the pickings for sports books that have a tangible sense of European-ness grow ever slimmer. One sub-genre enjoying a resurgence is cycling, however, with a clutch of excellent titles emerging in parallel with the continuing growth in the sport’s popularity here.
If any sport can claim to be the most European it’s probably cycling. Indeed, no sport utilises the European landscape like cycling: the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, smaller races like the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders: walk into any bar in northern Europe during one of these races and you’re more likely to find all eyes glued to the cycling on the television in the corner than you are a football match.
Peter Cossins’ The Monuments: The Grit and Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, £12.99) captures much of this European cycling culture, detailing five historic and brutally tough races that are largely unfamiliar to the British public – Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, for example – yet are a crucial part of the European sporting calendar.
Cossins’ book is packed with a startling amount of information yet never loses the link between the cycling itself, with its grit, grunts and gamesmanship, and a sense of place.
For me, however, one book in particular stands out for combining sporting excellence, a sense of place and an incredible story set against the backdrop of European history. Published in paperback earlier this year. Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek by Times journalist Rick Broadbent tells the story of arguably the greatest runner in European history.
Zatopek’s zenith came at the 1952 Olympics when the Czech set Olympic records while winning gold medals in the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, but 16 years later he criticised the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and was immediately frozen out.
From national hero he found himself put to work in a remote uranium mine, living in a caravan and separated from his wife and family. He found redemption and rehabilitation late in life, which provides a relatively happy ending to a story beautifully and empathetically told by Broadbent.
Journalists often make terrible authors, but Broadbent combines the sporting story with the context in which it played out with a masterful touch that makes Endurance arguably the best book published about European sport this side of the millennium.
It should have more serious challengers, though. Europe is packed with extraordinary stories of sporting achievement, failure, glory and tragedy and brims with fascinating context. Sport is life at once amplified and distilled and the continent is riven with it.
Why are there no great books about, say, ice hockey in the Slavic nations, handball in Scandinavia, women’s rugby in Bosnia or cricket in Estonia?
Sport is a subject area that has traditionally been treated with an element of snootiness in literary circles over the years, but that tide has been changing for the best part of three decades now. The days when sporting literature was dominated by platitude-bland ghosted autobiographies and turgid histories of clubs and organisations are long gone. There is no excuse today for bad sports books and no excuse for there not being more good ones about the untold stories littering Europe. The character of a nation and a continent can be found in its sport, so where are the worthy chroniclers?