Monday, October 03, 2011

Book review: Soccer Men; Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses and Neurotics Who Dominate the World's Most Popular Sport, by Simon Kuper

Book review by guest editor Paul Demko.

Interviews with professional athletes are, as a general rule, terrible. Most players have become so jaded by the insatiable need of sports reporters for interesting (i.e. controversial) material that they inevitably revert to a tedious torrent of cliches. The best way to steer clear of trouble, after all, is to never say anything remotely interesting to anyone holding a microphone.

Simon Kuper -- the renowned Dutch journalist, whose previous books include Football Against the Enemy and Soccernomics -- acknowledges this danger in the forward to his absorbing new collection of profiles, Soccer Men. Here's Kuper's description of the contemporary soccer journalist's pursuit of access to star players:
Sometimes a magazine will call, and ask, 'Can you get an interview with X?' I always say that you can: if you want to spend weeks sending faxes that somehow never arrive, phoning impatient agents on their mobiles, hanging around training grounds and trading favours with boot sponsors. In the end you'll get an interview with X. He'll probably turn up hours late, say 'I hope we'll win on Saturday. I think we can,' and then drive off again.

That's why -- to Kuper's credit -- the pieces featured in this collection, which span more than a decade, often contain hardly any quotes from the soccer stars themselves. Instead Kuper provides persuasively argued, carefully crafted portraits explaining what distinguishes the various players and coaches from their peers. Michael Essien is the man who never tires on the pitch and never speaks off of it. Dirk Kuyt is the pious, perennially underestimated son of the Dutch coastal city of Katwijk. Fabio Cannovaro is the archetype Italian defender, disdainful of strikers and their eccentric, lackadaisical work habits.

Kuper writes with the assurance of someone who has spent years tirelessly mastering his subject matter. At times it seems like there is no match too obscure that he didn't somehow manage to attend. He witnesses Ruud Gullit, for instance, playing for a fifth division team outside of Amsterdam at the twilight of his career.

And consider this anecdote from Kuper's profile of Cesc Fabregas: "Like the old East German Stasi, Arsenal's scouting team see everything," he writes. "In 1999 I went to watch South Africa under-17s play Zimbabwe under-17s in a little Soweto stadium. It was a scary time and place, and a marginal match, but in the main stand were five other white men: Arsenal coaches, who had landed at Johannesburg airport that morning."

Surely it's even more remarkable that Kuper himself was in attendance at the match. No publication outside of the two contending countries could possibly have had much interest in its outcome.

Kuper has a breezy writing style and sharp sense of humor. He's savagely funny when writing about some of the less erudite stars. Paul Scholes can "barely talk." Wayne Rooney is deemed an unlikely candidate to transfer to La Liga. The reason: he once scored zero on a Spanish exam. Ashley Cole's memoir, My Defence, leaves one "feeling dirty and stupid for having read it." Pele is a "talking puppet."

Most of these pieces are brief snapshots of players at significant moments in their careers: Rivaldo getting kicked off the Barcelona squad in 1999; Gennaro Gattuso preparing for the 2007 Champions League final; Maradona madly coaching Argentina at the 2010 World Cup.

But some of the longer pieces are among Kuper's finest. He creates a damning (and hilarious) portrait of Lothar Matthaus as dim, vain and obsessed with the tabloid papers. Consider the German midfielder's reaction upon learning that he'd been picked for the 1980 European Championship squad. "He burst into tears," Kuper writes. "'Why?' asked the veteran defender Bernard Dietz. Matthaus explained that he and his girlfriend had already booked their summer holiday."

Another lengthy, satisfying piece details the awkward reunion of Dutch forward Johnny Rep and German winger Bernd Holzenbein to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the 1974 World Cup final. Holzenbein infamously drew a soft penalty that led to Germany's equalizing goal and eventual victory. The piece centers on a panel discussion featuring the two famous footballers at the Goethe Institute in Rotterdam. But unfortunately for the crowd neither player is particularly interested in revisiting the three-decade-old match. Instead Rep and Holzenbein tell jokes and reminisce about obscure players that they met during their careers.

"The history of football would read very different if it were written by actual footballers," Kuper concludes. "They would never organise a debate about a long-gone World Cup final, or, if they did, it would focus on the post-match banquet to which the wives weren't invited, and where Rep and Germany's Paul Breitner swapped suit jackets."

The less successful pieces are generally the ones where Kuper deviates from his own dictum and turns over the page to the players. Allowing Nicholas Anelka to prattle on and on about how misunderstood he is ultimately does little to illuminate how the French striker's managed to largely squander seemingly limitless potential.

But luckily this is the rare misstep. Overall Kuper proves a superb guide to understanding what makes the players and coaches who dominate the modern game of soccer unique.


The book is available now from outlets all across America including Amazon.


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