The problem inherent when writing a book about footballers is that modern-day footballers, on the whole, have little in the way of personality.
Simon Kuper admits so in his introduction to The Football Men. Post-match press conferences are littered with clichés (‘game of two halves’, ‘earned the right to play’, etc, etc) which are often as dreary and predictable as the preceeding matches. When players’ eccentricities and individuality surfaces, more often than not they are ridiculed and caricatured, moulded into stock characters upon which their teams’ shortcomings are attributed. Think Mario Balotelli, Joey Barton or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
This is exactly why The Football Men is so refreshing. One gets the feeling that footballers (and managers) bleating footballing clichés is hardly helped by vacuous questions from various sections of the media. Kuper doesn’t succumb to this; his short, bitesize profiles of players from across the game are concise and to the point. He is meticulous in his attention to detail, observing and analyzing body language with as much scrutiny as he affords his subjects’ dialogue. The result is a series of rounded, revealing and thoroughly enjoyable snapshots.
And these are littered with anecdotes and facts that only the most dedicated, informed journalist would unearth. Johan Cruijff, Kuper’s boyhood hero, was bought for such a substantial sum by Barcelona that the Spanish authorities wouldn’t sanction the move. Instead the Catalan club registered him as a piece of agricultural machinery. Andres Iniesta, in many ways Cruijff’s heir apparent as Barcelona’s masterful string-puller, is sketched as so modest and grounded that when a woman in a Barcelona café mistook him for a waiter, he went into the kitchen to fetch her food.
Most of Europe’s elite are covered in the book, both past and present. Edgar Davids’ fascination with Dennis Rodman is revealed; Ruud Gullit turns out (appalingly, as it transpires) for a Dutch Sunday-league team; Clarence Seedorf, AC Milan’s infamous ‘Milan Lab’ calculated, had the perfect musculature for football, and thus was banned from weight training. Managers are scrutinized too – Glenn Hoddle (who Kuper compares, brilliantly, to an emergent Tony Blair); Jose Mourinho (the most confident conspiracy theorist you’re likely to meet) and Arsene Wenger (the economist – football’s ‘Moneyball’ maestro) are all excellently drafted. A handful of ‘others’, including film director Anthony Minghella and architect Jacques Herzog, are also included.
Kuper’s upbringing in Holland is telling; his descriptions of the Dutch artisans are exceptional. Cruijff towers over the collection, his legacy and thinking rendering him an inescapable ancestor for almost all of the profiled players. Yet, much like Kuper’s disappointing meeting with his childhood hero, many of the earlier articles are part-obituary, mourning the loss of football’s artists who, with the emergence of footballing ‘monsters’ such as Patrick Vieira, and Michael Essien in the last decade, seemed set for extinction.
The rise to prominence of the Cruijff-inspired Barcelona (and at international level Spain, arguably equally influenced by the Dutch master—and not merely because their squad is so densely populated with Barcelona players) was at the behest of a dwarfish collection of masters; Iniesta, Xavi, Messi, Villa—who proved that mechanical, powerhouse soccer is a pale imitation of the beautiful game.
It has an ironic congruence with Kuper’s collection; few writers could endow a series of encounters with such colour, craft and compassion. Long may it continue.