The game of soccer has produced a wide variety of literature that addresses not merely the game but politics, geography, history, along with a great number of characters and personalities that add another level of intrigue to an already intriguing game.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked:
OK, @ColoradoRapids supporters: you shared with me your favorite podcasts (thank you!). Now, I have a list of good-to-great books on soccer. Tell me your favorite soccer books and why.— Rapids Recall (2-0-0) (@RapidsRecall) March 20, 2020
Thank you for your responses. I’ve listed a mix of fan recommendations along with some of my personal favorites that have helped me understand and love the game better.
“They have names like Barmy Bernie, Daft Donald, and Steamin’ Sammy. They like lager (in huge quantities), the Queen, football clubs (especially Manchester United), and themselves. Their dislike encompasses the rest of the known universe, and England’s soccer thugs express it in ways that range from mere vandalism to riots that terrorize entire cities. Now Bill Buford, editor of the prestigious journal Granta, enters this alternate society and records both its savageries and its sinister allure with the social imagination of a George Orwell and the raw personal engagement of a Hunter Thompson.”
“Armed with Socrates’s unpublished memoir and hours of newly discovered interviews, Andrew Downie has created the most comprehensive and compelling account of this iconic figure. Based on conversations with family members, close friends, and former teammates, Doctor Socrates is the brilliant biography of a man who always stood up for what he believed in—whatever the cost.”
Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer by Beau Dure (Potomac Books, 2010) (recommended by Jason Maxwell).*
“From the league’s formation in 1993 to the David Beckham era, this book reveals all the action on and off the pitch: the politics, the lawsuits, the management of its teams, and the savvy business deals that helped MLS rebound. It also revels in the big personalities of its stars, the grace of its utility players, and the obstacles the league faces in meeting its long-range goals.”
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer (HarperPerennial, 2006).
“Soccer is much more than a game, or even a way of life. It’s a perfect window into the crosscurrents of today’s world, with all its joys and sorrows. . . . [He shines] a spotlight on the clash of civilizations, the international economy, and just about everything in between.”
The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt (Riverhead Books, 2008).
“There may be no cultural practice more global than soccer. Rites of birth and marriage are infinitely diverse, but the rules of soccer are universal. No world religion can match its geographical scope. The single greatest simultaneous human collective experience is the World Cup final. No history of the modern world is complete without an account of soccer.”
“Understand how gambling fixers work to corrupt a soccer game and you will understand how they move into a basketball league, a cricket tournament, or a tennis match (all places, by the way, that criminal fixers have moved into). My views on soccer have changed. I still love the Saturday-morning game between amateurs: the camaraderie and the fresh smell of grass. But the professional game leaves me cold. I hope you will understand why after reading the book. I think you may never look at sport in the same way again” (from the Introduction).
Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the Word by Raphael Honigstein (Bold Type Books, 2015) (recommended by Eugene Burke).
“In Das Reboot, Raphael Honigstein charts the return of German soccer from the dreary functionality of the late 1990s to Götze’s moment of sublime, balletic genius and asks: How did this come about? The answer takes him from California to Stuttgart, from Munich to the Maracanã, via Dortmund and Amsterdam. Packed with exclusive interviews with key figures, including Jürgen Klinsmann, Thomas Müller, Oliver Bierhoff, and many more, Honigstein’s book reveals the secrets of German soccer’s success.”
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 1998) (recommended by many).
Fever Pitch is Hornby’s tribute to a life-long obsession. Part autobiography, part comedy, part incisive analysis of insanity. . . . It is one for everyone who knows what is really means to have a losing season.”
Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey—and Even Iraq—are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (Bold Type Books, 2018) (recommended by Colton Swogger).
“Written with an economist’s brain and a soccer writer’s skill, it applies high-powered analytical tools to everyday soccer topics, looking at data in new ways, revealing counterintuitive truths about the world’s most loved game.”
Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (Bold Type Books, 2014) (recommended by Marco Cummings and Jess).
“Fear and Loathing in La Liga is the definitive history of the greatest rivalry in world sport: FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. It’s Messi vs. Ronaldo, Guardiola vs. Mourinho, the nation against the state, freedom fighters vs. Franco’s fascists, plus majestic goals and mesmerizing skills. It’s the best two teams on the planet going head-to-head. It’s more than a game. It’s a war. It’s El Clásico.”
The Real Madrid Way: How Values Created the Most Successful Sports Team on the Planet by Stephen G. Mandis (BenBella Books, 2016) (Recommended by Marco Cummings).
“The Real Madrid Way explains how Real Madrid has created and maintains a culture that drives both financial and on-the-field success. This book is an engrossing account of the lifetime of one of the greatest clubs in the most popular sport in the world, and for business and organization leaders, it’s an invaluable inside look at a compelling alternative model with lasting competitive advantages that can deliver superior and sustainable returns and performance.”
Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders—A World Cup Odyssey by James Montague (Bloomsbury, 2014).
“Named after the greatest victory (and defeat) that the World Cup qualifiers have ever seen (Australia’s 31-0 victory over American Samoa), Thirty-One Nil is the story of how footballers from all corners of the globe begin their journey chasing a place at the World Cup Finals. It celebrates the part-time priests, princes and hopeless chancers who dream of making it to Brazil, in defiance of the staggering odds stacked against them. It tells the story of teams who have struggled for their very existence through political and social turmoil, from which they will very occasionally emerge into international stardom.”
Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer by Gwendolyn Oxenham (St. Martin’s Press, 2012). (Recommended by Meghan Kavanaugh)
“Across two dozen countries—from back alleys to remote beaches to the roofs of skyscrapers—an eye-opening journey into the heart of soccer. Every country has a different term for it: In the United States it’s “pickup.” In Trinidad it’s “taking a sweat.” In Brazil it’s ‘pelada’ (literally ‘naked’). It’s the other side of soccer, those spontaneous matches played away from the bright lights and manicured fields—the game for anyone, anywhere.
Gunshots and Goalposts: The Story of Northern Irish Football by Benjamin Roberts (Avenue Books, 2017) (recommended by Jason Maxwell).
“Protestant v Catholic, unionist v nationalist, east versus west, their team against my team. This is the story of Northern Irish football and so much more besides: the tournaments, the near misses, the unsung heroes and unlikely tales of triumph amid adversity. Benjamin Roberts casts his eye over the last 140 years of football in Belfast, Derry and beyond in the first wide ranging look at the game in this part of the world. George Best, David Healy, Peter Doherty and all the heroes throughout the eras are traced back to their roots ‘back home’ as Roberts shines a light on the human dimension to some of Ulster’s most famous ninety minute sons.”
“On the eve of the 2014 World Cup, New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey offers a personal perspective on the beautiful game. Blending witty travelogue with action on the field―and shady dealings in back rooms―George Vecsey offers an eye-opening, globe-trotting account of the last eight World Cups. He immerses himself in the great national leagues, historic clubs, and devoted fans and provides his up-close impressions of charismatic stars like Sócrates, Maradona, Baggio, and Zidane, while also chronicling the rise of the U.S. men’s and women’s teams.”
The United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom by Phil West (Overlook, 2017).
[I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil West three years ago. This book brings some needed insight into the history and workings of Major League Soccer.]
“The United States of Soccer is the engaging history of MLS’s bootstrap origins prior to its 1996 launch, its near-demise in the early 2000s, its surprising resilience and growth in the following years, and its continued rise in respectability and recognition from soccer fans around the world. The book also explores the origin of a number of MLS’s best-known supporters groups – the superfans responsible for setting the tone within MLS stadiums and defining what it is to be a North American soccer fan. The book looks at how MLS helped develop the massive American audiences for the most recent men’s and women’s World Cups – peaking at 27 million for the 2015 Women’s World Cup finals – even as it looks to expand its number of franchises and grow its audience in a sports-saturated world.”
Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson (Orion Books, 2006).
“From the war-ravaged streets of Sarajevo, where turning up for training involved dodging snipers’ bullets, to the crumbling splendour of Budapest’s Bozsik Stadium, where the likes of Puskás and Kocsis masterminded the fall of England, the landscape of Eastern Europe has changed immeasurably since the fall of communism. Jonathan Wilson has travelled extensively behind the old Iron Curtain, viewing life beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall through the lens of football.”
Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics by Jonathan Wilson (Nation Books, 2013)(recommended by Jared Thornburg.)
“Inverting the Pyramid is a pioneering soccer book that chronicles the evolution of the game’s tactics and the lives of the itinerant coaching geniuses who have spread their distinctive styles across the globe.”
Oh! How could I forget John Babiak’s recommendation?
* Jason Maxwell provided a number of recommendations which you can find here and here. I’ll send you his way so you can find more information about these books. Thanks so much, Jason, for these recommendations.
What books on the beautiful game do you recommend that we can add to this list?