Book Review: Football Against The Enemy – Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper traveled across the world and explored the impact of politics on football for this book. We tell you Football Against The Enemy is a must buy.

“They say in Brazil, even the smallest village has a church and a football field – well, not always a church, but certainly a football field.”

It’s hard to argue with this quote, in so much that football is, at its essence, a simple game. Nothing can be easier to grasp than people chasing a ball and shooting it into the net to win; or to provide such a space, even if there aren’t actual nets at both ends and only goalposts or even two sticks to mark the territory enclosing the goal. What isn’t simple are the people. And not just on the field, which is inhabited by just 22, but the millions across the globe who are affected by it every day. Simon Kuper, self-declared footballing anthropologist and the author of the road trip that is Football Against the Enemy, is living proof. His life spans multiple countries, not least having been born in Africa and sent off to live with the ‘cultured’ Europeans. And that’s why his journey to discover the heart beating inside every follower of the beautiful game is so revealing. It’s as much a study of man as it is of the sport.

Simon starts off with his beloved Europe, heading deep into central Europe’s tense climate just years after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and USSR, where political turmoil is sweeping the nations and the people in them.

Over the last century, two great wars and several smaller ones have seen countries broken up and eternally set against each other. Kuper sees how football ties into this with historically motivated selections of teams, as well as support by the crowds. Through interviews and frank discussions with individuals across these countries, he realises the animosity Slovakia has for the Hungarians – with the President comparing the latter with ruffians at a European match between the clubs of two nations. He sees how the refusal of Estonia to allow Russian immigrants to even be considered for the national team despite better quality shows the fracture that has formed through Stalin’s oppressive regime. Football victories matter little when there are more serious underpinnings to the choices made that led to the wins. As Martin Reim, one of the stars of the Estonian side pointed out, “There are so few Estonian players – maybe it is to encourage young Estonians to play football?” and then, maybe reflecting on the many games in which his penetrative passes were squandered by his team-mates, he finishes by saying,

“It is true that maybe there are Russian players who could do better now.”

But not all nations desire to separate the umbilical cord that binds them to their fellow footballers. In an interesting turn of the situation, while Catalonia cheers on every newly-formed nation, they are content to stay put by only basking in regional pride. There is no need or motivation to leave Spain; too much uncertainty or change is a bad thing for them – though in recent times that sentiment has changed, whether by the 2014 referendum or the increasing pro-Catalonia stirrings in this state.

However, whether divided or united, it largely comes down to other forms of currency for football-crazy nations. Clubs are not just political, but also monetary machines. In Ukraine, the president lives off food coupons while the players drive around in Mercedes. Kiev could be a part of a nation suffering from the agony of want, whereas Dynamo their premier club is anything but – fashioned into a well-oiled machine through one of the first ever specialised and scientific training regimens when under the tenure of Valeriy Lobanovskiy.

“Science has made Dynamo the club of the USSR. In fact, the entire club team masqueraded as the national side at the 1976 Olympics to win bronze. If it hadn’t been for the referees, we would have won gold!”

– Anatoly Zelentsov

Money changing hands is also important for cash-strapped nations in more ways than one – transfers are used as economic tools of progression. It isn’t a reach to believe that impoverished clubs are highly dependent on emerging starlets to bankroll them by attracting the attention of Western teams. This all leads into an idolatry of the west. London is seen as the height of progressive power, which is at odds with the inferiority complex felt by the English themselves. This gets brought to the forefront especially with Margaret Thatcher, who got removed from power because she was unable to showcase the signs of strength Paul Gascoigne could – that of an Englishman rising from the back alleys of poverty to take on the rich continentals. Whether he won or lost wasn’t the question, it was the fight that made him so dear to the people. As the author admits, post-war Britain can be seen in the eyes of a tearful Gazza walking off the pitch during the 1990 World Cup semi-final even as England lose.

England's Paul Gascoigne wipes tears away after defeat by West Germany in Turin - Football Against The Enemy
England’s Paul Gascoigne wipes tears away after defeat by West Germany in Turin

In the dark underbelly of football, corruption is rampant. People justify their bribes and match-fixing to Kuper as being a universal action that cancels out and makes the world a fair place. Positions of power were to be made permanent, the status quo had to prevail. Not only in the expanses of Europe, but even in the deep hearts of South America and Africa – this disease was global in nature. This partly explains why Africa, a football nation considered flowing in talent (natural suppleness as claimed by journalists, though Kuper begs to differ – they practiced, we did too), doesn’t perform up to expectations. It is Kuper’s next stop and subject of analysis, and Roger Milla becomes an excellent lens to view the challenges inherent in the continent – as racism and political manoeuvring stifles the game. A match between two fierce and beloved clubs can only occur in the President’s presence – and is used as a platform to curry popular opinion. Who can hate a man who ensures the game goes on?

Financial struggles also plague the African nations – many of its players go unpaid as they prepare for the World Cup. The managers start paying out of their own pocket, and when that becomes scant – it falls on the already burdened taxpayers. Football remains beloved, but the people involved less so. Milla though prefers to look at the bright side and stresses on the simplicity of the game – it’s a great leveller. A small nation can take on a superpower and come up triumphant.

There is another factor involved when it comes to performing on a global stage, and that is identity. And what better way to showcase a cultural persona to the world than a patent style of football? Kuper shows his interest in this as well – how exactly playing styles came about. Italians are methodical defenders; an interview with Helenio Herrera reveals the emergence of the Catenaccio evolving through his teachings. The style encourages more structured training programs, man to man marking and eccentric motivational meetings. As Herrera says,

“I throw the ball to a player. When I ask why we will win, he must yell we’ll win because we want to! We must have it! Ah ah ah!”  

In Brazil, the folklore of the Malandros brings up the essence of Brazilian football as not a game, but a dance with trickery at its heart. This was seen when the British outlawed black people from playing football in a clear echo of South African apartheid, but the Brazilians powdered themselves white and continued to play.

However, Kuper realises from these talks that every style has a generational ending sometimes – football abhors rigidity. Herrera complains that Italians became dull and defensive, instead of  solid and exciting which was how he structured them to be, while Pele gets called an old bitter man for calling Lothar Matthaus the only one playing like a Brazilian at the 1990 world cup – as Brazil abandons their role of footballing artists with an Italian manager at the helm. Though to their credit, the Dutch people didn’t accept Bobby Robson imposing a dictatorial regime on their beloved PSV; the man who refused to learn anything new was shown the door despite two years of brilliance. The notion that ‘artists may win you games, but soldiers always will’ failed to gain currency with the fun loving public, even as Brazil turned on the manager when the losses piled up. A nation’s heartbeat is the way its footballing team plays, and for Brazil particularly, players abandoning the spirit of the country are seen as traitors. Although, winning always helps.

Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti staring down dictator, General Videla.

No country’s rulers know this better than Argentina. President Menen makes time out of his schedule for a game with Bobby Charlton’s Olympic bid team, but can’t find any space for the foreign secretary of England; he leads his own team onto the field to play. Letting off coaches with rape charges because ‘they are very good’ and using the barrabravas as a hit squad to ensure his team won – it’s all in a day’s work for the President. While across the pond, Silvio Berlusconi buys a football club, becomes its chairman and coins the name of his political party after a popular Italian football chant. Politics and power go hand in hand – and who’s more powerful than someone with the love of football in his heart? There are other factors to consider as well sometimes – as an intriguing display of power is shown in the Old Firm rivalry, with religion rearing its controversial head sometime back. But the ‘Protestant’ Rangers against ‘Catholic’ Celtic agenda has died down over the years after both began accepting players of the opposite faith into their ranks, even though it was mostly because of political agendas. Voters aren’t exactly that easy to segregate by religion – it would be destructive for any politician to do so!

As the global event that was the 1994 World Cup drew nearer, Kuper investigated USA, the centre of all the hullabaloo. As a nation, it is still one that refers to football as soccer – keeping the sport as a thing of amusement rather than passion. The sport is still slowly clawing its way into the hearts of the people. One of the better impacts of this late transition has been the gender equality afforded to the players. For the other countries though, in awe of the United States in political forums, the World Cup represents the perfect platform to show that superpowers can be taken down – what better place than in their own backyard? And that is the central idea of the book: That football is, even after almost 150 years of inception, still growing and evolving alongside the people that explore the game. For some, it is a means to fight when they can’t fight elsewhere. For others, a power-play. While for most of us, it is something to follow with bated breath as the daily lives and struggles become insignificant when the roar of millions reverberates around the stadium – cheering and mocking every pass, every tackle, every run, every goal.

A supporters of Young Boys of Bern lights a flare during during a Champions League Group Play-off first leg football match against Tottenham Hotspur on August 17, 2010, at the Stade de Suisse, in Bern.(Photo credit FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Kuper leaves it up to us to determine whether football has actually improved lives even as, in his own flawed human way, he tends to provide biased arguments as to who he sees as being the heroes and villains of the game. But just like most of us, he is just a spectator to something massive in nature. And he understands that. In every interview, you can see the pain he is going through to explain why people react the way they do to the game. The game is simple, the people are not. A million hearts have a million reasons.

This book manages to show that in a vivid and humane way of imperfection. It might not be a critical magnum opus that has proper answers and explanations to questions at the heart of the game, but a journey of someone familiar – Kuper is a football fan just like us. Picking up this book, you will understand the depth of the game and how it can be futile to explain away in a simple way why it rouses such complicated passionate sensibilities in people. The journey is the destination sometimes – and some questions have no answers.

The author leaves us with one small amusing and, at the same time, heart-breaking statement. The USA has repeatedly tried to intervene to ensure the Haiti junta remove the dictatorial hold over their own country – but as one general says frankly, they have no time to negotiate. What is more important? The USA strikes of everyday or a global event that happens every four years?

Yes, as Bill Shankly once famously said, football isn’t a matter of life or death. It is infinitely much much more serious than that.

Avishek Chatterjee

A Devil of reddish intent, waiting for a theatre to dream again while he writes and knows things.