With The Football Men

We review The Football Men by Simon Kuper and look at what it tries to tell us about heroes, life, football and the men behind the superstars.

“One that is gigantic in size or power, one that stands out for greatness or achievement.”

This is how Merriam Webster defines ‘titan’. The other classical definition refers to titan capitalised which is where today’s definition comes from. The ones found in Greek mythology, the ancestors of the Olympian Gods, who themselves were the precursors for heroes and demigods that are now so entrenched in our lives and cultures, that we may not even realise their origins.

The “hero” originated in these very myths and legends back in ancient times when the gods still lived among humans or at least had dalliances with them that resulted in the likes of Heracles, Jason, Achilles, Theseus and Peleus – “a man or woman, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his or her bold exploits, and favoured by the gods.” Those of you familiar with your mythology will spot the common factor before I can say centaur. I’m talking about Chiron, son of Titan Cronus and the Oceanid Philyra, who lived on Mount Pelion and was the officially appointed moulder of heroes, the tutor to the demigods before they set off on their quests and faced their fates.

Chiron and Achilles
Achilles is entrusted to Chiron

Over the years, the definition’s changed to “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities”; “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”. Today, the manifestations of all these tropes are probably reflected most, though not exclusively, in the arena of sport. It is certainly the experience most consistent with the situation of watching a person or a group of people battle in their chosen area on a public platform, to watch them pursue excellence, and stretch and test the bounds of possibility, and through their achievements, many of them previously unimaginable or extremely rare, enjoy a vicarious sense of our own potential and talents. One such sport is football, more so with its strong tribal aspect, its sense of “us”, a community united for a common cause – the team – or in many cases, one particular player – one supports.

The idea that a player could be a “star” began in the capitalist haven that is the United States of America. The player in question was one Edson Arantes do Nascimento, more commonly known as Pele, who is largely credited with being the world’s first global superstar, though there are those who feel the honour belongs to Jose Leandro Andrade – but that’s a story for another day. It is something he attributes to being in the right place at the right time with the rise of the phenomenon now known as globalisation. Over the years players have become brands, especially the ones in the superstar category. Globalisation has also led to an excess of information available at the click of a button or the swipe of a finger, with the explosion of social media platforms a recent offshoot of that.

Friendly International, Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, 2nd June 1965, Brazil 5 v Belgium 0, Brazil’s Pele makes an attempt on goal with an athletic overhead kick, Pele was perhaps the most famous footballer of all time and featured in 4 World Cups,forced out of the finals in Chile in 1962 and England in 1966 through injury he won 2 World Cup winners medals with Brazil playing in the successful teams of 1958 in Sweden, at the age of 17, and the famous 1970 team which won the World Cup in Mexico (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Though it is now seemingly easier to feel “closer” to our heroes and stars, there is a separate set of difficulties involved as Simon Kuper points out in the foreword of Football Men – there is merely an “appearance of access” to footballers so routinely practised by television channels and newspapers, but in reality everything is carefully monitored by a PR team, by the club, the manager, the advisors, and much of what is released is so sanitised, so bland, so politically correct that it’s rare to find material of any interest that cuts below the veneer of the perfectly polished, well-groomed surface. There’s an anecdote about a colleague acting as interpreter for a Real Madrid star where the star says, “The aim is to say nothing”. This makes interviewing such personnel equally challenging, and that is the gap Kuper is trying to bridge with this collection of profiles on some of the stars of our times, whether players or managers. It includes pieces he wrote for his column in Financial Times, or for his work with the Observer and the Guardian, as well as new features he wrote specially for Football Men. With his experience of having lived all over the world, he remains ideally placed to ground his writing within a cultural or anthropological viewpoint, and hence has a better chance of providing us with insights into football and footballers than many others.

The inspiration for this book, he states, comes from The Football Man by Arthur Hopcraft. Written just 2 years after England’s only triumph on the world stage, the 1968-published book draws portraits of ‘The Player’, ‘The Manager’, ‘The Fan’, ‘The Director’, ‘The Referee’ etc. The English focus in this book isn’t surprising, given the level of familiarity and intimacy needed for the book to work, and the time at which it was written. Kuper, however, is alive in the modern-day and is able to considerably expand his reach and inclusion. What doesn’t change is the approach – “he (Hopcraft) takes them seriously, not as demigods, but as people and craftsmen” and tries to trace the question of their fame as explained by “the deep and lasting impact made by (these) men of extraordinary personality in the context of sport”.

The Football Man - Arthur Hopcraft
The Football Man – Arthur Hopcraft

It’s fascinating to trace the trajectory of the football superstar through the ages – from the ones living the rock-star lifestyle and the “leaders” to what Kuper terms as “slightly monomaniac corporate men and yes-men”; in short, the followers. But what really separates us from them? And why is our need for answers so strong? Heroes in general represent more than just people capable of extraordinary feats. The trope mirrors the human need for knowledge about self and the process of reconciling the conscious and unconscious aspects of our psyche (what Carl Jung labelled “individuation”) through acts that serve as metaphors for our journeys.

For those who want answers that will make them feel better about the “otherness” that serves as a possible explanation for them being who and where they are, or for those searching for the formula we can all adhere to in order to follow in their successful footsteps, you’ll be disappointed. This book will open your eyes to a revelation that may simultaneously comfort and disturb you – beyond having scads of god-given talent, football superstars really are like any other person.

But it’s still worth reading about them, these heroes that we have idolised and want to understand better, and this is where Kuper shines. He manages to show us the man behind each footballer (hence the title of The Football Men); he probes with a deft touch, teasing the story behind the facade, going back to their beginnings, childhoods, and background so that he can “locate their origins”. He even has a plausible argument about why Jose Mourinho is so obsessed with conspiracy theories. And so many similar patterns emerge, even as the differences make their individual stories and varied, unique personalities stand out.

One common thread running through each and every player is their desire to be the best and their subsequent single-minded focus to that goal starting from a childhood that consisted largely of kicking a football around, whether it was an actual ball or one fashioned from trash, whether the player owned a pair of boots or played barefoot, whether the craft was honed on the streets or through formal training. Many stories are also about beating the odds and proving doubters wrong, of creating something new or taking risks when going against the status quo, of being the underdog who achieves the seemingly impossible (case in point: Franck Ribery, born on the England-facing north coast of France in the poor immigrant quartier of Bologne-sur-Mer), and of players who were considered average out of position and started to fulfil their potential only when they were shifted (Thierry Henry anyone?). And the beauty is in how these individual narratives of people from across the world, from across cultures, languages and times intersect and diverge. Kuper traces the trends in the world of football and crafts delicate threads of interconnectivity.

Take the example of Hendrik Johannes Cruijff. His father was a grocer who supplied fruit to the neighbourhood club Ajax and his mother cleaned Ajax changing rooms. You could say Ajax was in his blood from the day he was born. There he met a gym teacher for deaf children, Rinus Michels, and this new coach and firebrand player led to the foundation of what is now known as “Total Football”. This style of play revolutionised the game and followed the Dutchmen to Catalonia many years later where he created the number four position, FC Barcelona’s version of a quarterback, for one Josep Guardiola. Guardiola was the first choice to replace Frank Rijkaard (another Cruijff ward who later blossomed under the great Arrigo Sachi) as manager of Barcelona in 2008 and passed on his knowledge to Xavi Hernandez Creus who, it can be argued, has been one of the finest proponents of that position in our times, if not for all time. That team, with so many recruits from La Masia – the senior side’s “farmhouse”-  also refined total football, with its insistence on playing in triangles, on constant movement so that the person in possession of the ball always has two options to pass to. The culmination of that style was undoubtedly in Johannesburg at the 2010 World Cup when Andres Iniesta scored the winner towards the very end of extra-time and defeated the birthplace of their style, Holland. At one point, Kuper even stresses that what makes a player “Dutch” isn’t just the place of birth, but the style of coaching, the thought process and playing style…the philosophy. What’s more, the midfield consisted of Iniesta, Xavi and Fabregas, in an “ultimate triumph of little men”, as opposed to the era of physicality which was rather short-lived contrary to expectations. There is a mention for Michael Essien who was lucky to come into maturity at a time when it was the preferred factor, though modern football, especially in the UK, still prizes “grit and bottle” above much else.

Read that as you will, the Dutch and not the Spanish feature rather prominently in The Football Men (Cruijff, Nistelrooy, Davids, Gullit, Litmanen, Bergkamp, Seedorf, Van Der Sar, Kuyt) and these serve the purpose of presenting a tapestry that is at once varied yet similar in their shared cultural heritage. They show the differences prevalent in the same country, a format that serves the same purpose as the pieces about English footballers, though the British counterparts face a far more critical reception (and rightfully so) and Kuper doesn’t let anything come in the way of his honesty. It isn’t just the English lads though they are subject to more of them; rather sarcastic and well-placed barbs feature in other pieces, many extremely chuckle-worthy.

Common heritage isn’t the only thing that forms a thread throughout these varied profiles. These are stories of extreme discipline, focus, hard work across backgrounds and families, stories that follow a pattern of origin-childhood-struggle-success with luck playing an important but not all-encompassing part (much like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey). What these stories show is that the same destination can be reached via myriad means. Take Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Born in the south of Holland, Nistelrooy’s father was a radiator mechanic and his grandfather a cattle farmer. Dutch footballers traditionally came from north of their rivers, so a “country bumpkin” like Ruud had to strive harder, not because of a lack of talent, but a dearth of football education. On the same day as Nistelrooy, another lad was born in Amsterdam to Surinamese immigrants. The father was a famous former footballer from the Dutch West Indies, and the son was raised as a traditional “Dutch” footballer. His name was Patrick Kluivert. In the piece, Kuper contrasts the trajectories of both to show how atypical Nistelrooy is when it comes to the long line of Dutch footballers – his playing style is likened to the South Americans – but how those very qualities have helped him become the goal-machine that he is. He shows how traditional doesn’t always equate with successful, but that the reverse isn’t always bad either, as in Kluivert’s case.

The Hero's Journey
One of the final stages in the Hero’s Journey involves the hero in question facing and slaying the physical or metaphorical beast before achieving fame and success.

To take the Dutch example forward, let’s talk about Dirk Kuyt, born to a fisherman in Katwijk on the coast. Kuyt’s first club was the local Quick Boys which had 20 men’s teams (15 of those from the U-9 age groups alone), and nearly every local male (most of them sailors and fishermen) played on Saturday mornings. Even the younger lads were big and tall raised as they were on “fish, milk and the west wind”, and there was no focus on ball control which Kuper, who himself played against the Quick Boys, attributes to the strong wind and their faith in the Lord (no football on Sunday; that day was reserved for worship). Kuper also adds that despite everything, the Quick Boys always won so they must have been doing something right. Kuyt’s story resonates with the others’ in this book in terms of the hardworking ethic instilled in him from a young age (“Doing your best isn’t a chore, is it?”), but also shows how place affects character and vice-versa. Katwijk and his family background moulded someone who worked harder at himself than any other player, and who was able to succeed despite maybe not possessing as much talent as the others.

It’s a work ethic he shares with many of the greats, the men who have served for longer than most and retired as bonafide legends. Men like Fabio Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini who embodied the great Italian legacy like few others have, revelling in the intricacies of defending, of man-marking (the most enjoyable thing in football according to Cannavaro), of the catenaccio – the door-bolt defence that is uniquely Italian – and doing so through sheer dedication and a constant drive for perfection, despite the requisite talent, or maybe because of it. As we learn with Maldini, his constant quest for improvement stemmed from wanting to gain his father’s approval (“I wanted to copy his success”), and he worked tirelessly to acquire the grinta (grit) he lacked in comparison to Cesare, who was a former Milan captain and winner of the European Cup with them. Similarly, Cannavaro, only 1.76 metres tall, worked hard to build a strong upper body because “a defender needs his arms”. This shows just how much the Italian loves the little details that accompany his chosen position, and how much he’s willing to put in to be the best – an example of his “never-say-die” attitude was his record of three sliding tackles on Florent Malouda in just over a second at the 2006 World Cup final.

It’s also telling that with that height or lack of it, Fabio would probably have struggled with finding a club to accept him in England. Cesc Fabregas was lucky in the Premier League because of Arsene Wenger. This brings me to a very interesting point discussed by the author in the Edwin van der Sar feature. The expectations that a country places on every position on the football field are intrinsically linked with its footballing philosophy and culture – “Whereas in the Netherlands a keeper is expected to be a footballer, and in Italy an infallible shot-stopper, in England little seems to be expected of him at all.” Similarly, in Argentina, they expect to find a pibe in every footballing generation who “expresses the collective dream of Argentine football” (Jorge Valdano). The current holder of that title is none other than Mr. Messi. The terminology, dating back to the 1920s, refers to a person who learns his craft on the potero (a bumpy urban space) which requires excellent dribbling and ball control skills. These are skills also showcased by a certain Swedish born in Malmo to a Croat mother and a Bosnian father. I am, of course, talking about Zlatan he-who-refers-to-himself-in-the-third-person Ibrahimovic who learnt his trade on the streets of Rosengard, the ghetto immigrant neighbourhood he grew up in, where they rather scoffed at what they called “field football”. When he shifted his loyalties to the dark side, he found it difficult to leave the street behind, which earned him a lot of struggle in league football until he got to a point where he controlled his talents, not the other way around. But his ghetto qualities are the reason he is special in the Swedish context. The Swedes follow “the law of Jante” which states that “Don’t think you’re better than us”. But then you have “Ibra” who is openly, even proudly stubborn and equally unrepentant – “I bring the street to the field”.

Much of his “I am Zlatan” persona has undoubtedly been carefully nurtured by his PR team, which is a modern-day aspect that Kuper discusses across features. Many of these footballers aren’t as, well, stupid as we think we are. Take Gennaro Gattuso, widely regarded as the “anti-superstar” with his insistence on retaining rustic qualities ingrained throughout his childhood in the poor region of Calabria. He is what you call a “rough diamond” – the brief image of him cavorting through the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in his tighty-whities after Italy beat France for the 2006 World Cup is one that will never be scrubbed off – and calls himself “as ugly as debts” in a refreshing show of honesty, but Kuper argues (correctly), that the mediano knows what he’s doing, that he is a carefully managed brand.

The Football Men is sprinkled with such sparkling insights and they elevate material that might have been staid or unelegant in the hands of another. (How many profiles only list a bunch of facts and data that anyone with an internet connection can access from Google or Wikipedia?) Simon Kuper understands that this is about weaving narratives that connect beyond just the player or the sport, that this is about going deeper. He raises questions about life, perfection, greatness, passion, ethics, morality, philosophy and tries to answer and explore them through these stories and with the help of these men. He also uses hindsight to great effect, adding notes at the end of pieces where he feels clarification or a change in stance or opinion is required. In the case of Michael Owen, he muses about one problem of interviewing footballers – “if you interview them, you have to quote what they say, and what they say often ends up driving the article”.

But there is also plenty of “shop talk” for any student of the game. Kuper tries to pinpoint why England’s “golden generation” failed – there’s a rather compelling tactical snippet with Guus Hiddink in the Frank Lampard standalone feature- and there is also a very insightful chapter that uses the autobiographies of Jamie Carragher, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole to build a narrative on what life is like as a top-flight English footballer. There are interviews with managers like Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Diego Maradona (all three of whom get 2 pieces each), Pep Guardiola, Guus Hiddink, Glen Hoddle as well as other lesser known but equally important managers and players (49 players and 11 managers). There are very illuminating discussions on the definition of “loyalty” for players and fans, the differences between being a player and a fan, and how it’s possible to be both but not necessarily for the same club, the definition of being a professional and doing what’s best for one’s career. Astonishingly, Didier Drogba hoped to fail his Chelsea medical since it wasn’t the team he wanted to join and stayed only because of Mourinho – “I was disgusted to sign for Chelsea” he writes in his new autobiography which of course wasn’t released in English until after he’d left. Kuper also talks about how much “feeling at home” matters for the players, compared to fandom, and what the “behind the scenes” reality is like for footballers, especially today – many are encouraged not to develop any interest apart from football, though Michael Owen takes it to the extreme with never having finished a book and having watched only one entire film. Even here he is understanding when needed but critical where appropriate.

The profiles in The Football Men are many and varied – some are detailed accounts guiding us through the player’s journey from birth, some are vignettes presented without fanfare or elaboration, left to our discretion and understanding (Kaka’s is one of them where he doesn’t really say much of value but we get the sense of a genuinely nice, polite, simple guy), and others are glimpses into brief moments in time, a snapshot of the person, where insights are offered up with no ulterior motive. The only criticism I can raise is that I wanted more of some of the people he interviewed and less of the others – consider me biased but an 11 and a half page traditional interview with Nicolas Anelka wasn’t my favourite part of the book. And the other is a caution of sorts. This isn’t a book stuffed with data and statistics, facts and long summaries; in fact it’s far from exhaustive when it comes to “information”, so if that is your need, please look elsewhere. But Kuper is in turns observant, funny, insightful, critical, joyous with the uncanny ability to pick up on relevant points that bring out the “intangible sense of a person, their aura”. In the Greek tradition, heroes were rarely immortal or invincible (just ask your old pal, Achilles), but it was their vulnerability, physical and emotional, that made them all the more compelling, their journey, struggle and eventual victory more meaningful, their great accomplishments valuable. So it is with our football men. But who will volunteer for this quest? The answer comes in the form of an African-born British anthropologist and writer. It takes no little talent to capture, through a few words or many, an essence of someone’s personality, a sliver of their soul if you will, but Simon Kuper manages with an assured, expert touch – sourcing all his deep prior knowledge of the game, of people and of stories – and offers it up to posterity.

In the foreword, the author hopes that the book adds up to something like “a group portrait of the profession”. I can assure you it does far more than that.


Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.