Englischer Fussball by Rafael Honigstein
While it comes out in September, I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of Englischer Fussball: A German’s View of our Beautiful Game. It was handed to me by the man himself. But there was a problem with his timing. Rafa had handed this book to me right in the middle of book seven in the Harry Potter series. If there is one person you don’t want to follow in a reading list, it’s J.K. Rowlings. It’s kind of like standing next to Brad Pitt as you flirt with women. Disaster is imminent.
But it wasn’t. First of all, we read his columns every week, so we know how good a writer he is. But more importantly, Rafa crafted a book that was so good, it compares favorably to the gold standard of all footballing books, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World. The key to it was that he was able to straddle a fine line between being a sociology book, such as a Kuper or Buford book and a history book, such as a Uli Hesse-Litchenberger book. Usually a book is one or the other. It’s an audacious experiment to combine the two, but Rafa has the goods to do it and do it well.
So taking this sociological and historical cross-section, Honigstein gives a view of what the English game is all about. What is its place, not only in England, but in all of our world and how did it get to be that way. Why does hardness matter; why is fairness so crucial; why are the stands so important to the supporters why does it try to stamp out individuality. It’s a tale of how a game and a culture cross-pollinated to give us the world’s most popular league.
I will say right now that the English will probably not care for it, because for the first few chapters, he breaks down the game with a fairly critical eye. He will have his share of critics because he dares to deride aspects of the English brand. By the end of the first few chapters, I was ready to give up on the Premiership. Despite this early criticism, Rafa is a fan and he shows a love for the English game. Thus he begins to build it back up and by the end, you love the league again. And that is in the long run, how he was able to compete with Harry Potter, because the book is a bit of a ride, first as it strips away your love of a league and then gives it back.
Without giving anything away, I can only say that the first chapter of this book is absolutely hands-down the most interesting chapter in any book about football ever. I was amazed by it and I had some long nights getting to sleep as I pondered the propositions in that chapter and either countered or agreed with them. The last chapter, where he concerns himself with the Germans’ view of the war, might be the most poignant ever written. And the little I am willing to give away is a line he writes about the one-sided feelings of the English hatred of Germans. Regarding the chants and jibes made by the English against Germany, such as the song “Ten German Bombers”, he says that it can never harm the Germans because at the end of the day, speaking as a German “we are grateful that we lost the war.”
In between the interesting first and the emotional last, Rafa addresses the English media, the development of the English brand of football, the man who changed the game and gets no credit, why suffering is so crucial to the English fan, the obsession of the English regarding foreign influence on the game, fan fashion and the future of the league.
It’s a very eclectic mix of angles to provide and complete picture of English football. And is a book that only someone, not tied to the game through ancestry could pull off. This is a book that should be in the library of every football fan.
He does have one glaring error. Speaking of Euro 2000, he mentions the riots in Charleroi during the England-Germany group match. I was at that game and there were no riots in Charleroi. The riots took place in Brussels with fans who couldn’t get to the game. But it’s a long running misconception by many.