Simon Kuper is the preeminent intellectual football author of our time. His works such as Football Against the Enemy, and Soccernomics (aka Why England Lose) need no introduction to many fans of the beautiful game. His columns in publications such as The Financial Times are indispensable reading for those who want to keep a sharp edge on the developments throughout the world of football.
With this background, it was mildly shocking from my perspective to see Kuper pen a book of short biographies about The Football Men, as the book is aptly titled. I must confess my favorite work of Kuper’s was his excellent Ajax, The Dutch, The War, an often forgotten classic about football in Europe during World War II, which is written in the same style as The Football Men.
The temptation with a book like this is to skip the short bios of less compelling figures and jump ahead to the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard and José Mourinho. Doing that would be a colossal mistake. Every page of this collection of short pieces is filled with information. Kuper manages to develop the character of each individual despite the limited space. For example, Jamie Carragher’s trips through Europe as a young Evertonian are explained, as are Nicolas Anelka’s childhood experiences, and Gennaro Gatuso’s philosophy on football and life.
Several of the themes of previous Kuper works are found within the short narratives about each man. The evolution of football into a game where metrics and statistics have become of great value, the anti-intellectualism of many English footballers, the development of a more continental style in English football, and the incredible success and style of Dutch football.
The Football Men chronicles legendary figures like Franz Beckenbauer, Bert Trautman, Diego Maradona, Malcolm Allison and others, current top level footballers such as Wayne Rooney, Xavi and Franck Ribery, and the men who make football management so compelling such as Arsene Wenger, José Mourinho and Guus Hiddink. Kuper even spends several pages on Glenn Hoddle, whose contributions to the maturity of English football have been routinely discounted and underestimated by many, but in my mind was one of the key figures in changing the English game.