In compiling this feature on the top 20 soccer book recommendations, I realized that one of the privileges I’ve had over the years is to review books for World Soccer Talk. And the number of books I’ve read has shown me that the market for really good soccer reading has increased.
I’ve created my list of my top 20 soccer book recommendations, or a list of those books you must read if you have the time. The list below is subjective, admittedly, but as someone who has read A LOT of different types of books over the years, I feel confident that it is an appropriate list that covers the basics. The depth of soccer literature now is so great that you’ll notice a number of famous books are not on this list. That may be due to the fact that (1) your choice is overrated, (2) there just wasn’t room in a top 20 list, or (3) we can agree to disagree.
With all that, here are my top 20 soccer book recommendations:
20. The Mighty Dynamo by Kieran Crowley
I wanted to include a child-focused book in this list but, when I must admit that when I was first reading this book to my daughter, I was hooked. Crowley, an Irish author, weaves a fictional world around a gifted soccer player with powerful enemies. The protagonist uses a loophole in school rules to make new friends, compete at soccer’s highest levels in Ireland, and discovers himself in the process. All of that sounds immensely corny, but for a kids’ book, its plot and character building is better than many “adult” books.
19. Dallas ‘Til I Cry by Nathan Nipper
Like many soccer books, this one is in the Fever Pitch-esque category. What I liked best was that Nipper was a soccer fan but not a MLS fan, but decided he wants to experience the local game. The book’s perspective is through the lens of a soccer fan who experiences 2013 MLS by trying to support the local club.
It’s an interesting look at the beginning of modern MLS in an analytical and experienced view without an agenda. Some of the passages in the book are eternally quotable about MLS and soccer in general.
18. Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
The book is now a go-to in every soccer fan’s bookshelf. What makes this book even more outstanding is the authors released a second edition that updated their research, challenged their assertions, and course corrected some of their predictions. Yet the 2018 edition makes the original even more interesting of a read. This is one book I always ensure gets returned when I loan it to people.
17. Soccer Travels by Drew Farmer
Drew is a past WST contributor, but I added this book to the list because it truly deserves to be on any soccer fan’s list. The breath of soccer experiences would make any fan jealous, and any WST reader knows Farmer has a way with words. Especially now with so many travel restrictions, the descriptions of the locations and experiences can almost serve as a virtual trip to these locations.
16. The Beckham Experiment by Grant Wahl
It’s easy to forget in the era of MLS-owner David Beckham how monumental this book was. Wahl’s reporting gave soccer fans a glimpse at the terrible conditions of many MLS players, the absolute circus Beckham’s first season was, and how MLS now is so shaped by this major move. It’s even more intriguing reading it now with the other LA team outshining the MLS team that first learned how to wow the soccer media worldwide. The book’s inclusion in the top 20 soccer book recommendations is well deserved.
15. The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti
This was one of the first soccer books I ever read, and while some aspects have not aged as well, it is still a fascinating read. These two knowledgeable soccer minds compare Italy and England at a time when the latter was overtaking the former as a hub of soccer knowledge. Similar to what you’d hear at a ritzy soccer pub, VIalli and Marcotti have so much knowledge about the game that even now this book is captivating.
14. Winning At All Costs by John Foot
Continuing our run of Italian books, John Foot gives us a brutally honest take on Italian soccer. A country with an incredible history where the game and culture can rarely be separated, Foot shows the ways that shortcuts are used and ethics compromised to make the Italian game the beautiful game. There are few better storytellers than John Foot and few more conflicted stories than the Italian game.
13. A Season with Verona by Tim Parks
Often The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is regarded as the best book on an Italian club but Tim Park’s love letter to Verona is much better. Parks integrates himself with the fan culture of Hellas Verona and tells an entertaining story of, essentially, living a foreign fan’s dream. Unlike Joe McGinniss, he’s not naive to the game and that helps write a better story. For example, he admits some of the Italians who attend Hellas Verona games are absolute racists, but he uses information like that to paint a complete, conflicted view of rooting for Verona or really any Italian soccer club during this time.
12. Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson
No list can be complete without at least one Wilson book. This one may be his most famous for good reason. Wilson gives a detailed description of the history of soccer tactics in a way that does not sound as boring as the first half of this sentence. Few people can take such dry, complex topics and make them absolutely engaging. Honorable mention goes to his newer book on Hungarian soccer.
11. How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
Soccer is a secondary topic to culture in this book, but that’s where Foer excels. The book examines how soccer defines different geopolitical situations like the Balkan Wars and world trade. While this book deals with complex topics, it is relatively short and condensed. It helps if you have a center-left political leaning to accept some of his hypotheses.
10. Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri
I remember when I first read this book and was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. One of three fiction books on this list, the story takes place in Argentina. Three friends leave the wake of “Mono”, a failed soccer player turned capitalist who invested his savings in owning the rights to a young soccer prodigy. The friends must decide how to offload the ownership of the young player to raise money to care for Mono’s daughter. The author had written the script for an Academy Award-winning film and his talent for fiction shows in this book. This book is not philosophical about Argentine soccer, but it is just beautiful.
9. The Manager by Barney Ronay
You can argue this is not the best book about the life of a manager. Michael Calvin can certainly claim that title (see next). What Ronay’s book does best is show the evolution of the manager’s role and who the key players were in that evolution. Just think – at the turn of the 20th century a manager was essentially a caretaker. He would run out a lineup selected by the Board, take care of the pitch, and sit back and watch the game. Compare that with the role of a Jurgen Klopp today, and this book shows how that drastic change occurred.
8. Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin
While Ronay’s book shows the timeline, Calvin’s book zooms in on the then-modern day. With unparalleled access to a variety of managers, Calvin shows the undeniable stress the modern manager faces every day. The book’s title comes from a quote from Arsene Wenger describing the life of the manager, and Calvin’s interviews aptly justify the analogy. What he does best is follow managers at various professional levels, so you see the whole gamut of experiences.
7. The Ugly Game by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert
The Qatar 2022 bid was from the start suspicious. Blake and Calvert took that suspicion and started digging. Then dug more. Then locked themselves in secure rooms and kept digging through confidential documents. The result is a book that is incredibly troubling, damning, and descriptive of FIFA’s corruption. At times the story reads like a fictional account but sadly for all of us is all too real.
6. The Away Game by Sebastian Abbot
The soccer industry can be brutal to young players. Sebastian Abbot takes a hard look at the journey a group of young African players take to the professional ranks. Complicating this journey is the financial support provided by Arabian sheiks looking to rebuild their country’s youth ranks. While Abbot does not cast definitive judgment, he shines a harsh light on international youth soccer practices. A must read for anyone wanting to learn more about how young soccer players can be exploited so easily.
5. The Fix by Declan Hill
This is the book that spoiled the game of soccer for many people. Like the previous two authors, Hill dives into corruption in soccer with such vigor and relentlessness that the results are shocking. It is impossible to read this book and not watch soccer in a different way. It also shows how a dedicated journalist can make a difference when he throws himself into a topic without hesitation.
4. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
I will admit a bias in that I do not know how a non-Arsenal fan would appreciate this book. I will say that the book has born an industry of first-person perspective books on soccer fandom, but none can truly compare to the original. Hornby is nuts and his love for soccer (primarily Arsenal) affects his life in a way that is not healthy for most people. However, Hornby is a writer so being nuts helps him write an engaging narrative of fandom that is not realistic for most people but is still an amazing read.
3. Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein
Every top 20 list should have a Honigstein book but the question is which one. I have Das Reboot because (1) it is a good read and (2) it has quickly become the handbook for how to rebuild a country’s soccer program. Honigstein is so well connected that he is able to mine information from the most important decision-makers in Germany. Rarely do you get such honest thoughts from key decision-makers.
2. The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt
This is the perfect book for a shelter-in-place situation. Goldblatt is such an interesting person, although like Foer it helps if you share his political persuasion. A non-soccer fan friend of mine once asked me for books to understand the sport, and I sent him this one. Despite being about 1,000 pages, he could not put it down. Goldblatt is able to take the whole of soccer history and create a narrative that ties culture, politics, and society into the game’s development. It is also a darn good read. Once you decide to read it, it is a commitment but it is well worth the time.
1. The Damned United by David Peace
I daresay any serious top soccer book list will have this in its top ten, if not top five. Peace takes a fascinating person in Brian Clough, takes a moment of his life when he joins his most hated rival, and from Clough’s POV weaves a narrative of why this nonsensical decision makes sense. The account is technically fictional, but well researched enough that it is more factual than many journalist soccer books. This is the one book in my library I will never lend.
It felt a little self-serving to include a book by a World Soccer Talk podcast co-host in this top 20 soccer book recommendations list especially with WST as a publisher. Yet the list felt incomplete without it. Kartik’s story of his love of a club across the ocean and how he followed Manchester City from Florida is an incredible story of how soccer fandom was before the glut of streaming services showing leagues around the world. I cannot highly recommend the book high enough.
If you have any questions about the top 20 soccer book recommendations, let us know in the comments section below.
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