The 2014 World Cup kicks off on June 12 when hosts Brazil play Croatia. It’s a month of football, glorious football to watch, culminating in the final on July 13. There won’t be much else on my telly box for the duration of the tournament.
Ahead of this feast of football, I’ve chosen five football books that are well worth reading. Three of them are World Cup-related, while two are just wonderful books about the sport which will, hopefully, put you in the mood for the football extravaganza ahead.
SPAIN: THE INSIDE STORY OF LA ROJA’S HISTORIC TREBLE: Graham Hunter
For me, this is a must-read ahead of World Cup 2014. It tells the story of Spain’s triumphs in the past two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The story is fascinating one, and Graham Hunter’s unique access to the Spanish national squad ensures that it is an enthralling read. It gives an insight into every aspect of Spain’s preparations for a major tournament and why they’ve been successful before. It could also be the same reasons why they may enjoy further success this summer. The book has fascinating interviews with many of the key participants in their treble triumph, and Graham Hunter’s skill is being able to take you right to the heart of the Spanish national set-up. Hunter’s previous book, Barca, on the making of the greatest team in the world, was an excellent tome. This book on Spain is even better.
SCOTLAND 74: Richard Gordon
For Scotland football fans, the 1978 World Cup is the one most remembered with regret. An excellent Scottish team had travelled to Argentina with high hopes of winning the tournament, only for that optimism unravel due to events on and off the part. Richard Gordon’s book on the previous campaign is also a tale of ‘What if,’ and, in many respects, this is the tournament of regrets for Scotland, with a more genuine chance of progressing far in the competition, if not actually winning it, squandered. The 1974 tournament was my first real memory of the World Cup, and to have your own country competing in it only made it more captivating to an eight-year-old football fan. Whether 1974 was a missed, and perhaps only opportunity, to succeed on the international stage is a moot point, although, for me, in finishing this superb book, I kept thinking, what would have happened if Scotland had selected Jimmy Johnstone for any of their three games…
FUTEBOL: THE BRAZILIAN WAY OF LIFE: Alex Bellos
Somewhere in Brazil, there is probably a football fan reading my copy of this book right now. I’d loaned the book to a friend who was heading to Brazil on a work trip. He then passed it on to someone he met out there – spreading the good word, I suppose, although it’s precisely at this time that I would like to have had it in my possession to read again. Alex Bellos’ book is a fascinating look at what football means to Brazil, delving deeper than just the superstars of Brazilian football or their five previous World Cup triumphs, although he goes into detail about those players and tournaments. Charles Miller, the son of a Scottish engineer, is widely credited with bringing football to Brazil and, in turn, the country gave the world the beautiful game. Come to think of it, I gave my copy of Josh Lacey’s book on Miller to the same friend, who was just as generous in dispensing with it… I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned there!
FEVER PITCH: Nick Hornby
Every list of top football books should include Fever Pitch. There should be a rule about it. Maybe there is. Nick Hornby’s book remains the benchmark of football fan memoirs – many have tried to imitate it but very few have succeeded in even coming close to matching the joyful brilliance of the book. It encapsulates the obsessive nature of being a football fan, the joy of winning and the despair of losing, and how, if you allow it to, it takes over your life. It remains a wonderful read and also proof that the book is better than the film – Colin Firth as a football fan? That was about as convincing as Robert Duvall’s Scottish accent in the wonderfully appalling football film, A Shot At Glory.
THE THISTLE AND THE GRAIL: Robin Jenkins
Good football novels are hard to find. Great novels are almost non-existent. The Thistle And The Grail by Robin Jenkins is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. This is, like all of Jenkins’ books, a wonderful novel, which just happens to be about football. It tells the story of Drumsagart Thistle’s quest to win the Scottish Junior Cup. Jenkins succeeds where other writers, whether in books or films, have failed, in managing to make the football captivating while also realising that the story is actually about the characters. Jock Stein famously said that football without the fans is nothing. It’s a sentiment I’m sure that Robin Jenkins would have most wholeheartedly agreed with.
WILLY THE WIZARD: Anthony Browne
I can’t write about football books without mentioning Willy the Wizard by the genius who is Anthony Browne. Get this book. NOW! Even if you don’t have children. It tells the story of Willy the chimp who finds a pair of old football boots which give him incredible skills on the pitch. And if that’s not enough, Willy also wears the green and white Hoops! What more do you want from a book?