Sunday, April 09, 2006

Football is never just a game…

Football Against The Enemy, Simon Kuper, London, Orion, 1994,
Pages:235, GBP 7.99
Winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award

The title of Simon Kuper’s first book, Football against the enemy, contains two words I often associate with one another: Football and enemy. With the World Cup drawing closer, so are those endless evenings in front of the TV where your boyfriend can focus on nothing else except on a ball being chased around by twenty-two men. I never quite understood how simple games like football can bring out so many emotions in men that otherwise have problems expressing just one! What is it that makes this game so fantastic that according to a recent UK survey for Duracell, men are more likely to walk away from a marriage, than they are to abandon a struggling favourite football team?

Well, according to Simon Kuper it is because football is so much more than just a game. It represents a culture, a way of being. At the same time, it is the only game around the world that can ‘help make wars, fuel revolutions and fascinates both mafias and politicians’.

In his book, Simon Kuper goes beyond football as a sport and describes what role it really plays in the eyes of many fans around the world and the bizarre effects football can have on politics and culture. He travelled for nine months, visited twenty-two countries on a budget of £5000 and asked two questions: How does football affect the life of a country? And how does the life of a country affect its football?

For someone like me who never really understood the World’s fascination with the sport, Kuper’s book is an eye opener. One of the most fascinating chapters is the one set in the Ukraine, where he discovers that the annual turnover of the number one football club ‘Dynamo Kiev’ was more than the country’s entire GDP! They had a license to export platinum, two tons of the country’s gold a year and they were the major national supplier of nuclear weapons. People only accepted this, because they could attract all the best players. Football against the enemy is packed full of stories like this – it goes right into the world of con-men, dictatorship, tyranny, and business and shares how football is used as a vehicle to fulfil the agendas of corrupt men.

This is what makes this book so universally interesting. You don’t need to like football or even understand how the game works in order to enjoy reading this book. However, be aware that you probably end up with a lot of knowledge about this sport that most people would find quite simply unbelievable.

I mean take the Chapter on football in former East Germany as an example. It is surprising for someone like me, who grew up in Germany, to find out that the secret police of the GDR, the Stasi, saw football as a threat. They kept a file on anyone who supported western football and made their lives as difficult as possible, as Klopfleisch, an east Germaner with a passion for western football, found out. The Stasi kept a file on Klopfleisch’s football activities, and when Klopfleisch applied to emigrate to the West, the Stasi waited until his mother was on her deathbed before granting permission. He was told ‘now or never’. Klopfleisch said ‘now’, and his mother died five days later. Only a few months later, the Berlin wall fell.

While Kuper devotes a large part of the book to the politics behind football, he also describes how football has become part of the national consciousness of almost every country. In his chapter about Brazilian football, he is able to sum up how love of football can not only trigger outbursts of national joy and pride, but can become madness at the same time. “In the early days of a World Cup, while the Brazilian team are still winning, life in Brazil is a party. Cars honk on the street and everyone sings and dances. Then Brazil lose and are knocked out. The mood suddenly changes, and people who suffer most are the nation’s manic-depressives. Their ‘high’ becomes a ‘low’ and they commit suicide.” (p.202)

His style of writing resembles very much that of a sport journalist. Most of the narrative is neutral, with Kuper allowing events and people to speak for themselves, but this is not the case in the first chapter where he makes clear on which side of the Holland-Germany rivalry his loyalties lie. But this comes at no surprise, given that Simon Kuper grew up in the Netherlands.

When Simon Kuper wrote the book in 1992, he was only twenty-three and had not finished his study yet. Although he always had a keen interest in the sport, he considered himself an outsider to the world of professional football. Maybe it is partly because of this, that the book reads itself like a journey of discovery.
Although today, democracy is far more widespread and some stories concerning clubs in the former Eastern blocs would be told differently now, one statement seems to remain true. “Football is politics”. Just take the more recent calls by members of the German Parliament – hosts of the 2006 World Cup- to disqualify the Iranian national football team from this year’s finals because of its resumption of nuclear fuel research. Kupers book was ahead of its time when it was first published in 1994 as a lot of the themes he wrote about are now talked about much more.

This doesn’t make it any less interesting, however. To me, football will never just be a game again and although it hasn’t converted me into a fan of the sport, it nevertheless has given me a lot insight into the unique world of football and my boyfriend’s obsession.
As The Times quoted so well: “If you like football read it. If you don’t like football read it”