Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography

By Simon Astaire

Spellbinding Media, 2014

‘Sulzeer Jeremiah ‘Sol’ Campbell. Is there a finer English footballer over the last fifty years who has been eyed so suspiciously?’ Simon Astaire’s astute biography of Sol Campbell ends with this most pertinent of semi-rhetorical questions. The former Tottenham and Arsenal centre back is hardly the first footballer to shy away from the limelight; in fact, another famous example was born in that same year of 1974. But whereas Paul Scholes is readily accepted as a quiet, unassuming family man, Sol has always been seen – by friends, teammates and managers – as a man of depth. He is also, through largely no fault of his own, a man of controversy. A claim of assault, a North London betrayal, an episode of depression and an ill-fated stint in League Two all made the headlines, alongside recurring slurs against his race and sexuality. For a private man, Sol Campbell has had a very public career.

Like subject, like book, Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biographyhas had an eventful life so far. Press attention has sadly centred on one sensationalist claim; that racism within the FA prevented Sol from being ‘England captain for more than 10 years’. Appearing to undermine the strong leadership qualities of teammates such as Tony Adams, David Beckham and John Terry, the remark suggested a bitter ex-player voicing long-held grievances now that retirement hadn’t resulted in the kind of opportunities he felt his accolades merited. But thankfully, as Matt Dickinson wrote in his excellent review in The Times, ‘The book deserves far better than to be known for one reckless outburst.’

That ‘outburst’ aside, Sol Campbell offers a considered look at a highly distinguished career. Very few direct criticisms are levelled and even these are mild and reasoned. Wayne Rooney, for example, is condemned for diving but praised for having ‘the imagination to change things’. When it comes to discussing the worst of the Tottenham years, Sol takes no prisoners but names no names: ‘I had muppets as team-mates who were on treble the money.’ Respect is given to both performers and professionals, from half-time smoker David Ginola through to veteran captain Gary Mabbutt. England managers, Arsenal and Portsmouth teammates – all are acknowledged with polite appreciation, if not always overt affection. Present tense narration lends a nice sense of drama to scenes like the historic unveiling at Arsenal but the many high-profile decisions of Campbell’s career are also explained openly and judiciously, from Tottenham’s insufficient ambition (‘I wanted Spurs to show me that they were going to challenge’) to the allure of the Notts County project (‘I liked the idea of being part of the renaissance’).

Penetrating Campbell’s tough football shell, however, is no easy task; he’s not a man who naturally confides his feelings to others, least of all teammates. Lee Dixon sums it up well – ‘I didn’t get to know him and I don’t think anyone really did.’ Life-changing decisions are shared – if at all – with his mother Wilhelmina and his agent and friend Sky Andrew. Until now, that is. ‘Sometimes he would stare at me with a seriously blank expression when I asked something difficult’, biographer Astaire admits in the prologue, ‘but he would eventually open up’. Sol Campbell reveals a man with a deep-rooted emotional fragility. Pressure and hurt build and build inside him until they eventually overflow, as on the night he famously disappeared during half-time of a nightmare performance against West Ham in 2006. ‘The accumulation of storms in his life had finally combined and on that evening hit him so hard and unexpectedly that he had only one choice left. Escape.’

What Astaire does brilliantly is to trace this sensitivity all the way from its roots. Five years younger than the next of his eleven siblings, Campbell was largely left to his own devices as a child, ‘adrift’ as he puts it. Two significant and competing elements of Sol’s character emerge from this upbringing: a fierce independence and a recurring need for appreciation. Whether kicking a tennis ball against the wall in his street or sitting quietly in his front room, Sol’s childhood is dominated by solitude; ‘The calm made me happy. Since then, I’ve always been in search of it’, he confesses. The impact of his father’s very distant parenting style is also felt throughout the story. The care and attention he failed to find at home from Sewell, he held out hope for at Tottenham but while George Graham ‘knew I was a top-notch player…I never felt he rooted for me’. Expressed a different way, ‘The fans may have believed in me but I felt the club didn’t, otherwise they would have done more.’ At Arsenal, Campbell joined a winning mentality but also a family environment with protection and praise from David Dein and Arsene Wenger. Later on, Portsmouth proved another good fit, in part because Harry Redknapp is ‘someone who he felt would manage him in a fatherly way’.

Confidence, determination and focus – in the 21stcentury, the myth of the steadfast sporting mindset is finally being questioned. With this book, Campbell deservedly joins the likes of Robert Enke, Andre Agassi and Marcus Trescothick in a very significant subgenre of sports writing. Yes, key matches are analysed and records are set straight, but the real triumph of Sol Campbell is that ‘The Rock’ is revealed as human after all.

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It’s A Bloody Big Deal: Defoe in T.O.

Defoe in T.O. – The Arrival

By Tom Oldfield

Over the course of my four years in Toronto, the collective jinx that has struck down the city’s sports teams has been a constant frustration, with regrettable trades, questionable effort and untimely injuries all sharing the blame. But Toronto FC and Jermain Defoe may be about to change all that.

First, the Toronto FC background: seven years in the MLS, a string of managers and zero appearances in the playoffs. Needless to say, over that time I have marvelled at the marketing genius with which the club tempts supporters to fill BMO Field, their home stadium, despite the instantly forgettable performances on the pitch. It’s not that the fans don’t appreciate the dire straits of the past few years (I have several friends who occasionally try to give away tickets during the season but can find no takers); it’s just a case of blind loyalty.

It’s against that backdrop that Toronto FC announced the marquee signing of Defoe earlier this year, instantly turning heads within the league and beyond. Understandably, this sparked joyous celebrations in Toronto – and, notably, a marketing campaign built around the slogan ‘It’s a Bloody Big Deal’, featuring adverts with football fans reacting to the news by spitting out their cups of tea in amazement. Nothing like a good stereotype.

And, as is the North American way, the hype has been off the charts ever since, with rapper Drake and NBA star LeBron James among those credited with shepherding the Defoe deal over the line.

Of course, it’s hard not to be sucked into the buzz, especially after Toronto FC landed US international midfielder Michael Bradley and Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar amid a frenzied few months of cheque book waving. I had Toronto FC as legitimate MLS Cup contenders in my season preview and feel good about that prediction.

Here’s why: one of the underappreciated flaws of the MLS is the limited execution in the final third – in part because defences are generally well-organised but equally due to average wing play and a scarcity of playmakers.

Time and time again, I fall for it, edging out of my seat in expectation of goalmouth action as a diagonal ball over the top releases a winger behind the back four. It is the kind of move that would frequently lead to at least a half chance in one of Europe’s top leagues. But this is where the MLS falls short – the move typically ends in a poor cross, slow recognition of the right pass or a wayward shot from an impossible angle. A clinical finisher who can create his own half chances is a priceless commodity in this league.

With Defoe, all kinds of options open up for Toronto FC, as he demonstrated on his debut at the weekend. Qwest Field in Seattle is renowned as one of the loudest, most intimidating stadiums in the league but the crowd was quickly hushed into silence as the former Tottenham striker struck with two clinical finishes inside the first 25 minutes. On both occasions, Seattle – forgetting temporarily that this was not just your typical MLS striker – paid the price for not closing Defoe down. Toronto FC clung on for a 2-1 victory, giving Nelsen reason to believe that the club’s luck is turning.

One game is a small sample size but that victory was a major statement of intent for this season – and it just adds to the excitement ahead of Defoe’s home debut this weekend against DC United. It promises to be an electric atmosphere as Toronto FC fans begin to allow themselves to dream of the playoffs.

Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football

Forza Italia

By Paddy Agnew

Ebury Press, 2007

June 2006 was a strange old month for Italy. As the Azzurri silenced their critics with a World Cup final win, their domestic game was brought to its knees by one of the biggest corruption scandals in football history. For resident reporter Paddy Agnew, this duality was neither new nor surprising; in fact, it formed the perfect conclusion to his update of this book. After all, June 2006 was the ultimate demonstration of Forza Italia’s overarching narrative: the conflicting elements within the national sport, and thus the nation. The ‘cynical skill, occasional artistry, careful organisation and inspired coaching behind the World Cup win in Germany’ at odds with the ‘duplicity, cunning, and attempted cheating that characterised Calciopoli’. Here lies the fascination of Italy.

It is with good reason that Forza Italia promotes football (calcio) as a ‘unique looking glass’ through which to examine Italy. The founding years of Serie A is the story of Mussolini and his legacy; the Maradona soap opera highlights the central, shadowy role of the Mafia; and the AC Milan glory years of Van Basten, Gullit, Maldini and Baresi help to explain Berlusconi’s controversial rise to power. Even the ‘deadly, upmarketedly serious’ reporting surrounding Sven-Göran Eriksson and his resignation from Lazio reflects a media culture that is (perhaps at times too) happy for the private to stay private. Each story presented reaffirms the fact that the two cannot be separated; ‘football is not so much Italy’s national sport as a virus woven into the DNA of the average Italian’. And the negative connotations of that word ‘virus’ often prove apt. Corruption, racism, sexism, cronyism and economic decline – all are present and correct in this well-curated sweep of a sport and a country. Yet thankfully Agnew remains a good-natured tour guide, full of open-eyed affection for the eccentric ways of his adopted homeland.

In the world of non-fiction writing, tone is always a tricky but crucial balancing act. Too personal and it becomes light-hearted travel writing; too political and it becomes weighty history. Agnew is clearly aware of these dangers; in his introduction, he rejects the notion of ‘an academic or sociological survey of Italian football’, calling Forza Italia instead ‘a personal reflection on 20 years of football-watching’. Well it is and it isn’t. Alongside the football, the early chapters cover his acclimatisation in Rome and subsequent relocation to the village of Trevignano, offering up the kind of quirky sketches found in Tim Parks’ writings on Verona. Agnew presents a country where it takes six weeks to bank a cheque but there’s a hierarchy of experts (espertos) in the local bar – ‘This was football, a serious business, and seats had to booked.’ A country where a wily rural builder called Bruno can buy ancient Roman steps for the price of ‘300,000 old lire, plus 20 fish.’

But as the book approaches the 21stcentury, these musings on Italian life fade away, replaced by an account of Italian football’s fall from grace, scandal by vicious scandal. We see its reputation tarnished by doping allegations, match-fixing, fan violence and the bribery of match and league officials. By 2006, Agnew explains, Italian football ‘like Italy itself, is stuck in a moment and does not know how to get out of it’. The detail in these chapters is impressive, the analysis insightful but on these subjects Forza Italia cannot, and should not, compete with John Foot’s nearly 700-page definitive history Calcio, unfortunately published in the same year. It’s the charm of Agnew’s own story that makes Forza Italia particularly compelling. With this in mind, perhaps its spirit would have been better served by a collection of articles, each passing from personal observations, through football, to address a larger, Italian issue.

As it is, sadly the football also gets lost amidst the minutiae of corruption. It comes as something of a shock to find the brilliantly pithy statement ‘Italian football…is different because, along with skill comes caution’ in the coda to the penultimate chapter, after lengthy discussions of everything but the beautiful game itself. Agnew’s nostalgia for the glamour of the late 1980s and early 1990s – a time when ‘the game’s subtle skills commanded respect and knowledgeable admiration and where you could watch football in some style’ – is reflected in the early impassioned portraits of Liam Brady and Maradona. But after the commendable defence of Pippo Inzaghi in Chapter 6, very few players are given more than cursory name checks. Totti, Del Piero, Ronaldo, Zidane? Unfortunately only mentioned with regards to their roles in scandal. Please excuse the cliché, but Forza Italia really is a book of two halves.

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One Night in Turin

One Night in Turin: The Inside Story of a World Cup that Changed our Footballing Nation Forever

By Pete Davies

Yellow Jersey Press, 1990

Ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, every England fan should be prescribed a copy of One Night in Turin. It may be nearly a quarter of a century since Italia 90, but ‘Ghastly press, oafish fans, and 4-4-2’ is a summary that still rings true enough. This year, a Gazza-esque hero will rise and a Psycho-esque villain will fall. The FA is still run by octogenarians ‘bereft of common sense or ideas’, our newspapers still prefer to vilify than to praise, our national side is still dominated by brave but unspectacular grafters, and disappointment, penalties and heartbreak are all still guaranteed.

But A Night in Turin itself is an absolute one-off – no football writer will ever again get the kind of total access that Pete Davies had to Bobby Robson and his England team. Because in 1990, at the dawn of the agent-led, commercial era (or ‘Logoland’ as Davies calls it), it’s clear that the tension between press and players is already at breaking point. For Gascoigne, the epitome of the modern footballer, no money equals no comment. His reason? Simple: ‘I hate the press’. Luckily, Davies isn’t the press, as he has to remind his wary (and weary) subjects frequently. He may not be the most skilled of interviewers – ‘What would you be if you weren’t a footballer?’ and ‘What’s it like to score a goal?’ are his go-to questions – but Davies is in a position to offer a tantalising taste of the boredom and claustrophobia but also the ‘shared, sealed, exclusive group cohesion’ of the England camp.

Often you read ‘behind the scenes’ and are disappointed by the supposed ‘insight’. Not here – ‘off the record’ chats with the likes of Butcher, Lineker, Barnes and Waddle are peppered throughout the superb tournament analysis. These players might have nothing to say to the papers but they’re surprisingly forthright with Davies. The frustration of Barnes and Waddle with the negative, skill-stifling tactics is particularly telling; ‘They don’t say to Baggio or Hagi or Gullit, we want you back defending’, moans the latter. But perhaps best of all is the portrait of their much maligned manager. Much has been written on Bobby Robson but little can be as succinct as ‘he loved to win, he was desperate to win – but he was at least as much terrified of losing’.

In terms of style and tone, Davies hits the nail right on the head, bridging the gap between the tabloid journalism he rails against and today’s rising intellectualism. Like Nick Hornby, Davies is a football fan first and a writer second. One Night in Turinis an informal, bawdy, yet eloquent version of events, as entertaining as the ‘Planet Football’ it so lovingly describes. Humour is key to the approach – FA Chairman Graham Kelly is ‘a complete charisma bypass’, ‘you only had to show Caniggia (striker for Argentina, the team Davies saves his best vitriol for) the laces on your boot, and he was into a triple somersault’ and Bologna has ‘all the festivity…of a bad day in a bread queue’. Along the way we’re shown the funny side of tacky merchandise, bad sandwiches, Italian bureaucracy and sleepless nights in airports and train stations.

Serious comment, though, is never far from view – positioned between the team, the fans and the journalists, Davies is commendably objective, particularly on the central issue of English fans abroad. His balanced conclusion – that a thuggish minority, egged on by the trigger-happy media, scared the Italian police into an over-reaction, which in turn endangered the (largely) innocent majority – really stands the test of time.

As a title, One Night in Turin does the book a real disservice. Only the final 20 pages are dedicated to the semi-final against Germany, the last of the 21 chapters. Neither is this simply a book on England’s Italia 90 campaign; over 200 pages have passed before their first game against Ireland begins. Instead, as the original title alludes to, the perspective is much broader; football, travel, culture, and most significantly a snapshot of a nation. Davies’ argument is that hooliganism is not simply a football problem, but rather a reflection of our society at large – ‘the picture develops of a predominantly young, white, urban, male section of England’s following whose home environment…is, culturally, economically, politically, morally, all played out’.

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