Fear and Loathing in La Liga

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid

By Sid Lowe

Yellow Press, 2013

With Atletico Madrid winning La Liga this year you can forgive Sid Lowe for finding their success a bit of a nuisance. Having written about the rivalry of the second and third-placed teams, he recently tweeted, tongue firmly in cheek, that his book was ‘pointless bollocks’. Fear and Loathing in La Ligais in fact neither pointless nor bollocks, especially after Real Madrid’s ‘La Decima’ triumph in Europe. Instead it’s an informative, engaging, and enjoyable look at what remain Spain’s two biggest clubs. The success of Atleti this year has been astonishing, and their efforts in breaking the Barca-Real duopoly only further highlight the dominance of the big two in the past decade and throughout the history of the Spanish game. Atletico are still a long way behind as the third most successful team in the history of the Spanish league, winning only their 10th title compared with Barcelona’s 22 and Real’s 32. The last nine winners of the Ballon d’Or plied their trade at these two giants, and they are the two clubs with the most Champions League trophies since the competition’s rebranding in 1992. Individually, Barcelona and Real Madrid are both European giants; but as enemies, they’re the most famous clubs in the world.

From the start Lowe is keen to highlight the complexity of the rivalry, dismissing the common-held dichotomies: Madrid bad, Barca good, Madrid facists, Barca freedom fighters. Dealing with the common accusation that Madrid were Franco’s team, for example, Lowe points out that the city of Madrid suffered greatly through, and as a consequence of, the Second World War, and that the club that emerged was weak and failed to win a single league title in the first 15 years of Franco’s dictatorship. Not that Barca’s ‘victim complex’ is without some foundation; the controversial 11-1 Copa del Generalissimo defeat in 1943 is explored in detail, and the sole surviving member of the Barca team from that day tracked down and interviewed about the military intimidation. Lowe’s considered argument is that the establishment’s support of Madrid was a result of their success rather than the cause of it. A government seeking international recognition needed popular representatives and Real with their five consecutive European Cup victories in the late 1950s embraced their role as ‘the best embassy Spain had’. This level of balanced analysis is found throughout Fear and Loathing, as Lowe sifts through the mass of myth and folklore.

The rivalry – and thus the book itself – is also full of interesting parallels and contrasts. Both clubs lost their Civil War-era presidents to the Republican cause but whereas Barca’s Josep Sunyol became a martyr figure, Real’s Rafael Sanchez Guerra is largely forgotten. Barca’s ill-fated appointment of the original ‘Special One’, Helenio Herrera, to break Real Madrid’s dominance, is mirrored fifty years later by Jose Mourinho’s unsuccessful attempt to oust Guardiola’s Barcelona. In the transfer market, the constant attempts to outdo each other turn out to be nothing new. For Neymar and Gareth Bale in 2013, think the likes of László Kubala and Alfredo Di Stéfano in the 1950s. If anything, the rivalry is less hostile today; the Spanish government was forced to intervene in the Di Stéfano saga.

In amongst these stories, the sheer breadth and depth of research is plain to see. Lowe, an historian by trade, trawls the archives to uncover fascinating documents about the Di Stefano transfer and Sunyol’s death. He also gains unprecedented access to many of the protagonists in each club’s story – Zidane, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Iniesta, Joan Laporta, and best of all Figo, who offers a very interesting insight into his (in)famous transfer between the two clubs. Lowe has stated that he had to trim about a third of his original draft for the book and that would certainly explain the sparse references to greats such as Maradona, Henry and Gravesen. Here’s hoping for a director’s cut to further the education.

All in all, Fear and Loathing is a great achievement and a very worthy addition to the Spanish football canon. It’s accessible and full of facts and anecdotes that will be new to even the most knowledgeable of football fans. One often gets the sense from reading Lowe’s articles and listening to his contributions on The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly’ podcasts that he tires of reporting on these two Spanish giants but that doesn’t come across in this book at all. The Michu epigraph – ‘Barcelona or Madrid? Oviedo’ – highlights Lowe’s awareness that though this rivalry does dominate Spanish football, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Though hopes of a book about Getafe and Valladolid’s rivalry are slim, one does hope that we see another Sid Lowe masterpiece in the not too distant future.

John Mottram

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Books for Brazil

The World Cup Reading list

Now that the domestic season is all but over, it’s time to focus our book attention on a certain international tournament that’s coming up. These 6 books have got all the bases covered.

The Host Nation
It’s always good to do your homework on the team with the home advantage – the players, the venues, the culture at large. Here it’s a toss-up between the new and the old – David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation or Alex Bellos’ Futebol(Bloomsbury).  I’d favour the old here, especially as it’s been given a timely update.

The Host Continent
Brazil are far from the only side accustomed to a sub-continental summer. İGolazo! by Andreas Campomar (Quercus) gives you the lowdown on all of Latin America’s finest: the hosts but also Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and even Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras.

The Favourites
Phil Scolari’s side may be round about 3-1 with most bookies, but this is hardly Brazil’s finest crop. Plus, there’s a history of failure interspersed with all that success. For a reminder, check out Shocking Brazil by Fernando Duarte (Birlinn).

The History
For the full facts, you can’t beat Brian Glanville’s Story of the World Cup but for something a little more fun I’d suggest Paul Hansford’s The World Cup (Hardie Grant). ‘Heroes, Hoodlums, High-kicks and Headbutts’ – the subtitle certainly has a lot to live up to.

The Personal Angle
On the subject of previous World Cups, I’d recommend From Bobby Moore to Thierry Henry by Liz Heade as a nice slice of familial nostalgia. But for 2014, it’s got to be The Boy in Brazil by Seth Burkett (Floodlit Dreams). At just 18, Burkett became the only English professional footballer in Brazilian football – this is his fascinating story.

And finally…The Expectation Suppressor
A month ago no-one gave England a chance in hell; but now that the squad has been announced, suddenly there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Lest we forget our history of disappointment, read Pete Davies’ classic One Night in Turin. It may be nearly a quarter of a century since Italia 90, but it’s amazing how little has changed for our national team. For more, read my review here.

Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino

Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino

By Tony Cascarino with Paul Kimmage

Simon & Schuster, 2000

No offence to Tony Cascarino but a true superstar could not – and would not – have written Full Time. Honesty and humanity, which are the book’s greatest strengths, are native to the seasoned grafter with a knowledge of both success and failure. Cascarino is an expert on both sides of the coin. He might have been an early million pound man who played in 2 World Cups and the top divisions of England, Scotland and France, but he also started out as a hairdresser, spent nine years in the lower tiers of the football league and then at least three more failing to live up to great expectations. So there are few better placed to offer a candid insight into all aspects of the beautiful – and not so beautiful – game.

‘We drive flash cars and wear flash suits and behave like flash pop stars; and we shape and mould the truth about our lives and present ourselves as shiny, happy people in the pages of Hello.’ As a glimpse behind the glamorous façade of football, Full Timeis equal parts entertaining and sobering. Remote and remorseful in his end-of-career exile, ‘Cass’ is quick to acknowledge he’s a somewhat negative tour-guide. ‘Careers in football are like divorces’, he tells us, ‘there are few happy endings – they always end up bad.’ The striker’s memoir is as much about the mistakes made and the secrets kept as it is about the goals scored. In his own words, ‘In football, it’s not what you are but what you appear to be that counts.’ Nothing’s really changed.

What Full Time conveys brilliantly is the ups and downs of a life in football, from game to game but also from second to second. There are the moments of feeling ‘bulletproof’ as one of the kings of Jack Charlton’s Ireland in the early 1990s, eating and drinking without caution, winning big in card schools and sneaking back into hotel rooms after nights with female fans. But there are also the moments when the aches add up and the doubt creeps in: ‘For as long as I can remember, there has been a little voice in my head that highlights my weaknesses and undermines my confidence.’ Cass knows more than most strikers about loss of form and the tough mental battle to regain it. ‘Becoming a multi-million pound player was the worst thing that ever happened to me’ is a pretty powerful statement to make.

Paul Kimmage does a fantastic job of finding a suitable tone for the book, blending the cruder style of footballing banter with the more elegant prose of reflection and regret. An anecdote about throwing Phil Babb’s skid-marked pants to hysterical groupies is followed by ‘The craving we have to be someone. The magnetic lure of fame.’ The book’s closing line – ‘We win, we lose, the manager bangs the table. But we answer to ourselves’ – is worthy of great literary fiction. In weaving the contemporary French strand through the telling of the past, Kimmage maximises the poignancy of a man looking back at the twilight of his career.

Full Time’s original selling point was the scandal surrounding Cascarino’s false Irish heritage. Nearly fifteen years on, in a world where Adnan Januzaj could have chosen to play for England, it seems one of the book’s least intriguing angles. Instead, it’s the personal indiscretions that engross, and Cascarino’s heart-felt desire to make amends for them. Now living with his second wife and their daughter after a painful and drawn-out separation, Cass is no saint and he knows it. But in the renaissance of his own father and the indifference of his two sons, he has the best inspirations for redemption. Why should you read Full Time? In Cascarino’s own wise words, ‘Because there’s more to football than the ninety minutes of a game and more to the people that play it than a 5 in the ratings.’

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