Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

By Ian Plenderleith

Icon Books, 2014

9781906850722In the last year, the MLS has recruited Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Sebastian Giovinco. It’s not a bad haul of modern talent but it’s hardly Pele, Beckenbauer, Eusebio, Cruyff and Best. To think that five of the very best players of all time played in the US in the 1970s is hard to imagine, no matter how old and injured they were. But then, the North American Soccer League (NASL) as a whole was a pretty unbelievable concept, and that’s why Ian Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is such a brilliant and necessary read.

Between 1968 and 1985, America made an audacious move into the ‘soccer’ market, putting a very local spin on the more traditional European game. The maverick NASL served up cheerleaders, 35-yard shootouts, ‘blatant commercialism’, and plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – entertainment, in other words, or ‘a good circus’ as one New York Cosmos player describes it. FIFA didn’t like it one bit, but for a while, the people of America seemed to. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a hugely enjoyable, anecdotal trawl through the ‘crash and burn’ history of the league.

It’s one big Shakespearean tragedy, a tale of ridiculous over-expansion, where clueless owners like Jimmy Hill, Milan Mandarić and Rick Wakeman interacted with the player power of old pros like Pele, Cruyff and Eusebio with his ‘one knee that looked like Mount Everest’. The true superstars in Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer, however, are the American players who got wrapped up in the circus and lived to tell the tales. Best of all is Bob Iarusci, who was a teammate of all three during his eventful NASL career, and has a thing or two say about them.

Plenderleith’s tone and structure is a great fit with the subject matter. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is full of amusing asides and dry wit, from the chapter titles – ‘Debit does Dallas’, ‘Learning from your alcoholic dad’ – right through to the ‘Fun Facts’ sections for each season. But best of all is the ‘Half-time’ lists section in the middle of the book, which features ’20 odd names in the NASL’ plus the ‘NASL Soundtrack’.

Not that the book is all fun and frolics, however. Plenderleith writes very well on the social background to his stories, whether that be Washington DC or, more significantly, Britain. Many players, he argues, ‘fell in love with the country and its beaches, its possibilities, its openness. They escaped the claustrophobia of a socially conservative society.’ Especially for born entertainers like Rodney Marsh and Frank Worthington, the relaxed glamour and showbiz of American soccer was a marked improvement on the dull tactics and hooligan fans back home.

The book’s second line of argument is that the league was a prototype for football as we know it today. ‘The NASL introduced the idea that a soccer game could be an event and a spectacle, not just two teams meeting to compete for points’, Plenderleith contends. 3 points for a win, 3 substitutes, the backpass rule, names and number on shirts – all these innovations started with the NASL. The first experiment rarely gets the recipe right but it’s hard to disagree that ‘the biggest leagues on the planet became extensions of what the NASL had begun.’

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer takes a relatively unknown area of ‘soccer’ history and brings it to life in all its spectacular glory and failure. Sure, there’s a little bit of excess (the book’s over 400 pages long) but what would you expect? This is rock ‘n’ roll after all.

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Books to Read in Early 2015

If, like Mark Zuckerberg, you’ve made New Year’s reading resolutions, here’s a list of some football books to get the ball rolling. Something tells me this isn’t exactly the genre that the Facebook founder had in mind, but never mind…

Soccer in the USA

With Gerrard and Lampard soon to join the illustrious likes of Nigel Reo-Coker and Bradley Wright-Phillips across the pond, it seems an opportune time to do your homework. And it’s very handy that there’s plenty of great literature on the subject. For a brilliantly entertaining look at the MLS’ eccentric predecessor, the NASL, try Ian Plenderleith’s Rock n Roll Soccer (Icon Books). For a Nick Hornby-inspired chronicle of America’s changing views on soccer over the last 30 years, The Soccer Diaries by Michael J. Agovino (Nebraska Press) is the book to read.

If The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro is more your cup of tea, Nathan Nipper’s Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer is a fun, heart-warming look at ‘soccer’ fandom. And finally, if you’re more of an (auto)biography reader, I’d recommend The Keeper by Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard (Harper Collins). So something for everyone there, from the land of plenty.

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Football in the UK

Not to outdone by our friends across the Atlantic, British football also has a lot to offer this year for its literary fans. David Goldblatt’s The Game of our Lives (Penguin) is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the sport’s sociological aspects, while the excellent Up There by Michael Walker (DeCoubertin Books) does for the North East of England what Promised Land did for Leeds, sewing together football and social history in an absorbing tapestry.

Racism remains a fundamental issue in the British game and there are two books to the read on the subject: Up There by Emy Onuora (Biteback) and The Three Degrees by Paul Rees (Constable). The former is a full history of Black British Footballers, while the latter focuses in on the pioneering trio at West Brom in the late 1970s: Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson.

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The Blizzard

Great news: this year one of our best football magazines is branching out into books. The introductory double-whammy is Iain MacIntosh’s hilarious novel Johnny Cook: The Impossible Job and Dominic Bliss’ Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy, a brilliant look at Il Grande Torino and their mercurial manager. Not that the magazine should be forgotten in this; Issue Fifteen is another cracker.

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Vertigo

Vertigo: Spurs, Bale and One Fan’s Fear of Success

By John Crace

Constable, 2014

VertigoWe’re approaching a quarter of a century since the publication of Fever Pitch, and yet it remains virtually unchallenged as the benchmark for football fan literature. In the decades since, authors have tended to tread lightly or skirt the genre altogether, as if this central, highly subjective and ever-changing aspect of the sporting experience already has its definitive description. Thankfully, some do dare to disagree and who better to challenge Hornby’s tales of Arsenal than a supporter of their North London foes? In Vertigo, Guardian journalist John Crace has written an entertaining account of what it is to be 1) a football fan and 2) a Tottenham fan. Over the course of the club’s 2010-11 season, we’re treated to several highs (Gareth Bale vs Inter Milan), a few lows (away trips to the Midlands) and a hell of a lot of the irrational inbetween: anxiety, paranoia, pessimism.

Like Fever Pitch, Vertigo is in many respects one long, valiant response to that age-old question, here posed by long-suffering wife Jill – ‘How come you get so much pleasure out of something that gives you so much pain?’ Crace’s answer has two main strands: one universal, the other very individual. The first is the sociable aspect of football fandom, that much-eulogised sense of ‘belonging’. Vertigo is as much about the characters in the stands as it is about ‘Crouchie’, ‘Pav’ and ‘Hudd the Thudd’ on the field. Robbie, the self-conscious, teenage son finding his terrace voice; Justin and Amici the ‘football next-door neighbours’; Trevor and Simon, advisors on all things memorabilia; and best of all Matthew, optimist and narcoleptic father of twins with an unfailing love of Journey and ‘Yacht Rock’. This is Crace’s football gang, the friends with whom he shares every eventuality, and with whom he shares the Tottenham psyche: sceptical of success, welcoming of bitter disappointment.

Speaking of psyche, the second strand of the author’s answer is more unusual and more interesting for that very reason. ‘For those four hours Spurs have my undivided neurosis’ – Crace is very candid and eloquent when discussing his history of mental health issues, and describes the beautiful game as an ‘escape from myself’ as well as a ‘constant endurance test of proving to myself that I can stick with something through both good and bad’. Football also touches on several key relationships in his life – with Robbie, but also with his daughter Anna and his sister Veronica. As Crace concludes with a rare and touching ray of positivity, supporting Tottenham ‘helps me navigate my life.’

As you’d expect from the author of Digested Read, a wry, cutting humour prevails. Crace is a master of pithy one-liners – football is ‘like going to a health spa. Only without the pampering’, ‘Any day when Spurs are playing is better than one when they aren’t. Until kick off’. He is spot-on when it comes to the players – my personal favourite is ‘banker for the catastrophic’ Younes Kaboul  – and spot-on when it comes to the club, ‘a team whose fans grandiosely talk of ‘The Spurs Way’ as a metaphor for attacking, stylish football as we slide to yet another 4-3 defeat’. Thankfully, Crace is also ever-willing to poke fun at himself; the chapters on his souvenir collecting (tickets, shirts, programmes, cup celebration banquet menus) are self-mockery at its best.

My one gripe with Vertigo relates to the paperback update. Richard Swarbrick’s brilliant cover illustration can’t hide the fact that a book published in late 2014 has a preface from 2013. So where you might hope for Crace’s considered views on the sale of Bale and Sherwood’s tenure, instead you find ‘When AVB moves on or is moved on…’ This small grumble aside, Vertigo offers up a well-written and highly enjoyable blend of personal and sporting narrative that should find a much wider audience than just the Spurs faithful. Gooners might not like it but Fever Pitch now has a worthy, contemporary bookshelf rival.

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