Alexis Sanchez! Luis Suárez! Eden Hazard!

First we brought you the exciting stories of Bale, Rooney and Sterling and now we’re back with three more must-read titles for football mad 9-12 year-olds. Enjoy!

Alexis Sanchez: The Wonder Boy

Sanchez

This is the story of the Arsenal superstar’s incredible journey from the streets of Tocopilla to become ‘The Boy Wonder’, a national hero, and one of the most talented players in the world. With his pace, skill and eye for a goal, Alexis is now one of the Premier League’s biggest stars. The story is every bit as exciting as the player.

Read all about Alexis’ exciting childhood, his rise through Chilean football, his partnership with Antonio Di Natale at Udinese, his time with Messi and co at Barcelona, and his amazing first season at Arsenal.

Luis Suárez: El Pistolero

Suarez book

Follow the Uruguayan’s winding path from love-struck youngster to Liverpool hero to Barcelona star. Grabbing goals and headlines along the way, Luis chased his dreams and became a Champions League winner. This is the inspiring story of how the world’s deadliest striker made his mark.

Read all about Luis’ move to Europe, his World Cup adventures, his brilliant time at Anfield with Steven Gerrard, and his big money move to Barcelona to join Messi and Neymar.

Eden Hazard: The Boy in Blue

Hazard

This is the thrilling tale of how the wing wizard went from local wonder kid to league champion. With the support of his football-obsessed family, Eden worked hard to develop his amazing dribbling skills and earn his dream transfer to Chelsea.

Read all about Eden’s days as a child prodigy in Belgium, his trophy-winning days in France with Lille, his development under José Mourinho, and his incredible rise to become a league champion at Chelsea and the best player in the Premier League.

 Series.jpg

Advertisements

O, Louis

O, Louis: In Search of Louis Van Gaal

By Hugo Borst

Yellow Jersey Press, 2014

Van GaalWhen Louis Van Gaal agreed to become the next manager of Manchester United, he sparked yet another war. This time, however, it was literary, a war of words written on the page rather than words spoken at a press conference. No offence meant to Maartin Meijer’s Louis Van Gaal: The Biography, but of the two translations released in 2014, Hugo Borst’s O, Louis was certainly the more intriguing. The Yellow Jersey Press seal of approval certainly helped, as did the sinister cover photo decorated with the Dutch manager’s own quotes.

So what exactly is O, Louis? Well, it’s certainly a strange one. 32 pages in and Borst makes an announcement; ‘You might be expecting this to be chronological…This is not a biography.’ Instead, the book turns out to be a bizarre, Woody Allen-esque exploration of one man’s obsession, and the subject of that obsession. As such, it’s part biography, part autobiography, part ‘tribute’. ‘Some of this book is about me’, Borst admits. ‘That’s inevitable given that my obsession with Louis Van Gaal has taken on grotesque proportions.’

The pride, the candour, the loyalty, the arrogance, the suspicion, the hidden warmth, the outbursts of righteous indignation – the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager is certainly an engrossing character, with far more enemies than he has friends, especially among the media. In short, sharp, non-sequential bursts, O, Louis presents each period of Van Gaal’s career in football, as well as each of the parts that make up his complex character. The prose is witty, analytical and frank, representative of the more daring approach of the Dutch football press. It’s hard to imagine a British journalist suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson had ‘all the mobility of a slug on sandpaper’ and living to tell the tale.

‘Objectivity has never been my strong point’, Borst warns the reader, but for the most part, that statement does him a disservice. His own narrative may be somewhat irrational but he’s the first to admit Van Gaal’s split personality; the bad and the good, ‘a crazed loon and a consummate professional sharing the same body’. Borst’s own views are presented alongside media transcripts and a series of interviews with less biased authorities. His choice of interviewees – including a novelist, a priest, a psychiatrist and a spin doctor – is unexpected but there’s plenty of intellectual insight on offer. Theatre director Luk Perceval, for example, is fascinated by Van Gaal’s ‘blend of spiritual leader and prima donna.’

The problem with O, Louis is that the obsession gets tiresome, as obsessions always do. There’s only so much desperate discussion of Van Gaal’s poor communication skills and father-complex that one can take before the question begged is, ‘So what?’ 140 pages build up to the revelation of why Borst and Van Gaal have fallen out and it’s an anti-climax of petty proportions. Comedian Theo Massen quite rightly tells Borst that he shouldn’t expect Van Gaal ‘to be a good coach and to act more or less like a normal human being’. However, that doesn’t stop him from trying to pin every possible psychological condition on Louis – narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia, autism. Thankfully, psychiatrist Bram Brakker is on hand to speak some sense: ‘Putting any label on a colourful character like him would be to sell him short.’

As it must, the book’s journey ends with a resolution of sorts following Holland’s surprising performance at the 2014 World Cup. At the beginning of the book, Borst says ‘There are few things I want more in life than to understand Louis.’ By the end, he is arguably no closer to understanding Van Gaal but what he does understand is that it’s time to let go. O, Louis is a funny, often frustrating, but ultimately unique and rewarding look at a top manager’s mindset. Now for LVG vs Mourinho, Part Two…

Buy it here

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

Buy it here

Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning

Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning: The Biography

By Guillem Balague

Orion, 2013

255 games, 194 wins; 14 trophies out of a possible 19, including 3 La Liga and 2 Champions League titles. The statistics speak for themselves but do they speak for the manager? There remains a real mystique surrounding Pep Guardiola. This is a man who followed up a glittering playing career at Barcelona by becoming their most successful manager ever, all by the age of 40. Much has been written about his tactics (the false nine, tiki taka) and his players, but precious little about the calm, classy ‘Philosopher’ himself. This is largely his own doing; during his four managerial seasons at the Nou Camp, Pep refused all one-to-one media and all but one interview for publication.

Luckily, La Liga expert Guillem Balagué is a very well-connected man. Not only does Another Way of Winning have a foreword from Sir Alex Ferguson and countless quotes from the likes of Johan Cruyff, Lionel Messi and José Mourinho, but it also contains the all-important musings of MisterGuardiola. ‘Talking to Pep for this book’, Balagué explains, ‘was the only way I could open up a hitherto closed window on his private world; to reveal what motivates him, what took him to where he is now, what fed his intuition to make the right footballing decisions.’

Another Way of Winning takes an end as its beginning, using Pep’s surprise resignation as the point at which to stop and reflect on his phenomenal career to date. This is Pep’s Greatest Hits; there’s no filler in sight as Balagué takes us from the early successes of his playing days (6 La Liga titles, 1 European Cup, 1 Olympic Gold), through the glory years of No. 1 after No.1 as Barcelona manager (the coverage of the two Champions League finals in particular is incredibly detailed), before the inevitable tensions, rivals and disappointments, and finally the tearful goodbye and the new direction. What he may lack in eloquence and style, Balagué certainly makes up for in zip and punch.

And insight. Although little of the character sketch is groundbreaking, the many details and anecdotes do add up to a clearer vision of both the manager and the man. Any football fan could tell you that Pep is obsessed with tactics, but Balagué offers up the bigger picture. A player who began preparing for management under Cruyff, then Rexach, Robson and van Gaal, growing increasingly confident in his ideas and communication; a player who left the comfort of the Nou Camp at 30 to study the different footballing cultures of Italy, the UAE, Mexico and Argentina; an ex-player who rejected the chance to run the world-famous academy that raised him, choosing instead to gain hands-on experience with Barcelona B, a team in turmoil, newly relegated to Spain’s fourth division; and finally a record-breaking manager with an incredible 24 assistants who still spent hours alone in his office watching video footage, honing the perfect strategy to defeat the next opponent. About Guardiola’s team-talk prior to the 2011 Champions League final, an awestruck Javier Mascherano says, ‘Everything that he said would happen, happened as he said it would.’

As with Arsene Wenger, Guardiola is presented as less a football manager than a football teacher, a genius with a singular vision for his pupils: ‘Total Football’ with a Spanish twist. Brave but ordered attack in the form of flowing, possession football, built upon a base of hard work and togetherness. But it’s one thing to have a philosophy and quite another to implement it successfully. Luckily, Pep had a largely receptive audience (most notably, of course, La Masía graduates new and old, from Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol through to Messi, Busquets and Pedro), and as Balagué demonstrates through a series of invaluable team-talk insights, ‘his ability to communicate is perhaps his greatest talent’.  ‘The coach makes us understand football’, Gerard Pique corroborates.

Many did, however, fall victim to Pep’s strict ‘my way or the highway’ policy. The considerable talents of Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto’o, Bojan, Yaya Touré and of course Ibrahimović were all shown the door; ‘the affection lasted as long as the player’s desire to be a part of the vision’. The Brazilian duo were rightly seen as a disruptive influence (particularly on a young Messi) but in discussing these last two players, Another Way of Winning for the first time questions Guardiola’s perfect judgement, and specifically his unyielding favouritism towards his home-grown talents. Talking of Barca’s ever-increasing reliance on La Pulga as the supreme focal point, Balagué asks, ‘Had Guardiola created a monster in Messi? The Argentinian had absolute power in the coach’s final season, and his behaviour was sometimes out of place.’ As they would soon find out against Chelsea, no matter how good Plan A is, you need a Plan B.

The pressure to succeed took its toll on Guardiola, ‘that need to continue to fuel a competitive group under any circumstances’. What Another Way of Winning brilliantly captures is the sensitivity of the man. In the difficult transition from player to manager, Pep was keen to distance himself from the dressing room itself, but that didn’t prevent a deep ‘emotional investment’ in the lives of his players. As he himself articulates so astutely, ‘The closer I get to players, the more I get burned, I need to distance myself.’ But nowhere was Pep’s emotional fragility more evident than in his intense battle with Real Madrid manager and former friend Jose Mourinho. Balagué sums up their rivalry nicely; ‘Pep took it all personally. For José it was all part of the job’. With his mind games and barbed comments, the Special One wore away at Pep’s principles until he retaliated and soon afterwards surrendered. Mourinho may have outlasted his foe but a vulnerable genius makes for much more compelling reading.

Buy it here

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top: A Biography

By Philippe Auclair

Pan Macmillan, 2013

A sports biography that strays beyond the sporting facts is something to celebrate. A sports biography that prefers to call itself ‘a biographical essay’ and sets out ‘to try to understand how and why such a magnificent footballer…has inspired such extremes of feeling’ deserves a piñata and party bags. For Auclair, this is no empty threat; what he did for Eric Cantona (The Rebel Who Would Be King), he’s now done for Thierry Henry, the classy King of Highbury but also ‘the selfless egotist, the insufferable charmer, a walking oxymoron in shorts’. It’s another fascinating subject matter for a brilliantly incisive biographer, especially one who happens to be an Arsenal-supporting Frenchman living in London.

Yes, Philippe and Titi are a match made in heaven, even if, despite years of interviews and conversations, the journalist is ‘not a friend of his, and could never have become one’. Does distance make the heart grow fonder? In Auclair’s case, it makes the heart grow fairer, and more intrigued. Rightly or wrongly, Henry’s every word, gesture and decision is scrutinised here, from Les Ulis prospect all the way through to New York celebrity. Lonely at the Top addresses the need for an objective judgement of France’s highest ever goalscorer, an examination of the myths side by side: Henry the player and Henry the person.

1 French, 2 English and 2 Spanish league titles, 1 Champions League, 1 World Cup and 1 European Championship. Surely the trophy cabinet of a true footballing legend? And yet, Henry remains a ‘nearly man’ in many eyes; no ‘single moment’ to define him, no Ballon D’Or win and famously only 1 goal in the 9 major senior finals he played in, that one being the 2003 Confederations Cup. ‘He still owned them [the trophies] but he didn’t seem to ‘own’ them, somehow’. As Auclair’s chronology demonstrates, either side of the dizzy heights of his Arsenal career, Titi never quite lived up to expectations at Monaco, Juventus and even Barcelona (a ‘parenthesis’ according to his biographer). For France, Henry’s goal record hid the disappointing fact that he and Zidane failed to gel during their peak period, at the 2002 World Cup in particular. In terms of the ‘genius’ tag, an adopted nonchalance disguised a footballer working hard to get the most out of a raw blend of pace and power.

And yet, between 2001 and 2004, Henry was unstoppable. As the focal (and significantly central) point of Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’, Titi led the Gunners to 2 Premier League and 2 FA Cup trophies, winning back-to-back PFA Player of the Year awards. In these 3 seasons, he scored a phenomenal 103 goals in 155 matches, including many that were crucial and/or breath-taking. He won the French Player of the Year award four years in a row (2003-6), and was runner-up in the FIFA World Footballer of the Year in both 2003 and 2004. Paradox Number One: Henry the footballer.

Paradox Number Two: Henry the man. The infamous ‘Hand of Gaul’ against Ireland in 2010 only served to reinforce his reputation as an arrogant and unlovable individual. Auclair and others speak of ‘a many-sided man’ with a ‘calculating streak’, ‘increasingly aloof’ and renowned for his ‘essential remoteness’. No-one argues with Monaco and Arsenal teammate Gilles Grimandi’s assertion that Henry has no real friends in football. Patrice Evra, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet come close but don’t quite make his very exclusive inner circle. Lonely at the Topastutely traces Henry’s near-universal distrust back to a difficult relationship with his demanding father and a botched transfer to Real Madrid in 1996. This early betrayal, Auclair argues, ‘hardened him’.

And yet, Henry has never shied away from the cameras. He gave regular interviews throughout his time in England and, like most footballers, what he said was always polite, usually humble and occasionally insightful. In 2008, Premier League fans voted him their most popular player ever. So how does this all add up? What we have, Auclair argues, is a highly insecure figure who ‘craved assent and praise as no other footballer I have come across did’. In his dogged pursuit of greatness, Henry adopted a public mask, surrounding himself with propagandists and ‘starfuckers’ in an attempt to control his image. A very convincing argument indeed.

While Henry is, of course, the focus of Lonely at the Top, the bigger picture is always intricately filled in. The Clarefontaine, Monaco and Barcelona set-ups are discussed in detail, while the ebb and flow of Henry’s time at Arsenal is given the attention it deserves, as he graduates from struggling misfit, to leader of champions, and finally to one-man team. Arguably the book’s most fascinating sections, though, cover Titi’s rollercoaster ride with Les Bleus, from World Cup winners to shamed, first-round knockouts in the space of 12 years. Auclair lays out the national context boldly and succinctly; ‘a fractured society ridden with post-colonial guilt and neuroses, which had desperately wanted to believe in the 1998 black-blanc-beur utopia and was now forced to smell its own shit.’ Biography this may be, but like Henry at his pinnacle, it’s a few cuts above the rest.

Buy it here