The Football Crónicas & Outcasts United

The Football Crónicas

Edited by Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven (Ragpicker Press, 2014)

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town

By Warren St John (HarperCollins, 2014)

Another year, another set of ‘best books’ lists that ignores the sporting world entirely. ‘Snub’ is the correct verb, I feel. Fiction I’ve long since accepted but non-fiction too? Can it be true that not a single book on cycling, football, cricket et al met the ‘literary’ criteria that every nature book seems to meet with a quick glance at the cover? Could the critics not find one book relating to sport, our society’s number one pastime, that was worthy of acclaim? Over this festive period alone, I’ve read two excellent football titles that in different ways push the boundaries of what has come to be expected from a ‘sports book’.

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The Football Crónicas is a wonderfully varied collection of Latin American ‘creative non-fiction’ edited by Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven. The most famous example of the genre remains Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow but there are several pieces here to rival that linguistic flair and exuberance. Mario Murillo’s ‘The Goal in the Back of Beyond’ offers a successful argument for football as ‘an elevated form of artistic expression’, Leonardo Haberkorn’s ‘Run, Ghiggia, Run’ explores fame and its afterlife, and Juan Pablo Meneses’ ‘A Grenade for River Plate’ narrates a tense Chilebus journey with a gang of colourful ultras. Best of all, however, is ‘The Goal-Begetting Women of the Andes’ by Marco Avilés. What begins as an exotic travel piece about a remote Peruvian village of skirt- and sandal-wearing female footballers transforms itself into something much more thought-provoking as the team comes face-to-face with the modernity of the town below. The crónica makes the perfect partner for football writing – a hybrid of fiction and journalism, ‘fact told as a story’.

There is nothing creative about the non-fiction of Outcasts United and yet the story is even more magical. In the 1990s, the American town of Clarkston in Georgia became a resettlement centre for refugees from war-torn nations including Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo. As the town itself came to terms with its new multicultural makeup, football-mad Luma Mufleh founded a soccer club called ‘The Fugees’. Outcasts United follows every step of the amazing journey, reporting on the trials and tribulations of Luma, her players and their families. For large parts of this uplifting story, football is no more than a means to an end. Author Warren St John’s focus instead is sociological; how do refugees come to terms with America and vice versa?

Football is the powerful weapon of choice for teaching valuable life skills and uniting different cultures. As clichéd as it sounds, sport really is the universal language. This bonding experience is also reflected in The Football Crónicas. In Alberto Salcedo Ramos’ ‘Queen’s Football’, a team of Colombian transvestites seek solace and solidarity in the face of abuse, poverty and drug addiction. And in Hernán Iglesias Illa’s ‘San Martín de Brooklyn Eye The Playoffs’, we find another example of soccer’s central role in the lives of US immigrants.

On the back-cover of Outcasts United, there’s an endorsement from cricketer-turned-journalist Michael Atherton. ‘Like all good books about sport,’ he says, ‘this is about much more than sport.’ These well-written books have as much to do with society as they do with sport, and they are far from unique in this regard.

Buy The Football Crónicas here

Buy Outcasts United here

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.

Buy it here