Saturday, 10 June 2006

Reviewing the Gravy Train?

By the Balls: memoir of a football tragic, Les Murray
The Away Game: the secret lives of Australia's soccer superstars, Matthew Hall
Guus Hiddink: Going Dutch, Maarten Meijer
The World Game Downunder, edited by Roy Hay and Bill Murray
German Football: History, culture, society, edited by Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young
Calcio: A history of Italian football, John Foot
Even as John Aloisi was driving home the winning penalty on that mad night in November, they were already at it. While we mere punters were celebrating joyously, drunkenly, wantonly, the publishing accountants clicked into gear like cat burglars taking advantage of a massive street party. They were busy: adjusting schedules, ordering reprints, contacting authors to update their now out-of-date books, asking the odd popular writer without a jot of interest in the game if they could perhaps write a sokkah book for them. A gravy train had arrived and they were getting on board.

Maybe I'm a little too cynical. But it's hard not to notice that publishers with little prior commitment to the world game have acknowledged its marketability in Australia and are pushing out World Cup books by the truckload. It's a good thing; it's a bad thing. A number of the books reviewed here bear the traces (if not the open editorial wounds) of this new publishing imperative.

For example, I wish Les Murray's By the Balls had not been subtitled, memoirs of a football tragic . It's too marketing-department and tacky, conjuring the image of a small-minded man pretending to love something in order to gain advantage. In truth, Murray is a stalwart of the game in Australia who almost single-handedly cemented SBS's reputation as the Soccer Bloody Soccer channel. His relation to football is romantic, perhaps heroic, but never tragic.

This is the first full-length book telling of Murray's transition from Hungarian boy Laszlo Urge to Australian football identity. It describes the Urge family's escape from Stalinist Hungary in 1956 and their arrival in Wollongong a year later. Young Laszlo was struck immediately by the lowly status of the game he loved. How could it be that football was not popular in Australia? Why did the identity and strength given to him by ‘his' team, the magnificent Magyars of the early 1950s seem to mean so little in his new country where the eggball codes reigned.

Thankfully, Murray found football in Australia via his family's involvement in Hungarian community teams, first Wollongong-based Pannonia and then Sydney team, Budapest (later St George).

Football gave a sense of belonging to Murray (and to legions of European migrants) and his story is one of a debt gladly repaid through his activism for the sport in Australia.

By the Balls ends on a sobering note. As football becomes ever more a business in which financial success drives what happens on the field, the beauty and ethics of the game are in peril. For Murray, what ‘quarantines the game and its virtues is national team football'. When the accident of birth determines selection and national pride is the reward, the excesses of football capitalism can be averted. Consequently, the World Cup is the ‘pinnacle of the world game'. As he confesses, this may be a tad ‘romantic'. The next four weeks will tell.

Matthew Hall's The Away Game contains the stories of a number of footballers who left Australia to advance their careers. It was an important book in its first edition (2000) partly because it was published at a time (post Iran) when everything seemed lost for the international ambitions of our star players. It had all the poignancy of a story of wasted youth.

As Hall acknowledges in the new edition, a lot has changed in the past six years but he fails to explain just what, how and why things have changed. One definite change is in the contents of the book. New material has been added, some has been excised, and the chapters have been re-ordered to draw attention to current Socceroos.

Unfortunately, this major structural change has been not been accompanied by thoughtful editing – ‘get this out in a hurry' seems to be its editorial method. We are repeatedly told information that we have already read. Updating has occurred without much thought as to how it might relate to the rest of the book. I got to the point where I just wanted the book to end. It was like being told the same story over and over.

While the book needs re-organising it is still worth dipping into. The (first edition's opening) chapter on Joe Marston, the Aussie who went to Preston in the 1950s, is a classic Australian sports story.

The Away Game is an important book in that it reveals the repeated patterns of shoddy treatment meted out to young Australian players – the three brave players who independently admitted they were sometimes reduced to tears of loneliness in their rooms at night are testimony to this. If only the publishers had cared more about its integrity.

Maarten Meijer's Guus Hiddink: Going Dutch is a biography of the man who will take some of the players in Hall's book to the World Cup.

Marketed as an ‘intimate biography of the super coach', it is nowhere near as intimate as we'd like, reproducing the stereotypes of Hiddink that circulate through other media without revealing much that is new or enlightening. The large font ensures a 260 page book when 150 pages might have done.

Moreover, it seems that the bulk of the book was written shortly after Hiddink's Korea career came to an end. The Australian material feels very much tacked on – another case of MPS (the Must Publish Soccer syndrome).

If Roy Hay and Bill Murray wrote about AFL the way they write about association football in Australia they'd be local heroes. Hay has a long and distinguished track record as a scholar and working journalist while Murray is a highly respected international scholar, having published the classic history, The World's Game.

With The World Game Downunder, Hay, Murray and their contributors have produced a fascinating but necessarily disjointed history. A precursor to a big history the two editors are writing, the collection gives us insight into the way football in Australia, unable to move beyond second-rung status, has progressed in waves of interest and appeal only to fall into troughs of neglect and abuse.

All those with more than a vague interest in the history of football in Australia will want to get their hands on it.

If The World Game Downunder represents academic publishing at its best then German Football, edited by Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young sits towards the other end of the scale. An interesting book crippled by its turgid and sometimes impenetrable prose, it is constructed around essays that seem to tick all the ‘appropriate' scholarly boxes: immigrants in football; women in football; hooliganism; fandom and so on, without coming together to make a coherent argument.

The defence that this is an academic book speaking to academics doesn't wash either. Sports history, as an academic discipline, doesn't need to model itself on critical theory, sociology or discourse analysis to do its job. It should be able to develop its own forms of communication that engage sports aficionados. Indeed, Hay and Murray show the way.

Nonetheless, German Football contains some significant and important essays from which I learned a great deal.

Until the First World War, football was a minority sport in Germany, a nation that treated sport with contempt. (The game's English origins didn't help either.) In fact football never fully established itself in the national imagination until Germany's 1954 World Cup final victory over Hungary, a vital moment in the regeneration of postwar German identity (as well as being a major tragedy in Laszlo Urge's young life).

That victory helped to strengthen arguments for a national club competition. I was surprised to learn that the German national competition, the bundesliga began as recently as 1963 (only 14 years before Australia's NSL).

The subsequent West German triumph, in 1974, gave the nation a different kind of legitimation in a context of massive social upheaval, radical politics and domestic terrorism.

But I wanted more than this. I wanted a story of German Football and not footnotes at its edges.

Calcio: a history of Italian football , by John Foot is a magnificent compendium/encyclopaedia of a book. It demonstrates just how important football has been in the unification of Italy and how significant its World Cup triumphs have been for the development of Italian national sensibility.

Foot is demonstrably in love with Italian football ( calcio ). He adores it; he is obsessed by it; now and then he hates it – but never for long. The game is both object and vehicle of his passions. The book is superbly written and richly layered. The longest by far of all those under review here, it was the easiest and most delightful to read. Over 220,000 words went by almost without a hitch. It suffers from a little repetition but (unlike The Away Game ) its echoes are both understandable and forgivable.

Calcio is organised around the vital themes of the Italian game: history, referees, players, managers, Italian style, the media, the World Cup and others. In covering these so thoroughly Foot kicks up recurring problems in calcio and Italian society.

By this account, Italians live their lives in a constant state of antagonism: the referee is out to get them; FIFA is out to get them; the English gave them the game but play it badly and are out to ruin it; everyone hates them and they hate each other.

Moreover, Italians seem to accept corruption as an unavoidable part of their lives and their sport. It's OK to bribe referees; it's OK to pre-determine results to the satisfaction of both teams; it's OK to dive and cheat in order to advance the interests of the team. Foot gives the example of an English player, new to Italian football, who refused to fall down after a heavy challenge in the penalty area being criticised broadly for failing to dive and get a penalty for his team. Teams that try too hard when they have little to play for are accused of playing outside the spirit of the game!

There'd be something offensive (if not racist) about all of this if Foot were not deeply immersed in Italian culture and thereby also able to find and express the joy and spirit at calcio 's heart.

This immersion produces the book's one narrative flaw – and it's a big one. The English critic David Goldblatt argues that Foot is too compromised to say what he really thinks about Italy and calcio. So Goldblatt says it for him: ‘Italy and Italian football are a disgrace', a corrupt and corrupting world unable to mend its fractured history or escape its legacy of fascism.

I suspect Foot agrees. It's hard to finish this book without feeling profoundly depressed about the possibility of Italy and calcio emerging from its corruption in the near future. I don't want to agree with Foot – because national stereotypes are usually wrongheaded – but his story is presented with such weight and passion that it's hard not to.

If there's a significant thread to be drawn from this collection of books it is this: football, the World Cup and nationalism are inextricably entwined. World Cup victories are always significant events in a nation's history – the exception might be Brazil, which seems to take such things in its stride. The failures of teams like Hungary and Holland to win the Cup when they seemed the team most likely have also left their mark on ideas of their respective national characters.

A common idea seems that national sentiment and confidence can only form fully on the back of a nation's World Cup exploits – a notion that raises questions about Australian nationalisms, all of which have formed in the absence of major success in the world game. If we have (as a nation) defined ourselves on the sporting field it has been in an anti- or post-colonial mode, against England and other Commonwealth countries. We have never been in a position to succeed in a genuinely popular and global sport.

But we have glimpsed a possible future with the recent successes of the Socceroos. And we have been given intimations of a previously unseen kind of multicultural nationalism at recent World Cup qualifiers. It is intriguing to think on the kind of effect Australian success at the World Cup (if it ever comes) will have on ideas of who we think we are and our place in the world.

Reviewed by Ian Syson

This review first appeared in the Age

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