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    Football Book Review Thread

    So, to follow up on my promise from the Football section, I'll be posting my reviews on the various football books I've recently acquired. But anyone else currently reading footy lit is encouraged to contribute their own offerings.

    First up, by popular demand, Comrade Jim.



    The subtitle of this book is The Spy who Played for Spartak. It's a lovely short book if you can get past two things: he was never really a spy and he barely played for Spartak.

    As a tall, gangly child growing up in Portsmouth, he often played centre-half for his school teams. He was never of a calibre to play professionally, but he enjoyed it and continued playing into his army days when he was drafted into the national service. He had been a bright lad, and had managed to secure a place in a grammar school and stuck it out through his A-levels, to the disapproval of his working-class mum's friends who thought that all that studying would make him "one of them, not one of us".

    In the army, he was considered bright enough to be sent for Russian lessons - 8 months of intensive language study which would enable him to monitor Soviet radio broadcasts. Subsequently sent to Berlin, he listened in on communications traffic at airbases in eastern germany. This, it turns out, was the sum total of his "spying".

    Indeed, far from a career in spying against the communists, he became one himself. The actual circumstances in which this occurred in 1959 seem somewhat hazy. He had a love of Russia instilled in him by his admittedly non-ideological teachers in the army. His Soviet studies teachers at Birmingham University seem to have been predominantly of the view that Bolshevism was bad for Russia. And he implies that he was quite aware of Kruschev's Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary in 1956. And yet, there he is, applying for a Party card in 1959 and littel more than two years later being sent by the CPGB to attend an 18-month course of training at the Higher Party School in Moscow, where he lived with (among others) the future hero of the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek.

    He was no pasing communist, either. Despite meetings in Moscow with many emigres who had spent years in gulags after false accusations, despite himself having been tossed out of Russia in disgrace following false allegations, despite having quite a clear view of the double standards of the nomenklatura, this is a man who held on to his party card until the CPGB itself finally collapsed in 1991 and who claims that the first time he rued having been a communist was in 2005, at the sight of the altar on which Isaac Babel was tortured to death during the Great Terror. Why it was Babel's death that made him rue this and not any of Stalin's victims - some of the 1,000 executions a day at the height of the terror in 1937-38, perhaps, or any of the seven million who died in the Ukranian forced famies - is not entirely clear.

    During his time in Moscow, he played regular kickabouts with a number of people from various team's diplomatic corps. As he was gathering information for a planned PhD dissertation on Soviet sport and culture, he was often in contact with senior Moscow sports officials and football players, some of whom happened to see him at these kickabouts. Strangely under the impression that he could play at a top level (while in National Service he had played a few times with the British Army on the Rhine selects and the Russians appeared to believe that this was the equivalent to playing for the CSKA Red Amry squad), they asked him to come along to training with them whilst they were in the midst of an injury crisis. To his shock, they asked him to play two games in their colours at the massive Lenin stadium under the name Yakov Eeordahnov (foreigners still being highly suspect in 1962 Moscow). This was the extent of his Spartak career.

    Doesn't sound like much of a book? Well, it has some padding, too. In one chapter he manages to toss off the entire Passovotchka story for no reason other than that he was in England at the time and later became a communist. In another he retells the Nikolai Starotsin story (although Jonathan Wilson more or less beat him to the punch on this two years ago in his book Football Behind the Iron Curtain.

    But mostly, it's just the curious tale of how one working class boy from Portsmouth managed to spend five years in Moscow rubbing shoulders with composers, gulag survivors, and ex-spies amidst the obvious insanities of post-Stalinist Russia. It's no less enjoyable and informative for the fact that the author seems not to question the rightness of supporting such a monstrous regime. And it has some nice little football stories thrown in - his excitement at the arrival of Alexei Smertin arriving in Pompey from Spartak is quite charming.

    If you're ever wondering about the power of football to sell books, though, it's amazing to think how 180 minutes spent 45 years ago on a pitch 1500 miles from the UK can turn an old communist's memories from being unwanted and unprintable to being a reasonable publishing success. Amazing.

    #2
    Football Book Review Thread

    Great review. I've none of my own to add, but have been meaning to add football-related stuff to my reading list, so your initiative is greatly appreciated. If the Wilson one is out yet, can I make a request for that to come soon, if not next?

    Comment


      #3
      Football Book Review Thread

      Thanks Toro. I'm already 45 pages in on Wilson. Expect a review on Tuesday.

      Comment


        #4
        Football Book Review Thread

        I would add my own review of Comrade Jim but readers of a certain monthly football magazine will get first dibs.

        I'd dispute AG's claim that Riordan didn't question the nature of the Soviet regime - he does. He keeps getting his Daily Worker reports censored and is generally regarded as an unreliable loose cannon.

        Comment


          #5
          Football Book Review Thread

          We could argue about the definition of "question", E10. Remember, they thought *he* was unreliable...not the other way around.

          He obviously wasn't comfortable with certain aspects of the regime, (nomenklatura privileges, mostly) and a lot of his questioning seems to have been around that. He doesn't, however, seem to have done much questioning around the Big Question, to wit: why the fuck should anyone support a movement so obviously based on tyranny, mass extra-judicial murder and genocide?

          Not blaming him for not questioning this while in the Soviet Union, of course - that's simple self-preservation. But keeping hold of your party card for another 30 years and "not ruing" your participation in such a movement for 45 is another matter.

          So he was not without doubt, it's true. But how much doubt, exactly?

          Comment


            #6
            Football Book Review Thread

            People had other reasons for being communists, AG. Remember he was a member of the British communist party, not the USSR one, which for all its apologias for Moscow did other things too, and maintained a reasonable, though not exactly massive, membership level up until the 80s.

            Comment


              #7
              Football Book Review Thread

              Lots of people seem to be able to see past those apologias, E10. I just can't. We don't, for instance, tend to accept anyone who makes apologias for Pol Pot. Why should we in this case?

              Though this is perhaps a discussion for a different thread.

              Comment


                #8
                Football Book Review Thread

                It probably is, and I haven't greatly riffed these themes in my actual review, save for the fact that I quite welcomed the fact that Riordan's disillusion with communism turn him into a tiresome hectoring rightwing bore, as many of his generation of ex-leftists did.

                I guess I'm more familiar with the sensation of being in a political party whose leaders do grotesque things than some others are.

                Comment


                  #9
                  Football Book Review Thread

                  In my current obsession with all things Brazilian, I've just read 'God is Brazilian - Charles Miller, The Man Who Brought Football to Brazil' by Josh Lacey.

                  It's a beautifully written and surprisingly moving biography of Miller who, though born in Brazil, spent his formative years in a Southampton public school and on his return, clutching a rule book, a pair of boots, a ball and a pump, introduced Brazilians to football.

                  As you'd imagine there's lots of stuff about how the Brazilian game evolved, the development of professionalism and the clash of culture with late Victorian 'muscular Christianity'. It also gives a vivid picture of the phenomenal growth of Sao Paulo as a city - there's a wonderful chapter about the construction of the first railway between SP and Santos - and for both Corinthians and Southampton fans there's a great insight into their origins.

                  Comment


                    #10
                    Football Book Review Thread

                    Still waiting for that Wilson review, AG...

                    Comment


                      #11
                      Football Book Review Thread

                      It's on his blog.

                      Comment


                        #12
                        Football Book Review Thread

                        Never mind.

                        Comment


                          #13
                          Football Book Review Thread

                          I actually haven't reviewed Wilson yet - what's on my blog is just a meditation on one little theme in the book. It's a tough review to do because the book is pretty sprawling - I still haven't digested everything. probably this weekend. meanwhile, I've finished the new WSC book on Africa and made a start on Football Dynamo, which I'll also try to review shortly.

                          Comment


                            #14
                            Football Book Review Thread

                            That Wilson book is seriously anal. I thought I was bad!

                            Comment


                              #15
                              Football Book Review Thread

                              Are you talking about 'Inverting The Pyramid?'

                              I really like the look of that.

                              We're all bloody anal on here.

                              Comment


                                #16
                                Football Book Review Thread

                                As promised.

                                Jonathan Wilson's new book Inverting the Pyramid is a sprawling book, as ambitious in its own way as David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round. Covering the whole 150-year history of the sport, and the whole of Europe and a good chunk of Latin America, this is a broad and learned history game.

                                The first few chapters are a relatively conventional history of formations: from the Victorian 1-1-8 to the Edwardian 2-3-5, and then onwards via Herbert Chapman, Willy Meisl, Gustav Sebes, Bela Guttman and Vicente Feola through to the 4-2-4. The only thing that makes Wilsoní tour somewhat unconventional is the care he takes to introduce two Soviet theorists into this pantheon: Boris Arkadiev, coach of Dinamo Moscow in the 1930s and Viktor Maslov, coach of Dynamo Moscow in the 40s. He makes a reasonable case for the hitherto underappreciated Maslov as the initiator of the pressing style of football (which later, in variants, informed the playing styles of such wildly diverse coaches as Graham Taylor and Arrigo Saachi). The case for Arkadiev as a major theorist on the other hand are not as convincing and look like a way to sneak in a few anecdotes he couldn't quite manage to slip into his previous book.

                                So far, so simple: give or take the Eastern Europe angle, this is still more or less the same story Andy Gray told in Flat Back Four, the last English-language book to focus on tactics. But tactics are about more than formation; they're also about style. This was true even back in the 1880s when the first international matches were played. The English, playing their historical role as patsies for countries which actually have a footballing brain, were played off the park in some of the earliest games by Scots who had developed an excellent new tactics called "passing" and "heading" (the latter so incomprehensible to the English that they used to wear caps throughout the game).

                                For most of football history, style has actually been a larger factor than formation in tactics. Indeed, prior to the 1950s, it was exceedingly rare for teams to run out with anything other than identical formations; orthodoxy ruled, either in the form of the 2-3-5 or the W-M. Only in the very fertile period from about the early 50s to the late 80s was there a significant battle of formations: the Hungarian/Brazilian 4-2-4, the 4-3-3, the 3-4-3, the 4-4-2 and the 3-5-2. But even in this period, you have significant battles in style as well: catennacio, total football, the pressing game.

                                Until quite recently, the historical record on formations has been much richer than the historical record on styles. Formations can be more easily recorded in newspaper accounts; styles are to a certain extent reside in the eyes of the beholder. So it is no small accomplishment for Wilson to have managed to balance discussions of style and formations as well as he has (something Gray, for instance, couldn't manage). And Wilson's literary style is good, too. Tactics as a subject is sufficiently difficult that it is prone to eye-glazers; for the most part, Wilson avoids these and keeps a fluid pace.

                                As the book goes on, though, the niggles accumulate. It is difficult to tell the story of tactics without references to specific teams, games, and tournaments. The trick is to be able to tell the story through the games, without getting caught up in the extraneous, non-tactical aspects of the game; a task Wilson evidently finds harder to do as we get closer to the present day. It's also clear that Wilson was determined from the get-go to throw in a few Eastern Europe anecdotes that didnít quite make it into the last book. The story of Dynamo Minsk's Sacha Prokopenko is an interesting one, but it's place in the history of tactics is dubious at best.

                                Perhaps the book's most original contribution to the historiography of football is his thesis - first outlined in a pair of articles Wilson wrote in FourFourTwo two and a half years ago - that Lobanovsky's Dynamo Minsk and Rinus Michels' Ajax were, essentially the same beast. His argument is essentially that they are both heirs to Maslov's pressing game, who put a primacy on using space both with without and the ball. By some, this will be seen as a daring leap, given that the Ukranian style is seen as robotic while Total Football is seen as romantic. The problem is that it's at best a half-truth. In attack, the Dutch allowed considerable space for flair and individuality; if any of Lobanovsky's players had tried a Cruyff turn, they would have been benched. And on defence the differences were even more extreme: the Dutch practices of keeping no more than fifteen metres between the front and back lines, and of their unnerving habit of flooding forward to force offside calls right at the half-way line have no equivalent in the Ukranian system (or indeed anywhere in football history).

                                But in the end, these are quibbles. Tactics are the ultimate source of football pub banter; a good account of their history should provoke as much argument as agreement. What Wilson has done here is allowed these arguments to be put on a firm historical footing. It's easily one of the half-dozen best books on football this decade.

                                Comment


                                  #17
                                  Football Book Review Thread

                                  I first came across Riordan's "I played for Spartak" story a couple of years (on one of the Guardian blogs). My curiosity aroused, I went to check it out and... it turned out that Jim's made the story up. Spartak did play Pakhtakor and Kairat in successive games (2-2 and 1-0) in April 1963; however, these games did not take place in Moscow but in Tashkent and Almaty. The Moscow matches against these sides took place in November (2-0 against Kairat, 4-4 against Pakhtakor (last game of the season)).

                                  On top of this, the story was discussed in Spartak circles in Russia in 2006 and was met with a resounding "WTF?" If you look beyond the slightly odd fact that a pub player can walk into one of the leading sides of a country that was at the time pretty successful football-wise (EC 1960 - W, WC 1962 - QF, EC 1964 - F, WC 1966 - SF), one could also ask what was this club doing fielding an unregistered player and a foreign one at that? (Think of the political repercussions involved in dragging in a foreigner into any sort of organisation without any official approval from higher up.)

                                  So, on seeing Riordan use the Spartak story to market his book 2 years on, I really gotta ask you - given that he's made up that one up, how much of the rest of the book is actually true?

                                  PS I read Jonathan Wilson's review in "FourFourTwo" and I gotta say I am somewhat surprised that he didn't bother to verify that the games, in which Riordan claims to have played, actually took place.

                                  Comment


                                    #18
                                    Football Book Review Thread

                                    I am reading Wilson's "Pyramid" at the moment, about a third of the way through and thoroughly enjoying it. His literary style is very good and IMHO he pulls in the different directions in South America and Europe pretty well so far.

                                    Comment


                                      #19
                                      Football Book Review Thread

                                      Welcome, Sash!

                                      Good detective work! Are you sure, though, that Russians don't report scores backwards, with the hime team second? We do that in North America.

                                      In Football Dynamo, Marc Bennets reports that Riordan played for Spartak for three full years!

                                      Comment


                                        #20
                                        Football Book Review Thread

                                        Thank you for the welcome, AG!

                                        It's in the Soviet League records and the official history of the club (1922-2002), which was actually a monumental piece of work by a group of Spartak fans.

                                        Here is a link to the 1963 season from the official website:
                                        http://rus.spartak.com/materials/Common/spartak_documents/history/1963.pdf

                                        If you scroll down, p.181 (it's a pdf of the relevant pages of the published history), games 5 and 6 - attendances and scorers.

                                        When Spartak did play Pakhtakor in Moscow, only 3 thousand people actually turned up.

                                        In addition, no one in Moscow recalls him playing and it's not some kind of omerta - people seem to be genuinely baffled that this story has been taken at face value. The fact that Khusainov "recognised" him on Riordan's more recent visit to Moscow doesn't mean much - it doesn't prove that he played and Khusainov is not so lucid nowadays (he was at a fans' match I played in in Moscow in May and he looked pretty frail to me).

                                        Comment


                                          #21
                                          Football Book Review Thread

                                          That's interesting, Sash. Actually, although he has used the away games' scores, he seems to have different scorers in the Pakhator game (in his version, Reingold scores both - in the pdf, it's two other players).

                                          Are you from Moscow, or spend lots of time there?

                                          Comment


                                            #22
                                            Football Book Review Thread

                                            In the version I came across 2 years ago, the score in the 2nd match was 1-1, so he's tidied that one up.

                                            I am originally from a small town just outside Moscow but have been based in the UK for ages; however, I keep in touch with all things Spartak via the main supporters' website.

                                            PS I have Bennetts' book at home - I haven't read the bit on Riordan yet (have read chapters rather randomly so far) but the subject of Riordan did come up on a Moscow expats' forum and Marc said:

                                            "I met James at the BBC last week. He didn't seem very pleased to meet me after i had been introduced as the "author of a book on Russian football" The Russian journalist i spoke to at the BBC said he called Nikita Simonyan, who was the manager of Spartak Moscow in 1963, and Vladimnir Maslachenko, who was the goalkeeper in the games Riordan claimed he played in, but they both said they had never heard of him. Simonyan also said it would have ben illegal to field a foreigner at that time..."

                                            Comment


                                              #23
                                              Football Book Review Thread

                                              It's a passing reference only, in a section on international footballers.

                                              I rather wonder why this hasn't come out before. You should contact the WSC folks and offer to write a brief article.

                                              Comment


                                                #24
                                                Football Book Review Thread

                                                I did raise it on the Guardian blog at the time but got no response.

                                                I wrote to WSC today and was told my comments have been forwarded to the reviewer, so let's wait and see if he responds.

                                                Comment


                                                  #25
                                                  Football Book Review Thread

                                                  Well, he posts on here, so he probably will.

                                                  Comment

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