Thursday, October 25, 2007

Two Book Reviews

Two books I've read lately to tell you about.

The first is the newly-released A Cultured Left Foot by Musa Okwonga. You've never heard of him - his bio describes him as a 28-year-old London lawyer and award-winning poet, which makes him yet another of those Kuper-like football writers for whom admiration must be mixed with some annoyance and jealousy for having written such an obviously good football book at a young age.

The premise here is pretty simple: Okwonga sets out to pin down the eleven footballers' attributes which contribute most to "greatness" (for the record, they are: feet, balance, fun, endurance, graft, toughness, guts, madness, aura, luck and vision). Basically, it's a pub conversation - albeit a very literate one - though Okwonga decorates the book with a number of interviews with people like Hugh McIlvaney and Steve McManaman to avoid the impression that it's a monologue.

The result is a little bit uneven. Designed as it is to examine the phenomenon of individual greatness, it necessarily underplays the fact that football is a team sport in favour of glorifying individual efforts. As a result, it has a kind of Brazilian sensibility to it which I find irritating. Moreover, it's clear Okwonga is no journalist - a couple of his interviews are embarrassingly thin. But he has marshalled his research well, and there is no doubt that his writing style and taste in metaphors soar above the level of the mere journalist. All in all, if you like thinking about the game through the lens of individual players, this is an excellent book; even if you don't, it's more enjoyable than other books that have tried the same approach (most notably, Richard Williams' Perfect 10).

The other book I've read recently is Does Anybody Have a Whistle by Peter Auf Der Hyde. Auf der Hyde, a South African, has been a football journalist for something like 25 years now, and the book recounts his many experiences covering football across the continent.

Whistle is a frustrating book, because while there is clearly a lot to be written on this topic, Auf der Hyde's first-person narrative style gets in the way of doing justice to the material. To take only the most irritating example, since a lot of the book is told through his eyes as a reporter covering major events over the years, a mindboggling amount of time is spent describing his searches for lost luggage in African airports or his run-ins with officious bureaucrats. The first time, it's amusing. By the third time, you want to punch the author and ask him what the hell he's done with all the football.

In the end, he does cover a lot of ground - albeit somewhat thinly and with fewer theoretical insights about the causes of sporting underdevelopment on the continent than one might hope for. He is - unsurprisingly - particularly good on the subject of the politics and criminal activity in South African football (and for all Danny Jordaan's good work, the South African FA may still be headed for the cess-pitt, as a recent confrontation between the Government and the FA shows). His chapter on juju in football is competent, but doesn't break any ground not covered by the famous African Soccer article on the same phenomenon. Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is on what he calls "Kings of Africa" - itinerant European coaches who make their way across the continent, drifting from one national coaching job to another.

But, overall, the book was a bit of a disappointment: the definitive book on African football remains to be written.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read "Does anyone have a whistle" and I never thought of it but he does devote a lot of time talking about losing his luggage. You do have a point.

But overall: covering the African Cup in Burkina Faso, covering Togo as a capital of voodoo in Africa and other facets, I think it succeeds and delves out a lot of information.

As you say, there are unfortunately, not many books on African football. One premier league team in England by itself has at least 30 right off, so it is like the author is in uncharted territory. He talks of a man in the book who is a walking encyclopedia on African football. Too bad that guy didn't write a book so your ending conclusion that a definitive book has not been written on the subject is very correct.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Tom SVDP said...

By the way: I believe there is a brand new book out, perhaps you review it and it is written by an Italian journalist on African football. It is titled something like "Lions, Elephants and Eagles" (or similar, references to Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria's team's names). I will look to see if you have reviewed it. The one thing that I wasn't sure of about this new book is it seems to be rather pricey for a book that is I believe around 200 pages and maybe even less. At least, "Does anybody have a whistle" is a relatively long read. Also, I as a white person can relate to the author of "Does anyone have a whistle" in that Peter Auf Der Heyde: sure enough ended up playing goalkeeper for all black teams in South Africa. Something like that, to an extent is rather common. No one wants to be a GK. I've done the same for Ethiopians here in the USA.

Fine blog! Giusseppe, I have bookmarked it to read from time to time and it was good you reviewed these books.

I may sign in with my google identity, the last post was mine too, though your review is from some time ago.

11:35 PM  

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