Football is a wonderfully various and complex subject and a wide variety of writers have tried to tackle it. Here, Tifo’s resident tactics expert Alex Stewart suggests 12 must-read books on the beautiful game, ranging from over-arching histories to the use of data, and from personal accounts to national narratives.
The Ball is Round – David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt’s massive text is a history of football from its early instantiations in Chinese and Mayan culture, right through to 2006. The book’s scope is extraordinary, peppered with anecdotes and references, but taut and lively in its style. Goldblatt has also written about English football and how finance has affected the game, but this is his magnum opus and is surely the best all-round introduction to football anywhere.
The Cambridge Companion to Football – ed. Steen, Novick, and Richards
Written for an academic audience, the Cambridge Companion is nonetheless an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to the study of football. It addresses everything from sports journalism to the origin of the sport in English public schools to the globalisation of football under FIFA. Using famous players as case studies, and examining tournaments, the book remains rooted in football itself, but its wide parameters make for an engaging series of essays that can be read as one-offs as well as sequentially.
Inverting the Pyramid – Jonathan Wilson
Tactics is a subject dear to me, obviously, and Wilson is the godfather of tactical writing in English. His book was the first to take a deep look at the history of the game using tactics as a prism and, while not updated, remains the first and most obvious go-to for those who want to understand how football developed from kick and chase to the 4-2-3-1.
Data and Statistics:
Soccernomics – Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski
Ahead of the curve, Kuper and Szymanski use economic theory and big data to address the idiosyncracies of the transfer market, why certain teams do well in tournaments and others don’t, and apply game theory to penalty kicks. Cerebral and informative, this is Freakonomics for football.
Outside the Box – Duncan Alexander
One of the people behind the OptaJoe Twitter account, which has done so much to popularise both data and statistics (by which I mean historical information and actual match metrics), Alexander followed up last year’s brilliant OptaJoe’s Football Yearbook with this excellent dive into how stats can be used to explain and understand football. His style is witty and engaging and presents numbers in a way comprehensible to those without a maths degree, and always with a view to enhancing the football experience, not drown it in a sea of data.
Soccermatics – David Sumpter
For those who do have a maths degree, or at least want a book written by someone who does, Sumpter’s text is perfect. While looking at metrics, he also explains Total Football using complex network theory (and ants), and shows how geometry helps Barcelona’s midfield. It’s complex but rewarding.
The Football Man – Arthur Hopcraft
A classic, Hopcraft’s fluid style and breadth of knowledge make this series of essays about the game one of the finest collections of sports writing in English. Written in an era when sports writers had a greater freedom to express themselves (in other words, a better time), this is prose that at times rises to poetry. Hopcraft also wrote screenplays for the BBC, so he’s basically my idol
Soccer in Sun and Shadow – Eduardo Galeano
Football’s joy is that it is at once a personal and collective experience. You cheer or cry or swear with thousands of others, but the memory of what mattered, of what inspired or destroyed you, is also individual. Galeano pulls together a series of footballing vignettes that go towards making his own experience of what football is. Beautiful descriptions of goals, players, and matches are penned with flair, as Galeano maps out his relationship with the game he adores.
A Life Too Short – Robert Reng
While still relatively recent, published in 2010, this biography is a classic because it is simply the best football biography ever written. Robert Enke was a talented German goalkeeper who battled episodic clinical depression and took his own life as his career was reaching its pinnacle. Reng tells the story, with pathos and style, of mental health and the pressures of modern sport that has worth and resonance beyond the game itself.
Nation or area specific:
Brilliant Orange – David Winner
The Dutch invented total football and gave the world the brilliance of Cruyff, Neeskens, and Krol. Winner sets this tale against a remarkable backdrop of art, architecture, literature, and history, and does it without ever sounding too clever or pompous. This is as canny a marriage of subject matters as you are likely to find, and hugely entertaining. In the same field, a mention must also go to Simon Kuper’s Ajax, The Dutch, The War, an at times tragic tale of football during the Second World War and how it affected a club traditionally associated with Amsterdam’s Jewish community.
Calcio – John Foot
Calcio is what the Italians call football, drawing on an old Florentine game which bears resemblance to the game, albeit in a much more violent form. While Foot concentrates largely on the big teams of the Italian game, there is a huge amount of detail in his sweeping, chronological history, and it’s a superb introduction to one of Europe’s most august football traditions. For a more personal take, Paddy Agnew’s Forza Italia is also worth a look, as is Joe McGinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.
Behind the Curtain – Jonathan Wilson
Eastern European football was Wilson’s niche before other writers in English started to look at it as seriously (notably the superb James Montague), and this tour of former Eastern bloc nations, troubled Balkan states, and central European nations who once graced the international stage but drifted into relative obscurity is rich in detail and thoroughly enjoyable. Wilson has also written recently about Argentina in Angels With Dirty Faces, and also tackled goalkeepers in The Outsider, but this book remains perhaps his most accessible to those wanting a quick introduction to a fascinating topic.