Saturday, July 5, 2014

Reading Le Tour

Mark Perryman reviews books that can help frame our enjoyment of the Tour de France

There seems to be something about cycling that helps inspire fine sportswriting. Perhaps it is the landscapes and countries traversed, the solitude on a bike, the risk factor of a fall or worse, the extraordinary feats of human endurance, and human-powered speed too. Add a healthy dose of British elite level cycling success plus a dash of greenery and its no surprise that publishers are backing bicycling authors to deliver sales, for the most part with very good books too.

Of course it is Le Tour that galvanises this interest, every year, right across Europe, free to watch from the road or mountain side, on terrestrial TV live too. And this year the first two days are in Yorkshire, from Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, then down south to London before crossing La Manche for the remaining three and a bit weeks of this most magnificent of races. Tim Moore’s French Revolutions is one of the best introductions to the scale and ambition of Le Tour from a cyclist’s point of view as he retells the experience of riding all 3,630km of one year’s route. Even for the keenest, and fittest cyclist such a venture would prove to be too far, and too much. Ned Boulting’s brilliantly idiosyncratic How I Won the Yellow Jumper is his own inside story on how most of us follow the race, via the ITV coverage. This is the professional journalist as self-confessed fan, which in Boulting’s case, but not for many others, works to produce a wonderful style of writing. Part of what makes Le Tour so iconic, as with all the major global sporting events, is its backhistory, now stretching back more than a century. The Tour de France to the Bitter End is a superlative collection of race reports from the Guardian beginning in 1903 to almost right up to the present with the Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012. Before Wiggins in terms of British riders the essential reference point was the story of the brilliant, yet tragic, Tommy Simpson. A career detailed in William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike. Road racing at this extreme physical level is sometimes described as a sport for individuals played by teams. Simpson’s final demise can in part be explained by his becoming a victim of this contradiction. Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger is the classic account of a bitter rivalry between two cyclists riding the race supposedly for the same team, Hinault vs LeMond, in what Moore dubs the greatest-ever Tour de France, the 1986 edition. Whatever the year, on the roads of France and beyond the riders will be stretched out over many kms as they follow the designated route for the best part of four weeks, a compelling sports drama. It is the sheer range of the riders that Max Leonard captures so well in his book Lanterne Rouge choosing to write not about the winners, but those at the back, the very back of the race, and what keeps them going. Ellis Bacon’s Mapping Le Tour provides the definitive insight into the scale of the endeavour of the race, beautifully illustrated, every edition of Le Tour catalogued, each stage recorded. Not only does cycling inspire and attract great writing, but it has a vivid visual culture too. A combination showcased in The Rouleur Centenary Tour de France with the very finest photography of the 2013 race alongside high quality reportage on each of the 21 stages, which ended of course with the second successive British Yellow Jersey winner, Chris Froome.

The Climb is Chris Froome’s newly published autobiography and details his extraordinary road to the Yellow Jersey via growing up in Kenya, school in South Africa, joining the European pro-cycling circuit, debilitating illness and last year’s eventual triumph. Of course this was a victory whether he likes it or not will for ever and a day be measured against Bradley Wiggins’ triumph the year previously. Read the Wiggins biography My Time to get some kind of inkling of the nature and the depth of the rivalry between the pair of them. Before these two was Mark Cavendish, a rider expected to be very much a part of this year’s Tour too. The ferocious speed, not to mention the split second and millimetre perfect decision making required, of a stage finish seems to be almost the ideal environment for Cavendish’s very particular cycling. How he has developed and excelled detailed in his book At Speed. For many though whatever the scale of Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s achievements as British cyclists the long shadow of the sport’s drug problems remans so impenetrable as to cast such successes in doubt. The Armstrong case was eventually uncovered because of the dogged determination of the very best investigative sports journalism. And now with the revelations made spectacularly public and entirely unchallengeable Armstrong’s team-mates are producing confessional-style books to help reveal the mire of performance-enhancing drug culture the sport had become part of. George Hincapie’s The Loyal Lieutenant the latest, and as such a close and long-standing team mate of Armstrong's, one of the most revealing to date too. Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies provides the panoramic view of perhaps the greatest story of decline and fall in the history of sport with a rare ability to get to grips with what Armstrong, the good the bad and the drugs, came to represent in and beyond his sport.

The Tour de France differs markedly from other sports mega-events - most obviously football’s World Cup - in the close relationship between spectating and participating. A huge proportion of those watching Le Tour in Yorkshire will be cyclists themselves, many pedalling their way to reach a prized vantage point on a hill climb. And lots in the weeks before, and after, will cycle a chunk of the official route with all the speed and energy they can muster dreaming of being in the mighty peleton on the day itself. This is in many ways a do-it-yourself sports culture. Kitted out with the Pocket Road Bike Maintenance handbook and the Cyclist’s Training Manual the advice will be more than enough to keep bike and body in the kind of shape to ride a Tour stage, or even two. For some the aim will be to rise a 'sportive; the binary opposition of recreation vs competition blurred by a race which is mainly against the clock and our own body’s capacity to perform at speed, as documented in Successful Sportives. A tad muscle-bound some of this stuff, certainly gendering the way cycling is consumed and practiced. A welcome relief therefore provided by Caz Nicklin’s pioneering The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook.
A sense of the potential inclusiveness of cycling is provided by Robert Penn’s almost philosophical It’s All About The Bike. Penn is a missionary for cycling, he makes no apology for his two-wheeled evangelism. A bike as mode of transport, a means to a holiday, a family outing, a race to the finish. All this and more Robert Penn promises we can expect from our bike.

The rich variety of inspiration cycle racing can provide is admirably showcased in the latest volume of The Cycling Anthology.. Ranging over history, philosophy, the mediation and culture of the sport, this is high quality writing for the seriously enthusiastic.

And my book of Le Tour? Richard Moore’s superb Étape. There have been many histories of the Tour de France but instead of a dry chronology Richard Moore takes his reader to the core meaning of this most intriguing of races, the stages where the Yellow Jersey is decided by a lone break, a climb that defies human frailty, a calamity on the road, a rivalry unfolding. It takes three weeks to ride the Tour, ever day filled with drama. This book helps us to understand its ensuring and growing appeal, and to appreciate the tradition and culture this year’s Yorkshire Grand Départ will be contributing to in no doubt its own very special way.

Note No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing your books from tax-dodgers please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. aka Philosophy Football.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Viva l'Algerie! Solidarity Forever!

Wow. Just wow. If this story is true then the decision taken by the Algerian national football team to donate their World Cup prize money to the people of Gaza is a quite amazing act of solidarity. They had received $9 million for reaching the last 16 in the tournament, before being knocked out by Germany. Following jubilant scenes in Algiers, as the side travelled through the capital on an open top bus, striker Islam Slimani explained the contribution: “they need it more than us.”

And their remarkable act could not have been timelier. The kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers has been used by Benjamin Netanyahu as the pretext for yet another air assault on the Palestinian people, despite no evidence linking Hamas or any other organisation to the crime. On the very night that Algeria were narrowly beaten by Germany the first bombing raids were launched over Gaza. The ongoing attacks represent the kind of collective punishment proscribed by international law. As I write there is breaking news that Israel has moved more military units to the Gaza border. In this context the Algerian’s actions are as brave and heroic as their style of football.

Acts of solidarity from footballers, while uncommon, are not unheard of. Brian Clough marched in support of the miners’ strike in the 1980s while Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler memorably wore t-shirts in support of the Liverpool dockers in 1997. Nor is this the first time footballers have helped to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians. When Palestine international Mahmoud Sarsak went on hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention by the Israeli security services he received support from across the world of football.  In 2012 more than 50 professional footballers signed a letter condemning the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and the decision by UEFA to choose Israel to host the 2013 European Under-21 Championships. Part of their statement read:
"We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom. The latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza, resulting in the death of over a hundred civilians, was yet another stain on the world's conscience… Despite the recent ceasefire, Palestinians are still forced to endure a desperate existence under occupation, they must be protected by the international community. All people have the right to a life of dignity, freedom and security."
But these acts are few and far between, and not only because footballers at the very top of the game lead lives a million miles removed from the rest of us: feted, idolised and showered with incomprehensible riches. It is because we live in a world in which the rich and powerful tell us that ‘solidarity’ is a dirty word. Why? Because it scares them. Every act of solidarity helps to undermine the prevailing ideas that we’re all selfish individuals, simply out to get whatever we can. It undercuts the mantra, one that we’ve heard for thirty years, that there is no such thing as society. And every time someone stands with the oppressed, the poor, the exploited, and every time we give our support to those fighting back – such as those public sector workers striking on July 10th – it points the way to a better future. Not every gesture can be on the scale of these footballers, but they offer a reminder that solidarity is one of the most potent weapons at our disposal. Viva l’Algerie!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Love Football, Hate FIFA

This piece was originally written for The Bulletin, the freesheet of Portsmouth Socialist Network.

With the World Cup underway in Brazil, protests against the government and FIFA have erupted across the country.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets, demonstrating against the cost of the tournament, which is hardly surprising when you realise staging the World Cup comes with an $11.5 billion price-tag. They carry placards saying, “We want FIFA quality schools and hospitals”. The slogan “We have the circus, now we want the bread” has become hugely popular.  In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, transport workers have gone on strike, demanding additional payments for the extra work they face. The Homeless Workers Movement has held protests, turning out tens of thousands of people.

As the protests have gathered momentum the government has responded with brutal repression. More than 200,000 police officers and soldiers have been mobilised, demonstrations have been baton charged and tear gassed, undercover cops have fired live ammunition in the streets. In the run up to the World Cup the Brazilian government demolished homes to pave the way for stadiums and infrastructure, whilst arresting people they suspected of being political activists. Yet the people have refused to stay silent.

Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny minority of the population. Millions of the poorest Brazilians live in shanty-towns, favelas, quite literally in the shadow of the riches and opulence of the ruling class. Their ramshackle homes are flanked by open sewers; education and healthcare are of terribly low quality. The money spent on the World Cup could have transformed the lives of countless people in Brazil.

With such a crushing level of poverty it is not surprising that Brazilians are chanting, “FIFA Go Home!” Not that this has troubled Sepp Blatter, the head of football’s world governing body, who previously told protesters to stop blaming FIFA for Brazil’s social problems. Blatter is widely and rightly despised by football fans around the world. This is a man with a history of sexist and homophobic outbursts, and who thinks that racism can be resolved by “a handshake”. He is more than happy to turn a blind eye to inequality and injustice, whilst raking in $1 million a year from his role as FIFA’s bigot-in-chief.

All of this comes at a time when FIFA has been embroiled in yet more scandal. Their award of the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar has caused major controversy, and many people are familiar with the allegations of bribery and corruption. While this news has made headlines the real tragedy is happening in Qatar itself, where hundreds of migrant workers have been killed on the construction sites of World Cup stadiums.

With Brazil scheduled to host the Olympics in 2016 it is unlikely that the protests in Brazil will subside anytime soon. If anything they will continue to grow. History shows us that the costs of staging the Games are likely to dwarf even the staggering amounts spent on the World Cup. More stadiums will be needed, more changes to the country’s infrastructure will be made, more five-star hotels will be required to satisfy the visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

Sport has become a plaything for the rich. The games that billions of people know and love are little more than vehicles for the interests of multinationals, administrators and politicians. Sport is an investment opportunity for big business interests, and a passion to exploit for sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonalds. Hosting a mega event like the World Cup or the Olympics is a way for presidents and prime ministers to showcase a country to the international markets while simultaneously ignoring the plight of millions of people in that country.

These are not the priorities of football. These are the priorities of football under capitalism. These are the priorities of FIFA. But it need not be this way. Every football fan should be as interested in what happens on the streets of Brazil as with what happens on the pitch. Marvel at the dignity and bravery of the protesters as much as the talents of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. And continue to love football and hate FIFA.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

England’s Problem? Too Much Englishness.

The England squad is home. While many of us predicted an early exit for the team, nobody, not even I, anticipated that their tournament would be over by the time the second round of group games had been completed. Such was the manner of their failure that there can be little doubt as to the reason behind their World Cup humiliation. They did not fall foul of terrible officiating, there were no broken metatarsals, they were not victims of divine intervention or unscrupulous opponents feigning injury. They simply were not good enough.

It means that the recriminations of the punditariat have begun, but they have little to say, their job made all the harder by the fact that few would have done things differently. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, chose youth over experience, played a more expansive game than expected and claimed that preparation for Brasil 2014 had been exemplary. There was no attempt to despair at the vicissitudes of fortune; the shortcomings of the team were all too apparent. The problems of England’s national team are too fundamental, too systemic to be detailed in a tabloid headline.

Yet still they try. The Daily Mail tells us that England’s players “have no heart for passion play”; ex-England captain Paul Ince says that this England squad “lacks the passion”; Kevin Davies has bemoaned the “lack of passion”. And on and on and on… Harry Redknapp added to the passion-conspiracy with a mischievous announcement that Spurs players had come to him whilst boss at White Hart Lane, begging him to withdraw them from the national side. Despite interrogation-by-journalist, Harry refused to name names, presumably to spare Jermaine Defoe any embarrassment. The idea that England are primed and ready for glory if only the players would show more passion and desire and heart and pride is rolled out at every defeat and is as dully repetitive as you’d imagine Phil Neville to be if he were stoned.

It was, therefore, interesting to hear a variation on the theme. In a recent article, Jonathan Freedland dared to cross the Rubicon, jumping from commentating on serious issues to talking about football. His conclusion was that, when compared to the fist-pumping, anthem-singing superstars of other nations, England looked like a team in need of a national identity. At a time when David Cameron is busy conjuring the importance of British values such as democracy and tolerance – as though the Swedish love dictatorship and the Canadians are famed for their hatred and ill-temper – now is as good a time as any to hold sport up as a mirror for the state of the nation. Yet, just as Cameron’s attempts to engage us in a ‘conversation’ about ‘British’ values is an attempt to distract us from the problems of society, so the appeal to an English sporting identity is a red-herring. The national team are suffering because of the national identity; not a lack of it.

You saw it last year during the debates about the status of Adnan Januzaj. While the young Manchester United midfielder may have opted to represent Belgium at this World Cup, there was, for a time, a possibility that he might play for England. It prompted Arsenal and England’s Jack Wilshire to wade in with his conception of English football: “We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”

What a strange world it is where the footballers of one country are allowed to be ‘technical’ while those of another are restricted to “tough on the pitch”. The insularity is astounding and is a little reminiscent of the way over a century ago the Football Associations of the four home countries were invited to join the ranks of FIFA. They declined on the basis that there was little that Jonny Foreigner could tell the birthplace of football about football. It’s almost as if English football continues to say, “This is the way we play football. There is no other way. And it’s up to the rest of the world to catch up.” The trouble is that the rest of the world did catch up, and they did so many years ago. English football is still reeling from that shock. In a typically insightful piece, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay traces the current crisis back to the 1950s:
“Post-mortems will come and go from here, but perhaps the most notable England football anniversary of recent times is the passing of 60-odd years since, in the wake of humiliation by Hungary, the great Jimmy Hogan, one of the godfathers of central European football, was invited by the FA to take English coaching in hand. At Chelsea barracks Hogan gave a group of managers a masterclass in how to teach technique and touch to young footballers, with the intention of introducing ball-mastery and short-passing to school and club coaching across the nation, spreading the word as he had in Holland and Germany. Except, it didn’t work out with the FA. The post was never filled. And on we went, producing for the last half century spirited and athletically impressive footballers who so often against better teams seem to have no clear idea exactly how they intend to play the game”
The difference between the England team and the rest of the world isn’t a lack of passion. It is the result of a national football culture that despite the Premier League – the quintessential product of globalisation – remains horribly insular, that historically has struggled to deploy the likes of Hoddle and Le Tissier, that values work rate over talent, and produces world class talent by accident rather than design. If only the national football culture could shelve the little-Englander, UKIP-sounding, Churchill-wannabe, ‘this team’s not for turning’ soundbite-making, sing-along-to-Cliff-at-Wimbledon, no surrender bullshit, warm beer and village green mentality. Then, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to listen to the same discussion over and over again.

Oddly this is a World Cup at which national footballing stereotypes are being turned on their heads. The hosts Brazil may be playing some football that is most certainly pleasing on the eye, but it comes as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protest against the staging of the World Cup, with many even cheering on the opposition. Both the Dutch and French squads are eschewing tradition by failing to implode in a fit of division and egotism. The German team may still lack a single star player but have developed a brand of free-flowing football that flies in the face of the dour efficiency that would grind out results in years gone by. Meanwhile Argentina owe their second round birth largely to the individual magic of a diminutive number 10. Because, well, some things just don’t change. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Luis Suarez Bit Me!

A friend recently told me a story about his six-year-old grandson, a polite, sweet soul who I've known since birth. A request to get ready for bed was met with an unexpected tantrum of epic proportions. As the little boy stormed off, he suddenly stopped, turned very slowly to look at his grandfather through menacingly half-closed eyes, and hissed, "Fucking bitch!"

This tale came to mind yesterday as I watched Luis Suarez sink his teeth into the shoulder of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, mostly because my response to both incidents was the same: my jaw dropped, my eyebrows lurched towards my hairline, and my palm covered my open mouth in an utterly futile attempt to stop myself from exclaiming, "He did what?!"

Anyone who thought that Suarez was on a mission of redemption following his brilliant form for Liverpool last season has been brought crashing back to reality. Following two years of racism, diving and arm nibbling, the striker seemed to have found some peace. He is, according to most sources, a loving family man, a quiet good humoured chap who gives time and money to charity. He propelled a young Liverpool team with a creaky defence to Premier League runners-up with his mixture of audacity and skill. As Chiellini pulled back his jersey to reveal the impressions of Suarez's teeth sunk deep into his skin, it seemed the last ten months have been nothing more than a false dawn.

Some Uruguayan papers are, it seems, trying to argue Suarez's corner, claiming that he was retaliating having been on the end of a flailing arm from the Italian defender earlier in the game. (Incidentally, the rumour that Chiellini has accused Suarez of being an alcoholic is untrue. Apparently his claim that the Uruguayan has always been in need of a small aperitif was a simple transcription error.) Fifa, in a desperate attempt to look like they're doing something more meaningful than piss off the entire population of Brazil, are launching an investigation. 

And let us not forget - as if we could - this is not his first incisor indiscretion. The man has previous, a dental record, if you will; an oral fixation that borders on the Freudian. There is something bizarrely infantile about Suarez's inclination to bite. And as such it is not only a transgression of the rules of the game, but also the machismo-fuelled unwritten code of men's professional football. Chiellini said in a post-match interview that Suarez was a "sneak", a choice term which seemed to carry a double-meaning. First it was obvious reference to the play-acting that accompanied the snack attack, with Suarez clutching at his teeth as though he'd just fallen victim of an evil orthodontist. Yet there was another, implicit, connotation. The Italian was questioning Suarez's masculinity, as though he wasn't 'man enough' to square up to Chiellini.

As I'm in Jackanory mode I should say that this brought to mind another story, though possibly one of the apocryphal variety. When the decathlete Daley Thompson retired from athletics he tried his hand at football, first with Mansfield Town, and later with Stevenage Borough. During one of his matches he was sent off for headbutting an opponent. Afterwards an unrepentant Thompson said, "I thought this was supposed to be a man's game." And the former Olympian isn't the only exponent of the Glasgow kiss. Zinedine Zidane marked his retirement on the bridge of Marco Materazzi's nose; Alan Pardew's cost him a total of £160,000 in fines; Duncan Ferguson practically turned it into an art form.

Violence on a football pitch comes in all shapes and sizes, from the kung-fu kick to the two-footed lunge, the wild stamp to the good old fashioned bare-knuckle brawl. It would seem that in the beautiful game there are acceptable forms of unacceptable violence. Suarez's penchant to chow down on defenders crosses a line. It's not just ungentlemanly conduct; it is somehow unmanly. In the end it was left to Joey Barton to offer a little contrarian perspective via Twitter: “I love Suárez. I love his passion for the game. I would have him on my team every day of the week. I am also aware you can’t defend him here. All things considered I’d rather receive a bite than a leg-breaking challenge. Whilst he should be punished, it is not the end of the world."

Obviously nobody could or should condone what Suarez has done, although there may, perhaps, be one man who won't have minded Luis Suarez's latest controversy: Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers. The Reds have shown that they will go to any lengths to retain the services of their star forward - whether that meant defending his racial abuse of Patrice Evra, stoically standing by him as he served out his ban for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, or ignoring a contract clause that could have seen him move to London. Despite last season's title challenge and Champions League qualification, there was always the possibility that, should Suarez light up the World Cup with his undoubted talent, a club such as Barcelona or Real Madrid would make Liverpool an offer they couldn't refuse for the Uruguayan striker. That seems most unlikely now. 

The potential lack of suitors brings its own problems. Namely, how much more negative publicity can Liverpool tolerate before they are forced to jettison Suarez? As Anfield legend Robbie Fowler said today: "I’m flummoxed for words. It’s a real, real tough predicament most Liverpool fans are in. They love him as a player, but he’s continually dragging the club’s name through the mud. It’s not right, especially after how they helped him last time. They tried to rehabilitate him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went now.”

As one of those Liverpool fans of whom Fowler speaks, I understand all too well that "real tough predicament", although I'd suggest the club hasn't helped itself, and has at times been prepared to jump straight into the mud, crawling along on its hands and knees all of its own volition. Last year I argued that if Liverpool were serious about restoring their reputation off the pitch as well as on it, they should show Luis Suarez the door. I wished I was wrong. I hoped that he would back an anti-racist campaign and show how much he'd changed. I hoped that he would offer fans a full apology for the way he'd treated us. I hoped I could finally enjoy his footballing brilliance without that horrible, almost guilty, feeling. None of that happened. This is one of the few times I'm not happy to be proved right. But Suarez has to go.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The World Cup of our Dreams

To drag ourselves away from the banalities of the Brazil 2014 TV studio punditariat Mark Perryman provides a World Cup reading list.

The professionally cautious Roy Hodgson just couldn’t resist it could he? ‘England can win this World Cup’ he declares on the eve of the tournament. Not if Roy consults the match histories elegantly provided by Brain Glanville’s classic The Story of the World Cup they won’t. No European side has won a World Cup hosted in South America, Central America or North America. No England side has made it past the quarter-finals in a World Cup for 24 years. No England side has ever made it past the quarter finals at a World Cup in South or Central America. Why should things be any different this time Roy? That’s not to say the next three and a bit weeks can’t be hugely enjoyable for football fans, England loyal or otherwise. Chris England’s witty and accessible pocket guide How To Enjoy the World Cup provides ample enough ways to drag ourselves away from what the TV studio punditariat serves up and consume the tournament on our own terms. Or delve intoThirty One Nil. A footballing travelogue which explores the global reach of the World Cup via the qualifying games we would otherwise never have heard of because the losers haven’t a hope in the proverbial of ever making it to Brazil for the finals. Yet without this international back-history the World Cup loses much of its sense of meaning, a case superbly made by author James Montague.

As tournament hosts Brazil will unsurprisingly be the focus for much of the TV and other media coverage. Yet the richness of Brazilian football culture cannot be disconnected from the broader place of football right across Latin American society. Alongside Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and possibly Colombia will be serious contender. The collection The Football Crónicas provides a football-writing insight into the state of, and culture of, the game across the region. A prison team in Argentina, a team of Colombian transvestites, Peruvian women’s football, Chilean football hooligans. Romario’s campaign for a just World Cup. This collection really has got the lot. Golazo! by Andreas Camponar is a splendid history of Latin American football on both the continent and the international stage, including of course most importantly success at World Cups. This is football writing at its very best, epic on the pitch, socially aware off it.

The best writing on society and culture repays this kind of literary compliment by accounting for sport’s role in making the social. Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities is critical travel-writing with an expert eye for urban design. The author tells his story via a tour across Latin America, on the the way accounting for how urbanism shapes the politics of Brazil. This is a powerfully original way to begin an understanding how the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics both seek to represent modern Brazil. Published by the Latin America Bureau, their brand new guide Brazil Inside Out is easily easily the best guidebook to have handy beside the TV as we wade through a month of banalities and lazy stereotypes. Perfect for a half-time alternative catch up to keep yourself better informed on Brazilian politics and culture.

One of the by-products of hosting a World Cup is the unprecedented focus on the host nation. Brazil remains best known for its football, there is no obvious way of avoiding that salient fact . Jogo Bonito helps us to understand the central importance of global footballing success, dating back to the 1950s and pretty much ever-present since then, both to Brazil’s self image and external profile. Futebol by Alex Bellos is the definitive social history of Brazilian football and an absolutely joy to read. David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation is also an historical account of Brazilian football with a sharp political edge to connect this story both to the formation of Brazil as a nation and the current state of this nation as 2014’s host, and favourites to win the tournament.

And my book of the World Cup? Written by the finest critical sportswriter in the world today, Dave Zirin, his new book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil mixes incisive sporting commentary with an angry polemical style that drags readers along to marvel both at the sport we love and the outrage FIFA with corrupt politicians in tow quite rightly spark. Read it to be informed in your anger. Not to spoil your watching of the World Cup, but to enrich the experience.

Note A signed copy of Futebol Nation with Futebol, Brazil Inside Out and Football Crónicas, all half-price is available for just £24.99 from Philosophy Football

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy Football.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Big Match Circus vs Bread

The best World Cup t-shirt you can hope to find, from our friends at Philosophy Football.

Translation: 'We have the circus, now we want the bread'

Brazil is the home of the beautiful game. A nation where football is treasured as the people's game. FIFA's model for the World Cup is the antithesis of such ideals, serving instead the interests of corporate power, multinational sponsors, corruption and nepotism.

Via friends at the campaign group The Latin America Bureau Philosophy Football found a wonderful placard Brazilian protesters against the corporatisation of the World Cup have been carrying, see the original design by Brazilian artist Isabela Rodrigues and adapted it for a very special World Cup T-shirt design. Wear it for the beautiful game that should always and forever be the people's game. The World Cup belongs to us, the fans, the world over, not FIFA or their big business buddies.

Available from Philosophy Football.