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Football Against The Enemy
Simon Kuper (Orion 1994, 9.99)
There aren't many football books that go beyond football and describe what role it really plays in the life of fans. The Brimsons tried and failed. John King in The Football Factory succeeded but the sense of reality is partially lost in that it's a novel. Football Against The Enemy is right on the ball: as Kuper himself writes, "In Britain, football itself is almost incidental to fan culture."

Football Against The Enemy comprises the tales of a Dutchman travelling the globe, visiting famous (and not so famous) football arenas in Europe, South America and Africa. It was a tireless, and not inexpensive, journey, but this book makes it well worth it. He tackles the issues of tactics, violence, and most interestingly, corruption.

The most fascinating chapters are those set in Russia and the Ukraine. For instance, did you know that in the days of Communism, Dynamo Kiev's annual turnover was more than the country's entire GDP? Dynamo lived in co-existence with the Ukrainian government; they had a license to export platinum, two tons of the country's gold a year and they were the country's major supplier of nuclear weapons. The only reason the people of the Ukraine let them get away with this was that they could attract all the best players and so regularly turned over the authorities' teams in Moscow. Football Against The Enemy is packed full of stories like this - asides from off the football field that tell you what the game means to people in different countries the world over.

The chapter on Celtic and Rangers is also highly perceptive. It's surprising how much I didn't know about it living in the same nation as them. It's fascinating facts galore. For instance, in 1931, a Rangers player accidentally kicked the Celtic goalkeeper in the head, killing him instantly. I bet that went down well. There's the tale of Pat Rice, murdered because he walked around a Catholic area in Belfast wearing a Rangers scarf. Another snippet... over 50% of Old Firm fans from Northern Ireland are unemployed, and 80% of those from Ulster who follow Celtic support Sinn Fein.

There's a connection between almost all the places Kuper visits: Ukraine, Russia, Slovakia, Cameroon, South Africa, Glasgow - they're all afflicted by social and political problems of one sort or another. This is a completely new kind of football writing, daring to stray from the "boy done good" and "our boys dealt their mob a slapping" kind of stuff that's been associated with football in the past. Not everyone will like it all, but quite frankly, if you can't find something in it you don't find interesting, you aren't worth knowing.

It's a right riveting read, and it's no surprise that Football Against The Enemy won the coveted Sports Book of the Year Award. There's so much information packed between inside, yet it is highly readable. There are a couple of chapters that fail to hold the attention (I found the topics on South Africa and Helenio Herrera rather tedious), but, if only for its originality, Football Against The Enemy is worth every penny.

Will Holman