Without a doubt, the book that Simon Kuper (British author and Financial Times sportswriter) is most famous for is Soccernomics. Soccernomics takes a look at the analytical side of the sport; the statistics, the psychology, and the economics behind why certain trends and results in soccer are the way they are. It's a fascinating book, though the conclusions drawn should naturally be taken with a grain of salt. It must be a daunting task to follow up a New York Times bestseller with another book in the same subject matter, especially one as lauded as this one. Does Kuper manage to do so with his most recent book, Soccer Men? Well, yes and no.
If you're in the mood for a view of the beautiful game that is less "cold and mathematical" than Soccernomics, then I highly recommend Kuper's Soccer Men. The book is a collection of short articles on various men associated with the sport, ranging from players to fans to managers to baseball statisticians. Some of these short articles are based on personal interviews, but most are based on an outsider's viewpoint. They're well-crafted and infused with a hint of a dark humor and irony that gives the writing a unique charm.
"David Beckham jogged up to take one of the last free kicks of his international career. The French fans sitting near the corner flag in Paris's Stade de France rose and whistled him, mocking England's iconic player. Then they got out their cameras. As "Becks" took the kick, a thousand flashes popped."*
Without beating the reader over the head with the theme, the articles weave an excellent story of the disconnect between simply being a "player" and being a "star"; between being an employee - not beholden to the team paying the wages - and players who are supporters as well. Soccer Men does not put any players on pedestals. Hello, the articles in the book seem to say, just because a player is on a team doesn't mean that he loves the team as much as you, the fans, do.
It's difficult to fathom, sometimes. Fans of any sport want to believe that their team is willing to bleed and die for the cause like a true fan. Any glimpse of loyalty is repaid in full, and it explains the outrage when a seemingly "loyal" player transfers to a rival team. For soccer players, it's usually a normal progression of their career. It's a dichotomy of head and heart, a contrast that Simon Kuper is good at showing. The truth of the matter is, players sometimes follow their head, but fans always follow their heart.
Oddly enough, Nicolas Anelka puts it best: "Soccer is a beautiful game, but it's also work that I have to do every day."**
One of my favorite articles is one titled "The Autobiographies of Jamie Carragher, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney". This article pulls together everything good about the book. It's ironic, it's funny, it questions certain ideals such as player loyalty, and - best of all - it summarizes these five autobiographies so that we, the readers, don't have to read them. It paints a picture of English soccer at its best and worst, and that is a reflection of what the entire book does. The articles are snapshots of people like us, some at their best and some at their worst. Soccer Men shows us the emotional highs and lows of the sport from the player-manager perspective.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure if the short articles are enough to do justice to some of the players. In addition, only a few articles were written specifically for the book, the rest spanning between the late 1990s to 2010. Sometimes this outdated viewpoint works, resulting in an ironic look at soccer history, but sometimes the information seems out of place and grating - similar to how the extremely personal and opinion-driven writing style works 95% of the time and falls flat the other 5. One last criticism is that even though the book's catchy title is Soccer Men, one article about an important female character in the sport wouldn't have gone amiss, especially for contrast.
Kuper is a fantastic writer (and recently on Twitter, to my delight). Despite my criticism, Soccer Men is a good, solid read. While it isn't as exciting as Soccernomics, it doesn't need to be. It's an entirely different sort of book. It's a great overview of the sport as a whole, whether as an introduction to the unique personalities or a nostalgic look back at events past. Approach it with fresh expectations and I'm sure that even the most seasoned fan can find something new and thought-provoking.
If you've read Soccer Men before or end up reading it based on this review, I'd love to know your thoughts!
All quotes from Soccer Men, copyright Simon Kuper. 2011, Nation Books.