Joe McGinniss had a love affair with soccer.
The award-winning author and journalist died on March 10, 2014, of prostate cancer at the age of 71 (read an obituary here). I got to know Joe pretty well in the late 1990s while he was writing The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, one of the very first commercially viable books written by an American member of the soccerati class.
I was working on my PhD in African history at Boston University at the time and also teaching a course on “Soccer and Imperialism” at Tufts University. My mother had sent me a Corriere della Sera article about Joe chronicling Castel di Sangro’s 1996-97 serie B season for a David-versus-Goliath book about the team from an Apennine town of 5,000 souls competing just one tier below serie A, then the best league in the world.
As a fútbologist born and raised in Rome, I was naturally intrigued. So I wrote him a concise letter introducing myself and suggesting that given our shared love of calcio it would be nice to meet some time in the near future. Next thing I know Joe got in touch and we met at a Legal Seafoods at Boston’s Logan Airport. He was about to fly back to Italy for what would turn out to be an unexpectedly eventful end to his season in Castel di Sangro.
After the usual pleasantries the talk immediately turned to Italy, football, and especially Roberto Baggio. We reminisced about Baggio’s transcendental play at the 1994 World Cup, which we both witnessed in person at Foxboro stadium and at the Meadowlands. The Divine Ponytail—and an interview with Alexi Lalas then at serie A minnows Padova—inspired the football-naive Joe to embark on the project that became Miracle. “I was enthralled,” he explained in the book. “Now my obsession had a focal point, Baggio brought to the game a degree of elegance, a grace, and an aura of magic that I’d not before seen displayed in any sport” (The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, p. 22).
Joe’s Italian was humorously choppy and football knowledge limited, but it was hard not to like his passion for the game, his curiosity, and affable nature. I was impressed by Joe’s unwavering commitment to tell the improbable story of the football club from Castel di Sangro.
As it happened, I spent the following year on a Fulbright scholarship doing my PhD research in South Africa while Joe completed his book manuscript at home in western Massachusetts. We corresponded regularly via email. After a long day in the archives, I remember looking forward to reading Joe’s electronic cocktail of chapter drafts, praises of Baggio’s stellar performances with Bologna (22 goals in 1997-98), and polemics about Gazzetta dello Sport player ratings. I appreciated how an author whose books had graced the New York Times bestseller lists seemed to value both my feedback on his work and my tales of playing football and researching the social and political history of the game in South Africa.
I translated for Joe portions of the Italian edition of Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. By the time the English edition came out a couple of years later, the Uruguayan author had already taken his place next to Robi Baggio in Joe’s pantheon of football gods. The epigraph in Miracle reflects this conversion and beautifully captures Joe McGinniss’s deep love for the game: “Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Sunday’s clásico was made for Ray Hudson’s color commentary: like an “hair dryer in a hot tub” to use his magisterial description of Iniesta’s opening goal. I was happy with the outcome since I’ve had a soft spot for Barça for a long, long time. It dates back to my older brother in 1977 (or thereabouts) taking me to see Sandro Ciotti’s Il Profeta del Gol—a film about Cruyff with jaw-dropping goals from his azulgrana days. In honor of the Dutch genius, I even wore number 14 in high school and college back when I daydreamed about walking out of the tunnel at Camp Nou to take on Real Madrid.
Given all that, it’s the perfect time to review Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid for today’s Football Scholars Forum.
Lowe, as readers of this blog probably know, is a noted fútbol journalist who writes about Spanish football for The Guardian and other major media outlets. He is also a rare sports reporter with a PhD (in History from University of Sheffield ; Thesis: “The Juventud de Acción Popular in Spain, 1932-1937″). For a long time the biggest game in the world was not called el clásico but the derbi (p. 18). This book is a gold mine of such futbological facts and statistics. But the most revealing part of the journey, at least for me, came from its analysis and contextualization of the rivalry’s social and political dynamics.
The author’s academic training and sensibility is brought to bear on Fear and Loathing in La Liga in a number of ways. First, the chronological structure of the book. Second, the rich and diverse sources include government documents, minutes of club meetings, newspaper archives, newsreels, and many oral interviews with elderly protagonists, famous players, and club directors. (Regrettably, the commercial publisher decided to present the book without citations for fear of alienating general readers.) Third, the book situates the fútbol rivalry within the larger context of a changing Spain. Fourth, it eagerly and ably goes beyond simple binaries that simplify the rivalry to just Spain vs. Catalonia, or in Lowe’s words: “Madrid fascists; Barça civil war losers. Madrid civil war victors and repressors; Barça left, Madrid right; Barça good, Madrid bad” (p. 12).
Lowe deploys the good historian’s literary device of the potted biography to both complicate the facile dichotomy and to humanize his story. Two brilliant early chapters, for instance, focus on Barça and Madrid presidents during the civil war: Josep Sunyol (“The Martyr President”) and Rafael Sánchez Guerra (“The Forgotten President”). Having examined the historical evidence, Lowe debunks part of the political mythology of Barcelona. He reminds us that Madrid was where the civil war was fought, not Barcelona and argues persuasively that Franco’s forces murdered Sunyol not because he was Barça’s president “but because he accidentally crossed the front line and represented the Republic.” The story of Madrid’s president during the war, Rafael Sánchez Guerra, “a democrat, a liberal . . . committed to the Republic” (p. 39) arrested and tried by the Franco regime, serves as a useful counterpoint to the better known role of Santiago Bernabeu, the right-wing patriarch of Real Madrid during the Franco era.
The 1950s, the book shows, were a golden era for both the clubs and the rivalry itself. With the construction of Bernabeu stadium and Camp Nou, Barça and Madrid had grandiose stages for the performances of their newly arrived superstars: László Kubala (Hungary) and Alfredo Di Stéfano (Argentina). Camp Nou was the “House that László Built” (see pp. 97, 102-03) and his team’s wonderful success at the time motivated Bernabeu to sign Di Stefano. One of the book’s revelations, based on fascinating hard evidence, is the extent to which Barça’s dithering and doubt, as much as pressure from the Franco regime, led Di Stefano to Madrid. This was a crucial episode in the making of the rivalry as the Blond Arrow’s Dream Team (Puskas, Gento, Kopa, Del Sol, Santamaria . . .) went on to win the first five European Cups!
After Barcelona knocked Madrid out of the 1960-61 European Cup, the rivalry entered a “dark era” that ended with the arrival of Johan Cruyff on the eve of the Franco regime’s demise. The long 1960s are remembered for Real Madrid becoming cultural ambassadors of the dictatorship (though players had little choice in this) as well as for the infamous Copa del Generalissimo quarterfinal of 1970 when referee José Guruceta gifted visiting Madrid a penalty that eliminated the hosts. Guruceta’s match report describes 30,000 cushions thrown on to the pitch; his name, Lowe writes, “became Catalan shorthand for every referee in Spain, shorthand for injustice. For some, he had become shorthand for the football authorities, for Real Madrid and for the dictatorship” (p. 211).
The second half of the book opens with Johan Cruyff’s explosive impact at the Camp Nou in 1973-74. Cruyff’s debut coincided with the appearance of Barca’s slogan “mes que un club” (“More than a club” now trademarked), which the book notes “did not feel entirely coincidental, football, politics and culture converging” (p. 232). Madrid’s response to the Cruyff-ication of Barca came in the 1980s with the Quinta del Buitre, which succeeded in resurrecting Real’s reputation but failed to win back the trophy that most defines the club: the European Cup.
The final third of the book covers the period from the 1990s to the present. It focuses on how and why Barcelona and Madrid came to dominate European football after 1998. This part is written in a markedly more journalistic style and is less original is in its analysis. It is always more difficult for historians to write about contemporary events and avid readers have benefited from English-language books by Phil Ball and Jimmy Burns, among others. Last but not least, the satellite and Internet revolution has made it possible for many of us to closely follow the clásico’s recent history, on and off the pitch. Still, the 406-page book saves some juicy insights for the very end as it considers the impact of the Galacticos, the Special One, the cantera vs. cartera approaches to developing young players (training them vs. buying them), as well as how Spain’s international success has changed both the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid rivalry and fans’ sense of nationhood.
With our memories of Barcelona’s operatic 4-3 comeback victory at the Bernabeu on Sunday still fresh and raw, let us not give in too readily to melancholy or nostalgia. As the closing passage of Fear and Loathing in La Liga puts it: “Real Madrid and Barcelona FC will meet again and when they do the cast will be the most impressive in the game, tickets will sell out in hours and millions will gather in front of television screens across the world, more than for any other club match anywhere. And on the morning of the game they will still be there, clutching flowers, pleading for victory. Once more into the fray. Life in ninety minutes” (p. 409).
Joe McGinniss had a love affair with soccer.
The Football Scholars Forum 2013-14 season resumes on February 12 with a discussion of Lindsay Krasnoff’s The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010.
The book “traces the Fifth Republic’s quest to create elite athletes, a compelling tale that serves as a prism through which to investigate the larger history of France, the evolution of society, the impacts of the media revolution, and the government’s mission of public health. It provides perspective on how France coped with and adapted to the post-1945 world and underscores just how much things have changed—yet still remained the same.”
An active member of the Football Scholars Forum (FSF), Krasnoff is an historian of France and Modern Europe, with expertise in sports, media, and foreign policy. You can listen here to Lindsay discussing her book on the New Books in Sports podcast.
To participate in the online 90-minute session, which begins at 8pm Eastern Time, please email me (alegi.peter AT gmail.com) your Skype name (if I don’t already have it) so you can be added to the conference call.
FSF has two more public events scheduled in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In March (25/26, time TBD), the fútbol think tank is trying something new. Instead of members reading a common book, each participant will read a different fútbol book (or lengthy article) and give a 5-7 minute report about it to the rest of the group. The idea is to produce a sort of “state of the field” snapshot from various world regions and academic disciplines.
Then in April, I’ll be joining several FSF soccerati in attendance at the “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity & Politics” conference at Hofstra University (Long Island, NY). In addition to scholarly papers and presentations, the conference features a special FSF-sponsored roundtable on “Academics, Journalists, and the Changing Trends in Fútbol Writing.” I’ll be doing a post about the Hofstra roundtable in the coming weeks.
Filed under: The Players
Sport is serious fun. Nelson Mandela, a keen amateur boxer in his youth, appreciated how the antiapartheid sport boycott assisted South Africa’s liberation struggle and, as a democratically elected president, he used the “politics of pleasure” to propel Rainbow Nationalism. Team sports like football reveal much about the experiences and mindsets of neighborhoods, cities, and nations. “The way we play the game, organize it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are,” is how Arthur Hopcraft put it in The Football Man (1968), one of the finest football books ever written.
These issues strike at the heart of a new project I am embarking on with my Latin Americanist colleague Brenda Elsey, author of a splendid book on fútbol and politics in Chile. Brenda and I will be editing a special issue of Radical History Review on “Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport.” This marks the first time RHR, an academic journal known for “addressing issues of gender, race, sexuality, imperialism, and class, and stretching the boundaries of historical analysis to explore Western and non-Western histories” will turn its attention to sport. The issue is scheduled for publication in 2016.
Here’s the call for papers:
The global reach of football (soccer), basketball, cricket, and Olympic sports in the contemporary world can be traced back to European and U.S. imperial and commercial expansion. The agents of that imperialism—teachers, soldiers, traders, and colonial officials— believed sport to be an important part of their “civilizing mission.” Military interventions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often accompanied by “soft power” cultural programs and private business ventures, fueled the popularity of Western sports. Reform movements tied eugenics and racism to their dissemination. But local elites and subalterns were not simply duped; they enjoyed the games on their own terms. As more communities participated, sport came to represent and constitute broader processes of social change. In the stands, sports pages, and clubhouses, fans rendered sport a place to debate racial and gender hierarchies. In the late twentieth century, international sport became part of a new global capitalist network of sport institutions (e.g. FIFA, International Olympic Committee, International Cricket Council), private corporations, mass media, and migrant athletes and coaches. In this process, sport came to symbolize and intensify unequal social and economic relations.
Histories of sport reveal a paradox: sport generates empowerment and disempowerment; inclusion and exclusion; unity and division. Sports have provided spaces for pleasure, freedom, solidarity, and resistance, but they have also reproduced class privilege, patriarchy, and racism. The performance of masculinities, creation of ideal body types, and the ongoing marginalization of women in sport illustrate these tensions. Recent events in Brazil, where controversy over contemporary mega sporting events merged with massive demonstrations for a range of social justice issues, highlight the unusual capacity of sport both to crystallize inequalities and to trigger civic activism. Reports of labor abuses in Qatar and censorship and environmental damage in Russia cast a dark shadow on the human and material costs of hosting “mega” sports events.
The editors invite submissions from scholars working on any period and world region. We are especially interested in studies that build upon the rich historiography about the nature of agency, identity, and embodiment as a way to explore sport’s contradictory past and present.
On December 5, Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, and the Football Scholars Forum convened for an online session devoted to independent fútbol writing in a digital age.
Wilson fielded a range of questions from an international audience from five continents. The 90-minute conversation blended English pragmatism and fútbol romantico, and indirectly grappled with Simon Kuper’s critique that “Football just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” and “anyone who peeks behind football’s curtain discovers there is no magic there.”
The Forum with Wilson pivoted around the notion that there is a growing English-speaking audience for longer-form writing about the game that goes beyond mixed-zone clichès, diatribes about managers, questionable refereeing decisions, and other narrow, shallow concerns of so much contemporary sport journalism. The challenges and opportunities of publishing in print and digital formats sparked conversation and debate, as did the evolving relationship between the futbology work of reporters and academics.
The audio recording of the session is available here.
For a Storify Twitter timeline click here, with special thanks to Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs).
Learn more about the Football Scholars Forum here.
Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, is the featured guest at the Football Scholars Forum on Thursday, December 5. Starting at 4pm Eastern (9pm GMT), the online football think tank will discuss the craft of independent fútbol writing in a digital age.
Born in a pub after a Sunderland 4-0 demolition of Bolton in 2010, The Blizzard is a football quarterly that, Wilson says, is “neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between.” It combines short- and long-form writing and is available in both analog and digital formats. The experience of independent English-language publications like The Blizzard and the recently defunct U.S.-based XI Quarterly, or Howler for that matter, suggests that journalists and scholars share many similar challenges and opportunities in publishing rigorously entertaining, meaningful football writing aimed at readers worldwide. [Click here to read my 2012 blog post on football at the intersection of academic research and popular journalism.]
Issue Nine of The Blizzard is being served up for Thursday’s session [download it here]. Its tasty menu includes: David Conn on the rise of Manchester, and Manchester City; Simon Kuper’s dissection of Barcelona tactics; Philippe Auclair interview with Michael Garcia, Fifa’s Ethics Committee chairman [sic!]; Gwendolyn Oxenham’s search for a pickup game in Teheran; and Igor Rabiner speaking with Lev Yashin’s widow.
To participate in the 90-minute session that takes place simultaneously at Michigan State University and online via Skype, please contact me asap (alegi.peter AT gmail.com) with your Skype name. Folks can also email or tweet me (@futbolprof) questions before the session.
Guest Post by *Hikabwa D. Chipande (@HikabwaChipande)
LUSAKA––The Football Association of Zambia and Hervé Renard have parted company after the 2012 African Nations Cup winning coach signed with French Ligue 1 club Sochaux. FAZ communications officer Eric Mwanza made the announcement on Monday (October 7) after much speculation that the Frenchman was on his way out. Rumors had been flying around Lusaka that the Frenchman was interviewing for jobs overseas. He had also hinted a few months ago before the Zambia vs Ghana 2014 World Cup qualifier that if the team were to fail to make it to Brazil then he’d resign.
Although FAZ indicated it consulted with Renard and “agreed not to stand in his way,” many Zambians have received this decision with mixed feelings. Some wondered whether Renard had just managed to sweet-talk and dump the national team as he did in an earlier stint with Chipolopolo (copper bullets).
In 2008, Renard landed the Chipolopolo job after working as an assistant to his fellow Frenchman and mentor Claude Leroy, then head coach of the Ghanaian national team, the Black Stars. Renard led Chipolopolo to the quarterfinal of the 2010 African Cup of Nations, a result last achieved at the 1996 tournament in South Africa. In 2010, he left Chipolopolo for better paying Angola, but was soon fired after going four games without a win. After Angola, Renard moved on to coaching USM Alger.
Following the dismissal of Italian coach Dario Bonetti, the Football Association of Zambia announced on October 22, 2011, that Renard would return as coach of the national team on a one-year contract. Peter Makembo, patron of the Zambia Soccer Fans Association, seemed to speak for many local fans when he questioned the loyalty of the French manager. After hearing that Renard was being interviewed at FC Sochaux a few weeks ago, Makembo told Radio Ichengelo that, “as soccer fans we feel betrayed by Renard’s actions.”
However, Renard silenced all his critics in his second tenure at the helm of Chipolopolo by winning the 2012 African Nations Cup: Zambia’s first-ever continental crown. His charges dispatched favourites Senegal in the group stages and African powerhouses Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in the semi-final and final respectively.
There is no doubt that Renard will remain one of the most respected and loved coaches in the history of Zambian football because of the African title he brought to the country. But some critics point out that he only came back when it suited him and that he reaped where he did not sow since Bonetti, whom he replaced, had done the groundwork for Chipolopolo’s success.
Other Zambians remarked that Renard came here as an inexperienced player and used Zambia to build his coaching resumè before leaving for greener pastures. This is a common phenomenon not only in African sport, but in donor-funded development projects too. Typically, “Western” volunteers arrive, are mentored by local men and women, and then return to their countries where they often become “experts” paid to supervise the Africans who originally taught them much of what they know.
The question remains: is there anything wrong in a European professional coming to an African country like Zambia to build his profile only to leave for a more prestigious, high-paying job? From my point of view, this is how things are and there is little we can do apart from getting used to it. We also need to be realistic and come to terms with the fact that inexperienced, ambitious coaches like Hervé Renard are what poorer countries like Zambia can attract and afford to pay. Few African nations can hire exaggeratedly expensive coaches like the Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, as South Africa did for the 2010 World Cup. (Interestingly, South Africa became the first host nation in World Cup history to be eliminated in the first round of the competition.)
From 2010 to 2013, Renard proved that he is a good coach by delivering what all previous Zambian skippers failed to do: win the African Nations Cup. Many Zambians argue that he is the best foreign coach Zambia has ever had, sometimes in tandem with Yugoslav Ante Buselic who took Chipolopolo to second place in the 1974 Nations Cup in Egypt. Without question, Renard will remain close to the hearts of millions of Zambian soccer fans for a very long time.
However, the Frenchman’s failure to defend the African title and Chipolopolo’s premature elimination from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers compelled FAZ to part ways with Renard. Luckily for Zambia, Renard’s new employers rejected his proposal of bringing his assistant Patrice Beaumelle, also French, to Sochaux. As a result, Beaumelle was chosen as interim head coach of the national team.
Depending on how the new Frenchman will command the Chipolopolo during the friendly match against Brazil in China in a few days’ time, he is likely to be confirmed as Renard’s permanent replacement. Zambians hope that Beaumelle will perform the same miracle as his predecessor, even if he’s only here to strengthen his coaching pedigree before moving on to the next level of world football.
Hikabwa D. Chipande is a PhD student at Michigan State University. He is currently in Lusaka conducting archival research and oral history interviews for a doctoral dissertation on the social, cultural, and political history of football in colonial and postcolonial Zambia. Follow him on Twitter: @HikabwaChipande