My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I desperately wanted to love this book: it was given to me by my wife as part of a Christmas tradition where we buy each other a second-hand book that we might not have bought ourselves, but which we think “Of course!” once we open the wrapping. I’m a football fan, a lover of the World Cup (one of our favourite shared memories is of me utterly failing to remain quiet whilst watching Australia v Japan in a hotel room during WC2006 whilst she unsuccessfully tried to get some sleep next to me), an utter football tragic in as many ways as time and money let me be. This looked like a good fit. I really, really wish it had been.
Sadly, the book turns out to be a depressingly mundane read from an author who seems to have been given a word-a-day calendar for Christmas and grown bored with it by about January 5th: every winger in the history of the sport is ‘insidious’ (and half of them ‘little’); every right foot that scores a goal a hammer; every left likewise; and while ‘fulminating’ may be a cool word to pull out and use when you want to impress a girl you like, I hadn’t read it in a text in something like 20 years, which makes the sixteen times it appears in this book so laughable it verges on a drinking game.
More disturbingly is Glanville’s preoccupation with describing players via their skin or hair colour. Three types of players exist in Glanville’s world: those with a mane of blond hair, like Gabriel Batistuta or Luis Hernandez; those who are ‘dark’, like Gerd Muller or Franz Beckenbauer; or most worryingly, those he simply describes as ‘black’. In the early pages, in those first few tournaments where it is quickly apparent that Glanville has no direct experience and is pulling together reports from the time, such a description can be accepted as a yardstick of the modernising effect that black footballers were having on the national aspirations of countries like Brazil and Uruguay. It serves to highlight the special attributes certain players brought to their tournaments, and what they overcame to get there. By the time we get to 1994, an he still insists on singling out players like Aron Winter for this description, there’s only one conclusion that can be reluctantly drawn. There is simply no need for the description anymore. It is Glanville, not the circumstance, who accords importance to the colour of a player’s skin.
It leaves a lingering taste in the mouth, but it’s not the only problem.
Glanville can’t decide whether the book is to be a Wisdenish collation of facts or a more personal, opinionated series of recollections by a man who performed journalistic duties at a long series of the World Cup events, and has been able to extend his research back to cover those that occurred before his time. It leads to a schism of approach between pre- and post-1966 reportage: dry as dust to begin with, and lapsing increasingly into irrelevant asides that do nothing to advance the narrative of each tournament (his constant niggling at, and denigration of, for example, both Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson, is never at any stage backed up with a reason why he feels this way towards an admired player and manager). Ultimately he tries to cover both styles, and falls between them both, coming across like nothing more or less than the boring nerk at the end of the bar who thrusts himself into a passionate fan argument without being asked, and proceeds to bleed it dry by acting like an utter anorak: lacking humour, original insight, or anything approaching an understanding of the passions that drive the argument in the first place.