Football Against the Enemy

It’s ten years since Simon Kuper’s book was first published. Football books often probed no further than player’s memoirs or tournament histories (Fever Pitch excepted). Football Against the Enemy created the need for a ‘Football, General’ classification.

The ‘task’ Kuper undertook was to add context to football by travelling the world and examining the game’s impact on a country’s culture and politics (and vice versa). Every TMFD contributors dream assignment. The Enemy took many forms, military juntas, team rivalry, history and that infallible international unifier, religion.

Kuper’s timing was impeccable. The implosion of Communism created new countries whose football culture was little known in the west. Kuper was living in Eastern Europe and had contacts. He made the most of them. At times I fear for him, a Dynamo Kiev official speaks ‘off the record’. Kuper ignores this and states boldly that the club are a mafia front for the sale of nuclear weapons. Good copy, but bloody risky.

What elevates it above other football books is the writing. You could reasonably argue, Football Against the Enemy is a travel book with a football theme. The descriptions of towns and people are given much more flesh than standard football writing. The message isn’t always clear. He attempts to unravel the hatred between Holland and Germany, but fails to clarify why it lay dormant for so long and the chapter on Paul Gascoigne is a case of stating the obvious, which goes against the grain of the book; reinforcing the myth rather than debunking it.

The book has dated badly in places. Kuper believed Brazil to be on the wane and defines dull, workmanlike football as the ‘Arsenal style’. Not on yesterday’s evidence. The text is infused with understated humour. He befriends two Dynamo Zagreb hooligans who tell him, “If you say fuck off, sure thing I will kick you in the head”. He compliments them on their English.

It’s not just a ‘football book’, but a book about a changing world filtered through football. Plenty of football books have appeared in the last ten years and many others have used football as a pivot. Football books never used to include bibliographies. Now they wouldn’t be seen without one (Kuper is usually first name on the team sheet). There’s the legacy.