By Simon Kuper
Simon & Schuster, £16.99
Arthur Hopcraft's book, The Football Man came out in 1968, the year in which 33,785 spectators watched Aston Villa lose to Queen's Park Rangers on the last day of the season. Had it not been for my heartless parents, the total would have been 33,786. All right, so it was my barmitzvah that day, but I could have got home in time for the party.
In the years that followed, and as my team sank lower and lower, The Football Man was to provide great solace. A veteran reporter on the circuit, Hopcraft had actually pulled off a very modern trick. Instead of responding to the quotidian demands of sports editors, he described honestly and lyrically the people who inhabited the (then) dusty corridors of club football - players, managers, referees and directors - in a style that chimed perfectly with the burgeoning sociological analysis of the late 1960s.
It was not all positive. The Football Man paved the way for a legion of smart alecs, myself included, to take up their typewriters and, you know, really plunge into the heart and soul of the game. Hopcraft had shown us that football was not only a cause, but a circus in which the real stories took place away from the public gaze.
So when I read Simon Kuper's introduction to The Football Men, acknowledging his debt to Hopcraft, and recalled Kuper's previous titles, all of them dauntingly impressive, I naturally expected a masterly postmodern take on the old classic. Instead of which the book turns out to be no more than a collection of Kuper's writings, most of them on individual players, but also including the film-maker, the late Anthony Minghella, all of which have appeared in various publications since 1997.
But then I read on and ended up relieved. As Kuper - one of the best of several contemporary Jewish soccer scribes - admits, unlike in Hopcraft's day, we need hardly be reminded of football's importance any more. Or of how, the more important it has become, the more ludicrous it grows.
Kuper has two main strengths. Born in Africa, raised in Holland and a resident of numerous American and European cities, currently Paris, he never shrinks from pricking parochial sensibilities. The British, he points out in a piece on Wayne Rooney, much prefer ugly footballers to pretty ones, like Beckham or Owen. At the same time, Kuper laces this weltanschauung with the devilment of an English satirist. The German Lothar Matthäus inhabits a particularly comic interlude. (He is obsessed with mobile phones.) Equally, encounters with the likes of Rivaldo and Glenn Hoddle make one wonder how any talented player can field the attention this brings, yet remain sane in the process. Especially when confronted by reporters like Kuper who insist on asking awkward questions.
That is of course half the shtick, so that when the modern football man lets slip another cliché, we readers can comfort ourselves with the thought that, hey, even if we had been a bit more talented as kids, a bit braver; even if we had made the grade, how banal a social morass we would have been dropped into.
Kuper admits that he has now given up chasing interviews with footballers. Not worth the humiliation. But this begs the question, in the increasingly ring-fenced, sponsor-patrolled heights of the professional game, how intelligent writers will find enough interesting material to nourish discerning readers.
Arthur Hopcraft pretty much gave up football after The Football Man appeared in 1968, going on to an illustrious career writing screenplays. So what next for Kuper? There is a clue at the end of this entertaining and often hilarious assortment, and in his more recent news features in the Financial Times. But, as the author is always ready to remind us, in football as in life, it could go either way.