“David Goldblatt is possibly the best football historian there has ever been,” trumpets an endorsement from the Sunday Times on the cover of this hefty book. (Do not despair: size here equals tremendous value for money).
That paper’s current league of all-time football historians does not appear to be publicly available, but take their word, this is page after page of high-quality astonishment.
Goldblatt’s thesis is that the human appetite to play, watch and talk about football is global and unstoppable, but that when shaped by the weight of politics, economics and history, it takes on some extraordinary local configurations. Islamists in Africa, for instance, ban the playing and watching of football as immodest and sinful, the severity of their stance expressed by tossing grenades into cinemas where people have gathered to watch the Premier League.
Yet, when their own militias are unable to control their urge to play, the commanders relent, on condition there is no swearing, no shorts and all matches end 15 minutes before prayers, whatever the score.
In China, involvement with football during the Cultural Revolution was enough of a sign of ideological backsliding to guarantee selection for FC Gulag. Now, national leader and football nut Xi Jinping sees football as key to being a credible world power, but imposing soccer culture from above has strange consequences: fans support players rather than teams and most fans support at least two clubs.
In El Salvador, clubs became bemused at players begging not to wear the numbers 13 or 18, until it dawned that those numbers had such terrifying gang associations that to wear the shirt was asking for it. The once-great Maracanã in Rio now has an average attendance of zero. Saddam’s Iraq punished qualification failure by making players break their own feet on concrete footballs. But among the Dulux colour chart of corruption and financial athletics, the odd glint of good news catches the eye. Luzira prison in Kampala, for instance, once a leading centre for torture in Uganda, is “now the most humane and successful prison in Africa” thanks to the ability of the jail’s ten-club league to keep the peace.
This is achieved with a level of transparency, democracy and efficiency “that would put most of the continent’s football associations to shame.” They even have a transfer window.
It has transformed lives for the better. As football can. And as this book will.