As we all navigate this global pandemic together, most of us are compelled to fill the void caused by the closure and cancellation of nearly every activity we enjoy. For many of us, this includes the absence of concerts, bars, restaurants, as well as the energetic atmosphere found at Allianz Field on gameday.
During this time, I haven’t watched Tiger King, I haven’t played Animal Crossing, and I certainly haven’t baked sourdough bread. One thing that I have done to pass the time is reading. Lots and lots of reading.
At the beginning of this quarantine period, shortly after MNUFC’s 5-2 win over the Earthquakes in San Jose, I began to catch up on several books that I’ve been eager to read for some time. Perhaps out of obsession or just wanting to scratch that soccer-deprived itch, most of these books were soccer related.
While these books generally covered the same sport, many of the subjects were different in nature. These topics varied from evolution in tactics and advancement in data analytics, to the history of soccer cultures around the globe, encompassing many facets of the beautiful game.
While reflecting on this reading, and desperately needing to take a break from books, I decided to review my top 5 soccer-related books from quarantine reading. Whether you are looking to escape boredom or to deepen your love and knowledge for the game, these books might just reignite that passion for soccer that has been lost in quarantine.
5. Soccer In A Football World (David Wangerin)
Soccer In A Football World is a comprehensive and well-researched historical account of soccer in the United States. In this book, David Wangerin navigates from the pseudo-soccer Ivy league sport of the mid-1800’s, through the promise and ultimate demise of domestic leagues like the ASL of the 1920’s and NASL of the 1970’s. He chronicles the triumphs of the US Men’s National Team as well as their misfortunes on the international stage, culminating with the current state of Major League Soccer in the 21st century.
His thoroughness is apparent with research dating back over 100 years, including the establishment of the United States Football Association (now United States Soccer Federation) in 1913 and the National Challenge Cup (now US Open Cup) in 1914. It provides insight into the Soccer Wars of the 1920’s, continuing through MLS expansion in the early-2000’s, while covering everything in between.
In relation to soccer in Minnesota, Chapter 5 briefly covers the inception of the Minnesota Kicks and their appearance in NASL’s 1976 Soccer Bowl, falling 3-0 to Eusébio and the Toronto Metros-Croatia with over 25,000 in attendance at the Kingdome in Seattle. Chapter 6 then details the folding of the Kicks in 1981, when the Metropolitan Stadium was demolished for what eventually would become the Mall of America, as the team did not secure the rights to play at the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.
If you are looking for something that comprehensively covers the history of soccer in the United States, look no further than Soccer In A Football World.
4. Hillsborough: The Truth (Phil Scraton)
Phil Scraton is a critical criminologist, academic and author, which in Hillsborough: The Truth, writes the definitive account of the Hillsborough disaster. This occurred at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, in which a fatal human crush left 96 men, woman, and children killed, with many more injured and traumatized.
On the day of the semi-final, in an attempt to ease the bottleneck outside the stadium, police match commander David Duckenfield ordered an exit gate to be opened, leading to an influx of supporters, in which overcrowding eventually led to the fatal crush.
The book reveals the inadequacies of police investigations and uncovers the systematic review and alteration of South Yorkshire Police statements. It shows that this conduct was done with the approval of police investigators in their commitment to the narrative that hooliganism and drunkenness by Liverpool supporters had caused the disaster.
The years to follow are characterized by the appalling treatment endured by the bereaved survivors in the disaster’s aftermath, when in 1991, the first coroner’s inquest ruled all 96 deaths accidental. In 1997, as families fought to have the case re-opened, it was concluded there was no justification for a new inquiry. This status remained until the Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009 to oversee the disclosure of documents and examine new evidence, in search of justice for the 96 victims and their families.
Harrowing and disturbing, Hillsborough: The Truth left a deep impact on society and stadium safety standards around the world, and exposes how institutional complacency affects ordinary people when those in authority sacrifice the truth.
3. Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby)
Fever Pitch is an autobiographical essay from British author Nick Hornby, a tribute to his lifelong obsession of supporting Arsenal Football Club. This award-winning memoir was the basis for the film Fever Pitch (1997, UK) starring Colin Firth, and subsequently Fever Pitch (2005, US) starring Jimmy Fallon.
Die-hard fans often identify with Hornby’s story, which represents the life of a soccer fanatic whose every thought revolves around their club, their community, and their position in the league table. It captures the fever pitch of fandom, the agony and ecstasy, with remarkable humor and honesty.
One of Hornby’s passages describes an incident following a Crystal Palace match at Selhurst Park in 1972. Outside the stadium after the game, he saw a man with a Palace scarf, lying on the ground, deceased. What he initially thought was an act of hooliganism, turned out to be a heart attack. It was a sobering moment when he realized there is a naive expectation to pass away without loose ends, knowing whether your team stayed up, went down, or lifted the trophy you spent all season thinking about. He recalled, saying “It worries me, the prospect of dying mid-season like that.”
Fever Pitch illustrates the emotions behind this obsession. It explains how fans measure time in seasons, not years. It also describes how the jubilation of winning the 1989 league title on a 92’ minute goal does not compare to sex, the birth of a child, or winning the lottery.
Whether you are interested in football or not, nothing comes close to capturing the truths and absurdities of a sports-obsessed fan like Fever Pitch.
2. The United States of Soccer (Phil West)
The United States of Soccer recounts the fascinating history of Major League Soccer, with insightful interviews from league officials, players, coaches, journalists, and fans alike. West details the league’s origins and its inaugural season in 1996, from its near-demise in the early-2000’s, to its ultimate rise in the early-2010’s.
The story begins on July 4, 1988 when FIFA awarded the United States with the rights to host the 1994 World Cup, with one major condition: the United States must create a new, professional, first division league. It was an exciting time for the sport in this country, but also daunting, as the North American Soccer League folded only 4 years prior.
With the help of Alan Rothenberg and Mark Abbott, MLS was granted division 1 status by the United States Soccer Federation on December 17, 1993, as a single entity league with 10 teams. Soon after the inaugural season in 1996, MLS nearly filed for bankruptcy in the early-2000’s. It was a time when all 10 MLS teams were operated by 3 owners: Phil Anschutz (6 teams), Lamar Hunt (3 teams), and Robert Kraft (1 team). This commitment to the league by these owners showed belief that soccer can thrive in the United States, keeping the league afloat despite an uncertain future.
Then 20 years on from the inaugural season in 1996, MLS had its first season with separate, distinct owners for each of the 20 teams. The United States of Soccer will walk you through the ups-and-downs of MLS as a league, and pay tribute to the owners and supporters who have propelled its unlikely and formidable rise.
1. The Numbers Game (Chris Anderson and David Sally)
Topping the list is The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally, which truly is to soccer as Moneyball was to baseball. To quote Billy Beane, the center piece of the Moneyball phenomenon, “Chris Anderson and David Sally have the ability to see football in a way few have before them. Be warned: The Numbers Game will change the way you think about your favorite team or player, and the way you watch the beautiful game.”
Chris Anderson, former goalkeeper turned statistics guru, and David Sally, a behavioral analyst, deliver an incisive and analytical way of understanding the game we love. Questions like “How much luck is there in soccer?” and “How much influence do managers have on results?” are covered in incredible detail and provide the insight and knowledge that genuinely makes this book a must-read.
Anderson and Sally analyze the yin and yang of soccer, the light and dark; should teams aim to win or not to lose? They explain why it is important for managers to understand that a goal scored more frequently does not mean it has better odds. They describe why the conventional thing may not be the correct thing, and how weaker teams must be unconventional to survive. Lastly, they show how the following numbers are essential to the understanding the game of soccer: 2.66, 0 > 1, and < 58<73<79.
They answer basic, but profound questions with meticulously researched clarity. It may not be light reading for a casual fan, but to quote Malcom Gladwell, “The Numbers Game does the impossible of making the beautiful game even more beautiful.”