Best football books: brilliant books about the beautiful game
...and not a bargain-bin biography in sight
Footballers aren’t exactly famed for their intellect.
It’s a generalisation, of course, but just look at the books they write. Wayne Rooney’s My Story So Far, released when he was just 20 years old, was unsurprisingly bereft of insight or interest. Ashley Cole famously made no friends when he wrote in My Defence about how he’d nearly crashed his car after being offered a paltry £55,000 a week by Arsenal.
And it’s not just the players. Taylor Parkes’ evisceration of Lovejoy on Football (written by Tim the TV presenter, not John the fictional antiques dealer) is a more startling literary accomplishment than the book could ever hope to be.
Get more eloquent people to write about football, though, and there are countless fascinating stories to tell. So forget the cash-in autobiographies and unwanted opinions, we’ve compiled a list of books that will appeal to all fans of the beautiful game, no matter which team you support.
Upvote any you'd read and enjoyed, or have on your must-read list.
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Best football books
1. Tim Parks - A Season With Verona
Hellas Verona are not one of the glamour sides of Italian football. They’ve never had a Francesco Totti, Roberto Baggio or Paolo Maldini (although Luca Toni did finish his career there scoring 48 goals in 95 games) but when Tim Parks adopts the club as his own none of that matters.
Travelling the length of the country with fellow Hellas supporters (the motley Brigate Gialloblu crew) he follows the team home and away for a whole season, documenting the good – and often quite bad – of Italian football fandom.
2. Simon Kuper - Football Against the Enemy
You couldn’t pay us to read a book about most people’s gap yahs but at the beginning of the ‘90s Simon Kuper embarked on a backpacking trip with a difference. Starting in Germany, where he meets a fan separated from his beloved club by the Berlin Wall, Kuper visits 22 countries in 9 months to find out just what football means to people across the globe and how it can affect politics and culture.
FIFA doesn’t think football and politics should ever mix. Football Against the Enemy proves that’s nonsense
3. Joe McGinniss - The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro
According to TripAdvisor, the number one attraction in Castel Di Sangro is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta that overlooks it. But in 1996 there was only one thing that intrigued Joe McGinniss: the town’s football team. Having unexpectedly reached the second tier of Italian football, McGinnis spends the season documenting their struggle to stay in Serie B, although given the shady characters running and bankrolling the club, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when things don’t turn out quite as they seem...
4. Ronald Reng - A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke
It’s easy to forget that away from the crowds of adoring fans, expensive cars and huge weekly salaries, footballers have to overcome the same mental challenges as the rest of us. Robert Enke was an international goalkeeper who played for some of the world’s best teams, including a spell at Barcelona under Louis Van Gaal, but he also suffered from bouts of depression.
Roland Reng shines a light on a life that from the outside looked close to perfect, and shows how mental illness can affect anyone – no matter how good they seem to have it.
5. James Montague - Thirty-One Nil
The World Cup is played by the 32 best national sides on the planet – but what about the ones that can only dream of even qualifying? In Thirty-One Nil, James Montague goes to watch some of the world’s lowest-ranking national teams as they embark on a quest to reach the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
These are the teams that have to search far and wide for eligible players, overcome crippling political situations, and navigate the aftermath of natural disasters just to play their games, even though they know their chances of qualifying are remote. Read this and you’ll never bemoan an international break again.
6. Jonathan Wilson - Inverting the Pyramid
Liverpool’s domination of the Premier League this season shows their high-octane approach to the game is very much the flavour of the month – but it hasn’t always been that way. Remember when everyone wanted to keep the ball like Barcelona? Or Big Sam’s Bolton POMO’d their way to Europe? Wilson’s thorough dissection of football tactics through the years explains how we got from a load of blokes chasing a ball around the pitch to the highly structured styles of play we see today.
7. David Winner - Brilliant Orange
If Brazilians play football with the fluidity of a Samba dance and England tend to play with all the stodge of a suet pudding, how do the Netherlanders play it? David Winner’s inventive examination expertly finds parallels between the Dutch’s Total Football and everything from the country’s landscape and architecture, to its art and children’s literature.
Some might accuse him of overthinking it – it’s just football after all, right? – but Winner’s connections are so compelling you’ll soon find yourself wondering which books reflect the English national side. Great Expectations, perhaps?
8. John McManus - Welcome to Hell
Named after the infamous banner Galatasaray fans displayed at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, Welcome to Hell is your comprehensive guide to Turkish football. It’ll help you pick which of Istanbul’s Big Three to align yourself with (Beşiktaş, obvs); teach you about how the clubs’ ultras put aside their differences to fight back against police brutality during the Gezi Park protests of 2013; and make you realise just how badly commentators have been pronouncing Emre Can’s name all these years.
9. Uli Hesse - Tor!
With their affordable ticket prices, beer on the terraces and a sausage at half-time, it seems the Germans have pretty much got the beautiful game sussed out – but how did they reach a state of such footballing utopia? Uli Hesse’s Tor! (the German word for goal) explains all, from the reasons behind the various club names and the development of the 50+1 rule (which ensures fans always have a say over what happens at their clubs), to what happened when the Iron Curtain went up.
10. David Conn - The Beautiful Game?
You might think a book published in 2005 would be out of date 15 years later, but David Conn’s examination of how football became the bloated, cash-obsessed monster it is today has arguably never been more relevant.
By focusing on a selection of clubs, the Guardian journalist’s analysis of the Premier League’s inexorable rise explains so many of the game’s problems today, particularly the recent struggles of Bolton and Bury. Perhaps the most worrying part of it is that it’s easy to see many of the mistakes being made all over again.
11. Phil Ball - Morbo
Think Spanish football begins and ends with Barcelona and Real Madrid? Recreativo de Huelva might have something to say about that. Phil Ball’s journey through the history of Spanish football begins with the country’s oldest club and examines the identities that define the various regions and rivalries on the Iberian peninsula. The word “Morbo” doesn’t translate directly into English but it shows that many of these rivalries are based on much more than just proximity.
12. David Goldblatt - The Ball Is Round
If anyone has ever kicked a ball anywhere on earth, and at almost any point in history, chances are it’s mentioned somewhere in David Goldblatt’s 1000-page epic The Ball Is Round. It traces the spread of the game, tying it to particular conditions and cultural trends that show why there are some countries around the world that have been more resistant to its charms. Those are in the minority though, and with unique match reports of landmark matches to punctuate things, The Ball Is Round leaves almost no corner of the world untouched.
13. Adrian Tempany - And the Sun Shines Now
Adrian Tempany was in the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. The opening chapter’s account of what happened that day is vital and truly harrowing, but rather than go over all the details again he spends the rest of the book examining how the disaster has shaped not just English football but the country as a whole.
He explores some alternatives, to prove that they exist, but inevitably it all comes back to the tragic events in Sheffield. If nothing else, Tempany’s writing will leave you in no doubt that justice must be served for the 96 people killed that day.
14. Pete Davies - All Played Out
Until 2018’s semi-final appearance against Croatia, Italia ‘90 remained the pinnacle of England’s World Cup achievements since lifting the trophy on home soil in 1966. For a generation of football fans the tournament still holds a particular charm but All Played Out is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip. Davies is careful to call it as he sees it without generalising, and his access to the players and staff is a world away from the tightly controlled camps the squads retreat to these days.
15. Martí Perarnau - Pep Confidential
Since taking over at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola has changed how many people think about top-level football. It’s no longer enough just to win games, titles and trophies – success must come as a result of style. The Catalan’s three-season spell at Bayern Munich saw a complete transformation of the German giants, even if Champions League glory eluded them. Martí Perarnau’s unfettered access to the staff and players during the first year offers a fascinating insight into the way the hugely successful, if controversial, figure thinks about the game.