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Sunday, August 28, 2011
Soccer Men

Jack Graul

Rating: Parallels between football and religion are unbounded. The stadium as a place of worship, the passion of its followers, and the celestial reverence of its most prominent figures - namely Pele and Maradona - are just a few examples that suggest football has penetrated global culture more effectively than any religion in the past century. Yet football, like so many faiths upon their arrival on the world stage, has recently been forced under the microscope. In his previous book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper worked with sports economist Stefan Symanski to dispel the myths and clichés of a football world rooted too much in its tradition. In his latest instalment, Soccer Men, Kuper is singularly focused on the game's protagonists - the players, managers, and general managers who embody professional football at its highest level. He has compiled over a decade's worth of profiles that he wrote for various periodicals, including the Financial Times and The Observer, into a single source. Allowing for a few additional essays written specifically for this project, Kuper offers a comprehensive critique of the modern footballer and tones down the holy distinctions, unreal expectations, and tabloid sensationalisms that we have reserved for the game's world-beaters. Soccer Men finely demonstrates that the characters who occupy the highest pedestal in football's collective imagination are ordinary men and successful professionals who all grew up playing and watching a lot of football. More than simply shattering our notions of what Kuper refers to as "demigods," Soccer Men accesses something far more obscure and enigmatic than anything to do with religion - the personality of a modern day footballer. In an interview with Rivaldo in 1999, Kuper pointedly reveals the diligence and work-rate of the Brazilian who is too tired to celebrate news that he has won France Football's European Player of the Year award after a busy day studying film, training, and hosting a charity event. In his profile of Wayne Rooney, he captures the young Englishman's me-against-the-world attitude, developed throughout his childhood in Liverpool and reinforced during his meteoric rise through the Premier League. Written in his typically witty and straightforward style, Kuper's profiles humanise the professional footballer. For readers familiar with Kuper's previous books, parts of Soccer Men may be redundant. The very first profile in the book centres on Helmut Klopfleisch, an East Berliner who grew up during the Cold War era supporting Hertha Berlin of West Berlin. Klopfleisch was previously the focus of an entire chapter in Kuper's Soccer Against the Enemy. Similarly, the final section of Soccer Menessentially serves as an addendum to Soccernomics. Profiles of Arsene Wenger, Mike Forde, Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, and, most influentially, Billy Beane - the statistical guru of professional baseball and manager of the Oakland Athletics - highlight the individuals behind the analytical, data-driven revolution in football. Inevitably, several ideas are rehashed from Kuper's previous work with Symanski. By the end of Soccer Men, it is abundantly clear that after 20 years in the sports journalism industry, Kuper now believes that there is more to be learned about football from a data table than from a post-match interview with the world's most adroit "corporate yes-men." He even admits that on several occasions he was guilty of drawing too large a conclusion from interviews masked too much in euphemisms, and his analysis of the autobiographies of the 'Golden Generation' is particularly critical. Yet despite his harsh assessment of the modern footballer as a writer or an intellect, Soccer Menis a significant collection of profiles precisely because it provides a contemporary, realistic portrait of the men who dominate our most beloved sport.

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