Speaking from personal experience, football writers sometimes fail to capture the beautiful game’s fluency as they're too busy showcasing their own. Anyone with a synonyms function can describe Man Utd’s build-up play as ‘prosaic’, but the best writers wield florid prose judiciously (case in point; I’m not sure I just used ‘prose’ correctly, or ‘florid’ for that matter). However, when Arthur Hopcraft, author of The Football Man uses ‘plethora’ instead of ‘many’, you can be sure that it wasn’t just necessary, but that the paragraph that housed it is discernibly better as a result.
Reading The Football Man can be a sobering experience for any aspiring football writer; it makes you appreciate how Jose Altidore feels when watching clips of Neymar on YouTube. Hopcraft doesn’t just write exquisitely, he wraps prescient, thoughtful and heartfelt observations in language that makes me want to smash my keyboard and retrain as a barista. Here, for example, are his thoughts on a club’s responsibility to curtail hooliganism:
“Having raised under the banner of town chauvinism, and prospered under it, the clubs have total responsibility to restrain the over-committed and to expel from the ranks the vicious joined only for the pillage”
Split into nine essays, each covering a different footballing institution (e.g. ‘The Fan’, ‘The Manager’, ‘The Referee’, ‘Football and the Press’) The Football Man combines interviews, case studies and Hopcraft’s own reflections to provide insight into the ever-present, ever-changing systems that have underpinned England’s most popular sport for well over a century. Interestingly, as is often the case when studying a historical text, many of the observations feel so current it’s easy to forget you’re reading a book originally published in 1968.
The Football Man makes one long for a simpler time while simultaneously reassuring us that the issues afflicting the modern game (celebrity athletes, dominant clubs, a collusive sports media and breakaway European leagues) are not so new, and that the game, at its core, remains beautiful. If you’ve anyone in your life who simply can’t understand your passion for football, ask them to read the introduction to The Football Man (“football does not ask for faith; it compels examination”) it may not make them a believer, but it’ll make them think twice.