Season of the Pitch

“THE MINDSET WAS PREDISPOSED TO BE NEGATIVE,” the writer Pete Davies said not long ago. We were discussing English attitudes in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup—Italia ’90—the subject of his elating travelogue, All Played Out, often described as the greatest book about soccer. The national game had been in a bad way—the playing style primitive, the supporters feral. An article by Brian Glanville, a prominent reporter, carried the headline “England Abroad: Shame and Mediocrity.” The general prognosis was that the team would be, in Davies’s word, “shit,” that “we’d be an embarrassment” both on and off the pitch. Margaret Thatcher had expressed the view that the team would be better off not taking part.

As things turned out, England progressed to the semifinal, using a bold, un-English tactical formation, and the players were awarded the trophy for “fair play,” a source of pride to the Prime Minister. Destructive supporters, the street-fighting “hooligan” contingent, were in the minority. Back home, the BBC did all it could to tap the grandeur of the setting, with Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” deployed as a recurring theme. An audience of more than 25 million watched England lose to West Germany in a penalty shootout. Italia ’90 became, in the words of John Lanchester, reviewing All Played Out, the year’s “most engrossing cultural event,” overhauling soccer’s role in British life. “The transformation happened in four weeks,” Davies told me.

All Played Out, which appeared at the end of October, drew on his experiences not just as a visitor to what he called “Planet Football” but an insider at the England team camp, a young novelist who had somehow breached the wall. What he found served to vindicate the sense of optimism. “The public image of Gary Lineker is as a mild-mannered and intelligent individual,” he wrote, in a chapter on England’s attacker. “I saw no evidence to suggest that the public image had it wrong.” The crucial incident—prime catalyst for the transformation—came during the defeat to West Germany when Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne, England’s twenty-three-year-old star player, received a yellow card that would rule him out of playing the next match. “He looked mental, torn up, cut to the heart and the knife twisted hard,” Davies wrote. “Lineker was tapping a finger to his temple, warning the bench that Gazza might have lost it.” On the following page, as England are shown preparing for penalties, Davies delivered the description that every reader knew to expect: “Gazza was crying.”

The image of this wounded, unmacho, would-be national hero appeared on the front page of newspapers and magazines and also the London Review of Books, which ran an article by Karl Miller, the journal’s founding editor, who characterized Gazza as “strange-eyed, pink-faced, fair-haired, tense and upright, a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun.” Not long after, the sports journalist Julie Welch wrote, “I can hardly believe this, but I have just spent an entire evening talking about one footballer.” A high-court judge, considering a case about whether “Gazza” was trademarked, asked his lawyer if he was more famous than the Duke of Wellington on his return from Waterloo. The reply: “I have to say I think it’s possible.”

So Davies got lucky. When he started his reporting, England hadn’t even qualified—they almost didn’t—and in the end, as he wrote, “England’s was the best story.” And he was lucky to be there at all—to find, or be found by, Tom Weldon, the editor who commissioned the project. Soccer, Davies said, was “a pariah, deemed to be a ghastly violent swamp of ignorance, just clumsy, stupid, decent, unattractive, dangerous, wretched business,” defined by street battles and manslaughter. In 1985, at Heysel, an old stadium in Brussels, a rush of Liverpool supporters caused the deaths of thirty-nine people, most of them Juventus fans. Soccer types were thought to be “pig-ignorant morons,” Davies told me. “So why would you publish a book about it?” The phenomenon of Italia ’90 and the appearance of All Played Out rendered the sport viable as what Davies calls “a literary enterprise.” The following summer, the World Cup formed the backdrop to a novel, Roddy Doyle’s The Van, and a play, An Evening with Gary Lineker. The journalist Andrew Anthony, writing in The Guardian, called for more soccer writing, citing the examples of Davies and the London Review of Books and asking why not Granta and the newspapers’ color supplements?

Then came the deluge. In October 1991, Bill Buford, Granta’s editor, produced his long-awaited study of hooligans, Among the Thugs. In February 1992, the poet and critic Ian Hamilton brought out The Faber Book of Soccer, a tour of hits that ended with an excerpt from All Played Out. In September, Nick Hornby, a thirty-five-year-old former schoolteacher, published a popular memoir about his obsession with Arsenal, Fever Pitch, which helped to humanize soccer fandom. Doyle wrote Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, a novel containing a notable soccer sequence, which won the Booker Prize—and became the best-selling book in the prize’s history. Hornby collected articles on soccer, starting with Doyle’s reflection on Italia ’90, under the title My Favourite Year. The autumn 1993 issue of Granta printed Hamilton’s long essay “Gazza Agonistes” alongside Hornby’s “Fourteen and After,” the first step in his transition from soccer memoirist to comic novelist, a pair of roles that he had revealed to have more in common than anyone had previously imagined.

Meanwhile, Simon Kuper, a recent graduate, was traveling the world, gathering material about soccer’s political dimensions. He had won a student travel-writing competition and an agent introduced him to a number of publishers. He presented his idea for Football Against the Enemy. One editor explained that All Played Out had shown that “there are literate football fans who will buy books” and gave him a copy. “I thought, ‘Wow.’ No looking down on football, taking it totally seriously, writing about it accessibly, but in a much more sophisticated way than I was used to.” Davies had exposed “a gap in football writing.” There were so many ways you could take the subject. “It was like this wide-open field.” Football Against the Enemy, impudent yet revelatory, appeared in June 1994. The same month, the satirist Terence Blacker said that the time had come for the English Football Association to “clamp down on the growing menace of irony, off-the-ball metaphors, and time-wasting intellectualism.”

But “intellectualism” wasn’t quite right. Back in 1965, Brian Glanville had written an essay for Encounter, “Looking for an Idiom,” which diagnosed a “split” in British sports writing “between mandarin indulgence and stylized stridency”—a reflection, he claimed, of the “class structure.” What was lacking was “an idiom which will throw a bridge across the two cultures.” The United States, being “a more fluid society,” had an idiom “close at hand,” Glanville claimed, and offered by way of evidence the work of Red Smith, A. J. Liebling, Damon Runyon, and Ring Lardner. Writing about Lardner, Virginia Woolf had said that “games” gives the American writer “what society gives his English brother.” What happened during the quarter century following Glanville’s polemic was that Britain shed some of its social and cultural regimentation—with consequences for criticism, academia, the arts, and, eventually, soccer.

There had already been stirrings by the time Glanville issued his challenge. Since the Second World War, there had been increasing claims for popular culture. Writing in 1960, in the recently founded New Left Review, Raymond Williams argued that “the need for sport and entertainment is as real as the need for art.” When Glanville’s friend—and teammate on the amateur Chelsea Casuals—Karl Miller was made editor of the BBC’s magazine, The Listener, in the summer of 1967, his predecessor wrote that Miller had “many exciting ideas in mind to suit the tastes of the late nineteen-sixties.” The cover of Miller’s first edition carried a photograph of Allen Ginsberg, and an article by Thom Gunn—author of a famous poem about Elvis—considering the Beatles’ lyrics. Miller introduced coverage of commercial—as opposed to public-service—television, and enlisted as reviewers, along with Williams, the anti-elitist Oxford professor John Carey; Carey’s former student Ian Hamilton, a besotted fan of Salinger and Lowell; and the omnivorous Clive James, a notably informal stylist who claimed that he had been influenced by every American journalist since Mencken. (W. H. Auden, on meeting Miller, said: “You are the man who ruined The Listener.”)

These were also glory days for soccer’s prominence. England staged, and won, the 1966 World Cup. Two years later Manchester United became the European champions—causing the eleven-year-old Hornby, not yet an Arsenal fan, to fall in love with the sport. Pelé’s Brazil dazzled at the 1970 World Cup. In the decade or so after Glanville’s intervention, a number of books appeared that have since become classics, notably Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game, an account of Tottenham’s 1970–71 season. The Listener published articles about soccer by the musicologist Hans Keller, whose discussion of the Brazil team Miller called “among the best pieces of criticism, on any subject, that I have come across,” and by the former Tottenham star Danny Blanchflower, who compared The Glory Game to George Plimpton’s 1966 book about the Detroit Lions. When Miller took up his next editorship, at the London Review of Books, which he started in 1979, he frequently printed articles about soccer, by Keller and Ian Hamilton, a longtime “soccer bore” who shook off his misgivings about “focusing one’s book-reviewing mechanisms on to something one actually enjoyed.” (Miller, for his part, said that he loved “the game of football . . . in ways that can remind me of the satisfactions I have gained from reading books.”)

Nick Hornby was an inheritor of these developments. Born in 1957, he attended Jesus College, Cambridge—where Raymond Williams taught—then spent the next decade drifting. His ambitions were ignited by the work of American authors such as Anne Tyler and Lorrie Moore and the short story writers introduced to a British readership by another magazine launched in 1979—Granta. Bill Buford, when he wasn’t running around with soccer gangs, had identified a group, led by Raymond Carver, whom he called practitioners of “a curious, dirty realism about the belly-side of contemporary life,” and Hornby, by now a busy reviewer, became a proponent and then, briefly, a sort of exegete. Fever Pitch, his pathbreaking account of his relationship with Arsenal, was not the only book that he published in 1992. He also brought out the little-read Contemporary American Fiction, a study of a dozen writers—not just Buford’s gang but Moore and Tyler—including many whose imprint it is easy to identify on his own memoir. (Hornby said that his subtitle A Fan’s Life was an allusion to both Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.)

If Buford took things to their dirtiest extreme—Among the Thugs is all belly-side—Hornby drew on the Granta writers’ unflashy kind of observation, and leavened it with English wryness and self-deprecation. (At one point, he makes the sardonic comment that his experiences of hooliganism had given him “both a taste for sociology and a degree of fieldwork experience.”) It also offered something quite American—what he called a “theory of fandom as therapy.” His obsession with Arsenal was a place where his “unfocused unhappiness,” a legacy of his parents’ divorce, “could thrive.” The book had emerged from Hornby’s visits to a psychiatrist, in particular his habit of opening every session by relating his mood or state of mind to Arsenal’s most recent result. But Hornby also offered “an exploration” of the game’s meanings, what it tells us about “our society and culture.”

Brian Glanville had lamented the lack of an idiom that would “throw a bridge across the two cultures.” But by the time of Fever Pitch, as Hornby claimed in an article that doubled as a defense of his taste for what he elsewhere called “highbrow pop,” the realm of culture was beginning to encompass forms like hip-hop and soap operas. For Hornby himself, more traditional products were of little interest. A fan of Woody Allen and The Godfather, he claimed never to have watched a Fellini film, and though he’d recorded Breathless on VHS, he imagined that it would soon be wiped in favor of a soccer match or an episode of Cheers. He may have read The Master and Margarita, but only because of its influence on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Appearing on Desert Island Discs a decade later, he jokingly introduced his first choice as Wagner’s Ring cycle—it turned out to be Springsteen.

If it had taken a while for soccer to claim full membership of this revolution—and if there had been no successors to books like The Glory Game—the taint of hooliganism was the reason why.

“Football in the ’80s was a violent and shameful thing,” Simon Kuper said. But while he knew there were places where “you weren’t supposed to talk about” soccer, he never asked himself the question, “‘How can I reconcile this?’ It wasn’t unnatural. I liked novels, I liked politics. And I liked football.” It mattered that he grew up for the most part in the Netherlands, to South African parents, and had access to non-English attitudes. “White South Africa is obviously a hugely problematic place,” he said, but his parents, who were well-educated, “took sport immensely seriously, and realized it had all sorts of social or sociological aspects.” When he was ten, the family spent a year in California. His father gave him copies of two anthologies of baseball writing. “I realized, you know, this is a lot more interesting than football articles I read in Shoot magazine.” He also spent days in the library working his way through Peanuts, which, he says, is “hugely about baseball.” By the time he started university, two years before Italia ’90, he didn’t need to be convinced that soccer mattered.

But then Italia ’90 didn’t change the reality of English soccer. It simply altered the public reputation—and the sense of its potential. Pete Davies told me that the soccer-as-pariah narrative had always been “an incredibly 2-D view of things.” Kuper recalled that at the end of his first year at Oxford, the junior common room was “packed to the rafters” on the last day of the 1988–89 football season to watch Arsenal vs. Liverpool—a match ecstatically described in Fever Pitch—barely a month after a disaster at Hillsborough, a stadium in Sheffield, where ninety-five Liverpool fans had been killed. (The Arsenal match had been postponed as a result.) “I knew lots of people at university who were football-mad,” Kuper said. Hornby, evoking his time at Cambridge, wrote, “There were scores of us.” And though he recognized that most football fans didn’t have an “Oxbridge degree,” he was sure to add that nor do they “have a criminal record, or carry knives.” The stands were full of “actors and publicity girls and teachers and accountants and doctors and nurses.”

Davies told me that all along there were people “who just enjoy the game, think about the game, care about the game, understand, both instinctively and intellectually, why it matters”—in the words of All Played Out, as “soul food for billions—a kind of particle accelerator for the emotions of the world.” Davies’s book was “not exclusively for people who love football,” as he announced on the first page, and it required a certain kind of fan to produce that kind of book. Fever Pitch similarly was a book “for the rest of us,” the ones forgotten or underrepresented, the “at least 95 per cent” who “have never hit anyone in their lives”—and anyone curious about the impassioned, or obsessive, nonviolent fan. Fever Pitch and its successor, High Fidelity, in which soccer was replaced by songs, served to ratify a certain sensibility. Andrew Anthony, the journalist who bemoaned the dearth of soccer writing, later said that a study needed to be commissioned of The Effect of Nick Hornby on New Britain.

Kuper, now a columnist at the Financial Times, ascribed the recognition and liberation of the educated soccer fan to the collapsing of boundaries, pointing to moments when the process appears to intensify—“like Italia ’90, or maybe the publication of Fever Pitch.” These days, he explains, “the FT, which sees itself as a high-quality publication,” will cover soccer just as it will cover rap music. “Very few people now knock low culture,” he said. “They don’t even use the phrase anymore.”

FOR PETE DAVIES, America possessed a different valence. He had a taste for science fiction and Raymond Chandler, but wasn’t influenced by sports writing, or postmodern journalism, or stories about everyday habits. All Played Out grew from something else—the looming Americanization of the game he loved. Italia ’90 was the first World Cup since 1950 in which the USA had taken part, and the next competition would be taking place across America. Davies had spent time in New York. He’d gone to baseball games. He saw the Giants play. “And there was this repeated question,” he recalled. “What is it about soccer?” His book, though not aimed at an American audience, was written at a point when soccer’s global prominence and ubiquity were making it irresistible to American interests, at home and abroad.

“The World Cup’s awash with strange and feverish money,” Davies wrote, evoking “an unreality zone of media and marketing mayhem.” Italy for that moment had “turned into a logo.” In December 1989, at the World Cup draw, in Rome, someone suggested he should find a sponsor for his work. Davies asked how. “Simple,” the man replied. “Gas, Telecom, some corporation like that, we can find you a few of their thousands to top up your budget—and all you got to do is make sure their pitchside hoardings are prominent in your pictures.” In a chapter called “World Cup Fever,” Davies portrays Jon Smith (“small, fast, permed, immaculate”), an agent who had invented the commercial entity Team England. Smith was director of First Artist, a company owned by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, which he had taken over after they stopped operating. He was living in California, and saw an item on TV. “I thought, What a great name,” he told Davies. A lifelong Arsenal fan, he had recently become intrigued by American sports. Recalling the Los Angeles Raiders, with their pirate iconography, in his memoir, The Deal, “Their strategy was sensational.” The culture of English soccer, by contrast, was “demure.” During halftime at Highbury, Arsenal’s ground, there would be a military band and a manual scoreboard. (Hornby wrote about Alex Morgan, a police constable who “sang highlights from light operettas and Hollywood musicals.”)

Smith returned to England in 1986 with the idea of “intertwining American entertainment with English sport. Everything that I did from then on was with that in mind.” He introduced product placement, signing up Mars to work with England during the qualifying campaign for Italia ’90. One of the things that attracted Bill Buford to soccer, as a subject, was that growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, he had learned to view sporting events as a “paid-for entertainment.” It was “an exchange,” he wrote in Among the Thugs. “You gave up a small part of your earnings and were rewarded by a span (an hour, two hours) of pleasure, frequently characterized by . . . edible food, working lavatories, a managed crowd, a place to park your car.” Going to a soccer match involved “the greatest possible exposure to the worst possible weather, the greatest number of people in the smallest possible space.” (“All those freezing, boring Saturday afternoons,” as Hornby’s father recalls.) Jon Smith wasn’t the only person who preferred the American model. David Dein, the vice-chairman of Arsenal, had also spent time in the States. Recalling a Miami Dolphins game in a recent documentary, he said, “All I can hear in my ear is ‘hot dogs,’ ‘Coca Cola,’ ‘cold beer.’ They made an event out of it.”

Along with executives at four other soccer clubs, Dein hatched a plan for a super-league, an autonomous corporate structure that enabled the teams in the top division to agree to their own television deal—it turned out, with Rupert Murdoch’s new subscription service Sky. Jon Smith advised the Premier League on its early marketing strategies. Sky’s flagship program was called Monday Night Football, a straight lift from ABC’s coverage of American football. Cheerleaders, the Sky Strikers, performed during halftime (it didn’t last). In this context, the most important piece of British soccer writing in the 1990s, by some way, was the report produced by Lord Justice Taylor in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Taylor recommended the replacement of the old “terraces,” in which fans stood all game, with all-seater stadiums—safer, yes, but more sanitized, more expensive, more exclusive.

Hornby emerges as slightly hard-nosed on this matter. “So, yes, of course it is sad,” he wrote, about the changes coming to the game. He didn’t welcome soccer’s growing status as the suburbanite’s afternoon out. But he thought that the safety of fans justified the overhaul, and asked, to most fans, a virtually sacrilegious question, “What do the clubs owe us, any of us, really?” He thought that actively courting “a new, more affluent group,” though a mistake, was also the prerogative of those in charge. Complaining that soccer would become unaffordable seemed to him “a whinge rather than a cogent objection”—the kind of thing that the character in his book would say, and that his cooler authorial self was simply unwilling to ratify.

The status of All Played Out among soccer books is due in part to its identity as a prophecy and an elegy, as well as a celebration. Soccer, Davies wrote, was “under greater threat than ever from greed and TV.” Speaking now, he bemoans “the ersatzification” of soccer. The Premier League is a shiny show. Clubs are run as businesses, in many cases by American corporations. In the closing passages, Davies writes, “I like the USA, and I like football—but I really doubt whether, come 1994, the two will mix.” In an effort to ease the union, he explained, the president of fifa had suggested that games might be played in four quarters, instead of two halves, to enable more TV ads. But soccer, he wrote, doesn’t belong to Coca-Cola, and he urged the “greedheads” to keep their hands off.

Leo Robson is a journalist based in London.