The past summer of soccer showed the popularity of the game among U.S. fans. Broadcasts of the World Cup drew record ratings, and a series of exhibition matches featuring European clubs filled stadiums across the country. But while rich teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid are well known in the States (their August match drew a crowd of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium), the vast expanse of club soccer can be daunting to the novice fan. A new book offers a primer to 101 teams in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Our reviewer finds that even longtime fans will appreciate the tour.
When I first played organized soccer in the late 1970s, our practices were held in a cow pasture, and we were coached by dads who knew little about the game but were willing to give it a shot anyway. If memory serves, the formation of we used was a 2-3-5. We didn’t know much about the world’s sport, apart from the New York Cosmos and maybe the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. If a book like Luke Dempsey’s Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Stars, Stats, and Stories of 101 of the Greatest Teams in the World had been available back then, I would have snatched it up in a heartbeat.
There is something in Dempsey’s book for those who are relatively new followers of the sport as well as those who’ve spent decades supporting their favorite club team. For example, if you are a fan who follows the UEFA Champions League, there have probably been one or two clubs in the early rounds about which you’ve known little or nothing. Maybe you’ve asked yourself who Shakhtar Donetsk is, and whether they could possibly beat your team. Perhaps you’ve wondered about the difference between Olympique de Marseille and Olympiakos. Or maybe you’ve been curious about what CSKA stands for in CSKA Moscow. Of course, you could look all of this up on Google. But for a more entertaining read, there is another option. In Club Soccer 101, Dempsey gives us brief, interesting, informative, amusing, and sometimes troubling histories of the top club teams around the globe.
The current “big clubs” are covered by the book. You will find entries for Real Madrid, Barca, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich. But the bulk of the book covers the successful and storied clubs that do not have global media presence. You can learn a bit about European sides like Brugge, Roma, and Steaua Bucharest, clubs in the Americas such as Cruz Azul, Flamengo, and Nacional, as well as teams in Africa, Asia, and even the U.S.
For each club covered in the book, Dempsey gives its location, year established, nicknames, current stadium, home colors, leading goal-scorer, and player with most appearances in the club’s history. However, the book is much more than a mere reporting of facts. The fun lies in Dempsey’s stories of key matches, insights into the individual personalities of coaches and players, and descriptions of some of the most intense rivalries in the sport.
I enjoyed reading about my favorite club: Arsenal. Dempsey’s essay on the team includes bits about its founding, the rivalry with Spurs, the last-minute 2-0 victory over Liverpool in 1989 which brought the league title to Highbury, the transformation engineered by Arsène Wenger upon his arrival, and the accomplishments of the Invincibles, who went undefeated in the 2003-2004 season. I experienced less enjoyment when I was reminded of the 2006 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final, the 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011, and Wenger’s perennial struggles with the zipper of his parka. While there was nothing new to me in his coverage of the Gunners, I still enjoyed Dempsey’s accounts of Arsenal’s historic matches and select figures who have been influential at the club.
Dempsey has an eye for the entertaining story. One he includes has to do with the Brazilian playmaker Socrates, who promised to leave the country unless free elections were allowed. They weren’t, and he left Corinthians to play for Fiorentina for a season. Years later, at the age of 50, Socrates went to Europe again and played for Garforth Town, a non-league English club. He came on late in a 2-2 draw, playing for only 12 minutes. That was his only match for Garforth Town, however, as the club’s owner Simon Clifford reported that Socrates’ warm-up “consisted of drinking two bottles of Budweiser and three cigarettes.” Another of the book’s more humorous stories comes from the entry for Paris Saint-Germain. Dempsey recounts an instance when the club’s current star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was asked what he bought his wife on her birthday. “Nothing,” he replied, “she already has Zlatan.”
As someone who is interested in the technical and tactical aspects of the game, I was fascinated by the partnership of Valeri Lobanovski and Anatoly Zelentsov, a football coach and a scientist, who took over Dinamo Kiev in 1973. Dempsey describes how they invented a football version of Billy Beane’s Moneyball twenty years before the success of the Oakland A’s. Lobanovski and Zelentsov used computers to engage in a level of statistical analysis never before seen in soccer. The pitch was divided into nine areas, and the skills and actions of players were analyzed within each of those areas. The endurance, reflexes, and memory of each player was also recorded and analyzed. A script of sorts was put into play on the pitch, so that each player knew where to be and what to do within a framework of pre-determined passing moves. For better or worse, all of this helped the club to achieve domestic and European success.
The darker side of the sport is covered in the book as well. There are discussions of the racism that has existed and still persists in and around football clubs. I would have liked to see a discussion of the sexism present in the sport, as this is also a persistent problem. Details of tragedies are also included, such as the Hillsborough disaster in April of 1989 that took the lives of 96 Liverpool supporters, and the plane crash in 1958 which led to the deaths of many Manchester United players and staff, eight journalists, a travel agent, an airline steward, and a pilot.
Several MLS teams make the book, underscoring the fact that its intended primary audience is the American soccer fan. There are entries for D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, L.A. Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, San Jose Earthquakes, and the Seattle Sounders. In the entry for the Sounders, there is an important (at least to me) factual error. In a discussion of MLS attendance, Dempsey states that the 2013 MLS Cup Champions, Sporting Kansas City, had a regular season average attendance of only 11,745, last place in the league. As Sporting is my hometown club, I couldn’t imagine that this was true. Since the rebranding of the club from the Kansas City Wizards to Sporting Kansas City in 2011 and the opening of perhaps the best soccer-specific stadium in the United States, the popularity of and passion for the club has exploded. The actual average attendance in 2013 was 19,709, and the club reached over 50 consecutive MLS sellouts during the 2014 season. Another error in the same entry is a reference to Drew Carey, part-owner of the Seattle franchise, as the host of the American game show, Wheel of Fortune. In fact, he is the host of The Price is Right. Needless to say, the former mistake was more disconcerting to me than the latter.
A more significant oversight with respect to soccer in America is the lack of an entry about the New York Cosmos. While they now play in the NASL, a step below MLS, the significance of this club in the history of American soccer merits coverage in the book. The arrival of Pelé will always be a landmark event for the sport in the United States. Never before had a soccer player been a household name. The Cosmos packed out stadiums across the nation, and other international stars followed Pelé’s lead, coming to play in the NASL when it was the U.S.’s top league. The exclusion is perhaps due to the current irrelevance of the Cosmos compared to the big MLS clubs, but nevertheless its impact on soccer in this country arguably continues today.
Though the book does not delve deeply into the history of the clubs or the sport itself, it is still worth reading. Luke Dempsey’s Club Soccer 101 accomplishes its aim of giving the American soccer fan an easy and entertaining introduction to the history of the sport through the stories of many of its greatest clubs. If you are a passionate and informed supporter of a particular club, there may not be anything new for you related to your team, but given the breadth of Dempsey’s coverage of the landmark matches, important players, influential managers, and sometimes quirky histories of the other 100 clubs, there is still plenty for you in this book. Club Soccer 101 is a nice introduction to the world’s sport at the club level.
W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. 448 pp. ISBN: 9780393349306
Mike Austin teaches philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. He is author and editor of several books, including The Olympics and Philosophy, and he writes the “Ethics for Everyone” blog for Psychology Today. Mike is on Twitter at @.