Sporting biographies have a bad reputation for good reason. Poorly conceived, ghostwritten, extremely dull, ... the list of adjectives could go on and on, and there was a time when they were all justified. But things have improved. Standards have been raised, and so have the expectations of readers. Athletes are working with better writers, and they are sharing more interesting information. Soccer players, in recent years, have been dishing some serious dirt about their careers, and fans and other non-professionals have added to the quality of the work out there as well, producing some fine soccer-related memoirs from more relatable perspectives. Below are 10 tell-all soccer memoirs and biographies that are worth your time.
There are certain people in the world of soccer that appear to be serial biographers. Ferguson’s latest book, published in 2013, is not his first memoir but it is his most talked about. Having written it in retirement, Ferguson clearly felt liberated to dish the dirt on a number of colleagues on and off the field of play. That he is the most successful manager in the history of the sport, lends a certain gravitas to his opinions but he makes a lot of surprisingly cheap digs for a man so decorated and revered in his profession. The biggest talking point has been his take on Roy Keane and the manner of his dismissal from Manchester United, but Ferguson covers a lot of ground and not too many people are safe from his often damning assessments of their careers, characters and abilities. It is a fascinating read from a voice that can’t be ignored.
Another serial biographer, and another man not shy of expressing an opinion no matter how damning or controversial is Roy Keane. Keane’s latest memoir, The Second Half, may very well have been written in reaction to or anticipation of Ferguson’s. The Ferguson v. Keane feud of 2014 has largely been sparked as a result of the contents of each man’s biography. The beef between them is not new but it was brought back into the spotlight this year with a vengeance, and the resulting war of words is seemingly endless and ongoing. Keane worked on his latest memoir with the brilliant Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, so if you are cautious about picking up a book full of scathing personal attacks, at least know that it is well written.
In keeping with the Ferguson-Keane-Man United theme we have so far established, the next entry on the list is Eamon Dunphy—the man who wrote Keane’s previous memoir (Keane, 2002). Dunphy is a controversial figure in his native Ireland. A pundit, journalist, and all around troublemaker with a penchant for saying unpopular things, he is another man unafraid of speaking his mind. He is also a former professional soccer player who played for Manchester United, Millwall and the Republic of Ireland during an era that predates so much of what we associate with the modern game. Dunphy is a witty, intelligent voice, and he’s more than capable of spinning a compelling yarn or two. All of this, coupled with the fact that his playing career took place in a time so far removed from the modern era, makes for an engaging and interesting read.
Moving away from controversy and Manchester United for a moment, let us turn our attention to soccer’s most transcendent and iconic figure: the great Pele. Pele has been an ambassador for the sport of soccer, as well as the Brazilian people, for much of his life. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele led Brazil to three World Cup championships and scored a staggering 1,283 goals over the course of a twenty-year career. In Why Soccer Matters he not only tells the story of his own humble upbringing and inspiring career, but of his people, his culture, and his belief in the unifying power of the game.
Another book that transcends the genre is a deeply moving and unsettling read. Robert Enke was one of the leading lights of German soccer—a goalkeeper enjoying an illustrious career at some of Europe’s top clubs, and on the verge of representing his country at the 2010 World Cup—when he stepped in front of a train and abruptly ended his own life. Ronald Reng, a close friend and writer, pieces together his friend’s life and tries to find meaning in his death. A Life Too Short gives us a window into the internal struggles of a player battling with depression. It’s a touching and warm tribute to a complicated human being, a fascinating biography, and a reminder that the same human frailties and challenges lurk in the lives of the most accomplished among us.
Brian Clough is a notorious figure in English soccer. So notorious, in fact, that David Peace devoted his novel The Damned United to a twisted, fictional imagining of the inner-workings of Clough’s mind. Peace was not the first to take Clough as his muse, however. In fact there have been a staggering 14 Clough-related books published since 2007. Jonathan Wilson, one of soccer’s finest writers, has gone deeper and covered more ground with more insight and precision than any of his peers. Nobody Ever Says Thank You is filled with rich detail and more engrossing anecdotes than can be easily counted. It also dispels many of the myths associated with Clough’s career, and provides illuminating insight and analysis of the teams that he managed.
George Best was one of soccer’s first superstars. Hailing from Northern Ireland, where he was spotted by one of Matt Busby’s scouts, he arrived on the scene at Manchester United looking and acting like a rock star. His autobiography starts in a fairly pedestrian style as he recounts his early career. However, as the book progresses, Best’s struggle with alcoholism starts to take center stage. Candid and blunt throughout, Best doesn’t shy away from the details of his demise as a player and the extent of his affliction. He was thrust into the spotlight in a way that no British player had ever been at the time, and the excessive lifestyle he turned to eventually took its toll. In 2005, he died from complications with his liver after a very public battle with alcoholism. Still, despite the sad ending to Best’s career and life, his story is full of heart and plenty of juicy stories, and his autobiography is an entertaining and heartfelt book.
First things first, this is not a book by the well-known soccer journalist Jonathan Wilson. It is a book by a man with the same name, and it serves as a poignant reminder that not all great soccer memoirs are based on the life stories of professional players. In Kick and Run, Wilson recounts his experiences growing up Jewish in England, living on a kibbutz in Israel, and coaching a youth team in a Boston suburb. Soccer is never far from the narrative as Wilson finds in it a passport to the world and a means of bonding with strangers wherever life takes him. It is a fine memoir full of humor and the complexities of family and human relationships, punctuated, highlighted, and illuminated by the author’s love of the beautiful game.
If non-player memoirs are going to be on this list, then fan memoirs should be represented. And if fan memoirs are to be represented, we cannot ignore Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Hornby’s book is the gold standard by which any fan memoir should be measured. As much a book about the ups and downs of Hornby’s love life, it is a relatable and entertaining read that offers a window into the obsessive mindset of a devoted soccer fan. No matter what efforts he makes to live a responsible life and have mature, adult relationships, he is continually undone by his unflinching devotion to Arsenal Football Club.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one the of the biggest names in soccer’s modern era. His, by all accounts, is also one of the biggest egos. His memoir, I Am Zlatan, however, is much more than an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Telling in vivid detail of his experiences growing up as an emigrant in Sweden, turning to soccer as a means social credibility, and eventually using it to pull himself out of his humble circumstances to become an international icon of the game, he brings his story to life in a gripping and gritty style. He also offers us an insightful peek behind the scenes at some of Europe’s top clubs, describing contract negotiations, player-manager relationships, and the challenges of constantly settling in new environments. And like Ferguson and Keane, he does it all without holding back, without thinking twice before offering critical assessments of his peers on the world stage.