Long Live WG Grace. The Past and the Future of Sports Writing

photo-156_john-footJohn Foot is Professor of Modern Italian history at the University of Bristol. He is the author of several books, including Calcio: A History of Italian Football and Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, and writes regularly for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

Both of the fascinating blogs so far (by Simon Kuper and Peter Alegi) have discussed the differences between sports writing from an academic and a journalistic perspective. I work as an academic but I also write “as a journalist,” so perhaps I can offer a contribution which crosses across these professions. Simon wrote about his academic family. Well, I come from the opposite background. My father, mother and great-uncle were all journalists, and my brother is a journalist now. I grew up surrounded by newsprint and hacks and to the sound of a typewriter and the panic of deadlines. I would often go into the huge Daily Mirror building in the centre of London (tragically now demolished) to meet my dad for lunch. I remember seeing the papers roll off the presses in the basement of the building, and all the printers having huge breakfasts in the cafe. I wanted to be a journalist but things took a different term and I ended up spending a lot of my life—very happily—in libraries.

Now, I think journalists are largely responsible for the revolution in football (and to some extent sports) writing over the last twenty years or so. I was inspired by Pete Davis, Simon Kuper, David Winner and Alex Bellos and others when I wrote my book Calcio: A History of Italian Football. I think there are some fascinating trends in footbology (as Peter calls it) at the moment outside of academia – the brilliant Futbologia project in Bologna, for example, which involves writers and others, and is an attempt to talk seriously about football—but also to enjoy the funny and often grotesque side of the game and its superstructures.

As Simon rightly says, journalists are skilled at making academics’ ideas and research readable and available to a wide public (although he is being far too modest about his own work here, of course). This is what makes Soccernomics work so well – it is serious research but made accessible and adapted. Put simply, journalists cut through the crap and the jargon and the absurd long sentences which so many academics love to use and can’t seem to get away from. David Goldblatt’s seminal The Ball is Round is an exception to this rule.

Beyond this, however, I would like to look a bit more critically at my own world – which we can loosely call academia. Firstly, there is still considerable resistance within the academy to research and writing on sport. Time and again, when I am introduced at a conference, people will laugh when my books on football and cycling are mentioned. It is as if football is still seen as a side-show, a bit of fun, a diversion from the real world and real research. So many histories of contemporary Italy, for example, fail to mention sport altogether. Or, if they do, there is a perfunctory reference to Gino Bartali or to World Cup victories. It is still incredibly rare for ‘serious’ academics to actually carry out research into sport. This is, quite simply, an absurdity – a massive historical and social error. How can you understand fascism without understanding its use of sport? How can you analyse post-war Italy without reference to the 1949 Superga disaster, Juventus-Fiat, Berlusconi’s Milan, Fausto Coppi or Ferrari? The calciopoli scandal tells us more about how Italy works than a thousand political corruption cases. The most watched programme in Italian history was the 1982 world cup final. How many people remember were they were that day? Everyone. Who are the uncontroversial national heroes of post-war Italy? Paolo Rossi and Sandro Pertini, both present (in different ways) in 1982. But still little changes. Sport is marginalised and sniggered at. It is time for this to change. Let’s hope a conference like this has an impact.

As C. L. R. James once wrote, in Beyond a Boundary, the best book ever written (not just the best book ever written on sport): the great historians of liberal England “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” Well. I can no longer “accept a system” which simply ignores, or pays lip-service to, the centrality of sport; the way it moves peoples emotions, the way it creates tribes and groupings, the universal languages it uses, its hyper-powerful global reach.

The other problem is simply about trying to write well, clearly and for an audience beyond the specialist one. It is not just a matter of academics not being able to write well. No. It’s much worse than that. Many academics revel in obscurity. The system encourages it. The more obscure the better. If something is popular, if you sell books, you are frowned upon. You are seen as unserious, as “dumbing down” in some way. This snob-culture is everywhere in academia, despite “impact.” Selling books is seen as a bad thing, in itself! The same goes for disciplines. Academics are usually anxious to build boundaries—”

I’m a historian, I’m an anthropologist, I’m a literature specialist.” This turf-marking is another way of excluding all but a small sect of specialists. Exclusionary languages are created to justify your own existence. So, academics have much to learn from journalists . . . but journalists also have much to learn from academics.

Finally, there is the question, which Peter raises, of plagiarism—of the theft of ideas and research. This problem is on the increase, and I think this increase is partly to do with the rise of new sports writing, as well as what Simon Kuper described as the death of the match report. Readers now all know what has happened in the match. They demand more, these days—history, background, stories. These pieces require research, but few people have the time to do this research. Far too much is being written (usually for free) in far too short a time. What happens is that some journalists go to their bookshelves and pick out some of the juicy quotes and ideas from their books. Say, for example, that you were writing a piece for a magazine about the Lazio team of the 1970s. Let’s say, for example, that the piece in question was almost entirely based on the book Calcio. You haven’t actually copied anything (apart from other people’s quotes, which are also part of the author’s research) but the entire edifice of the article is taken from that book—which cost the author years of work in dusty libraries. Do you even cite that book? No. Not even once. And yet you, the journalist, were paid for that piece. This is wrong, but it happens almost on a daily basis.

Finally, we have had the explosion of social media. Now, I love Twitter. In fact, you could say that I am addicted to it. However, I can see its limitations. It encourages (and almost exalts) short-termism, stupidity and under-researched writing (and comments). Last week someone rejected my considered opinion on Arsene Wenger with a tweet which read “the cunt lives in Italy.” Delightful. But there is simply too much stuff—even when it is good. Every day there are numerous excellent articles about my own little niche world: Italian football. Who can possibly read them all? Enough, already. This is unsustainable. We need a moratorium on articles and more quality control. Stop writing. Get down to the library. That’s my motto.

FSF February: Sport and Politics in France—Making of Les Bleus

The Football Scholars Forum 2013-14 season resumes on February 12 at 8pm Eastern Time with a discussion of Lindsay Krasnoff’s The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. The book explores how French political leaders sought to build a national sporting culture through the training of young fútbol (and basketball) players for international competitions. In preparation for the event, you can listen here to Lindsay discussing her book on the New Books in Sports podcast.

To participate in the 90-minute session, please send Peter Alegi your Skype name (if Peter doesn’t already have it) so you can be added to the call.

Looking ahead to our event in March (25/26, time TBD), we’re trying something new. Instead of members reading and discussing the same book, each participant will read one fútbol book (or lengthy article) and give a 5-7 minute report about it to the rest of the group. The idea is to produce a sort of “state of the field” snapshot from a variety of regions and disciplines. Stay tuned for more details about the March event.

Last but not least, we are waiting to hear about our FSF roundtable on “Academics, Journalists, and the Changing Trends in Fútbol Writing” proposed for the “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity & Politics” conference at Hofstra University, April 10-12, 2014.

Oh, did we mention that it’s a World Cup year?

Fútbol Writing in a Digital Age with Jonathan Wilson

InvertingPyramidOn December 5, the final FSF event of 2013 featured  Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, a symbol of independent fútbol writing in a digital age. Wilson fielded questions from an international audience from five continents as part of a 90-minute conversation that can be described as a blend of English pragmatism and fútbol romantico.

The discussion pivoted around the notion that there is a growing English-speaking audience for longer-form writing about the game that goes beyond mixed-zone clichès, diatribes about managers, questionable refereeing decisions, and other narrow, shallow concerns of so much contemporary sport journalism. The challenges and opportunities of publishing in print and digital formats sparked debate, as did the evolving relationship between the futbology work of reporters and academics.

The event set a new FSF record for participants with 21: James Dorsey, David Winner, Lindsay Krasnoff, Alex Galarza, Brian Bunk, Alon Raab, Christoph Wagner, Brenda Elsey, Rwany Sibaja, Juan Pablo Ospina, Andrew Guest, Laurent Dubois, Melissa Forbis, Chris Lash, Davy Lane, David Kilpatrick, Tom Vinacci, Javier Pescador, Liz Timbs, Dave Glovsky, and Peter Alegi.

The audio recording of the session is available here. (For educational/personal use only.)

FSF December: Independent Fútbol Writing in a Digital Age

20131201-181105.jpgJonathan Wilson, journalist, author, founder and editor of The Blizzard, joins us on Thursday, December 5, at 4pm Eastern (9pm GMT) for a free-wheeling 90-minute discussion about the craft of independent fútbol writing in a digital age.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, The Blizzard is a noncommercial football quarterly that combines short- and long-form writing and publishes in both analog and digital formats. Issue Nine is being served up for Thursday’s session, download it here. It includes a tasty menu featuring, among others, David Conn on the rise of Manchester, and Manchester City; Simon Kuper’s dissection of Barcelona tactics; Philippe Auclair interview with Michael Garcia, Fifa’s Ethics Committee chairman; Gwendolyn Oxenham’s search for a kickabout in Iran; Anthony Clavane’s examination of Leeds, ‘the North’, and the contradictory narrative of northern realism; and Igor Rabiner speaking with Lev Yashin’s widow.

Independent English-language publications like The Blizzard and the recently defunct U.S.-based XI Quarterly, or Howler for that matter, suggest that journalists and scholars share many similar challenges and opportunities in publishing rigorously entertaining, meaningful football writing aimed at readers worldwide. We plan to tackle many different issues and questions related to this topic [Click here to read Peter Alegi’s blog post on this].

To participate in the 90-minute session that takes place simultaneously at Michigan State University and online via Skype, please contact Peter Alegi (alegi.peter AT gmail.com) with your Skype name (if Peter doesn’t already have it). Members can also email or tweet him (@futbolprof) questions before the session.

Football and Society in the Middle East

aboutreika_gaza2On November 14, football in the Middle East took center stage at FSF. The conversation focused on a special issue of the journal Soccer and Society, edited by Alon Raab and Issam Khalidi. It began by noting that while football has been a critical force in broader political and cultural developments in the region, there is little institutional support for studying the game in the Middle East.

The ensuing 90-minute discussion demonstrated the value of qualitative scholarly work on football.  The group explored a dizzying number of topics and territories, including football as a source of unity and hope and as a site of political and ideological conflict; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar; soccerpolitics in Turkey; sport and Islamism; Palestinian and Iraqi Kurdish women’s teams; and football films and poetry.

Participants via Skype from around the world were: Alon Raab, James Dorsey, Andrew Guest, Orli Bass, Hikabwa Chipande, David Kilpatrick, Lindsay Krasnoff, Steven Apostolov, Raj Raman, and Derek Catsam. Liz Timbs, Dave Glovsky, and Peter Alegi participated from Michigan State University.

The audio recording of the session is available here. (For educational/personal use only.)

From *Africa’s World Cup* to Brazil 2014

AfricasWorldCup_Cover 2FSF members from four continents convened online on October 24 for a lively discussion of Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space, a new collection edited by Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann.

With the editors and several chapter authors in attendance, the group considered the book’s attempt at blending scholarly and journalistic approaches, as well as the process of writing, editing, and publication. A fruitful comparison between South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 put the spotlight on how the FIFA World Cup is entangled in a web of national and international politics, economics, and culture. There was also a fair share of debate over Luis Suarez’s handball (against Ghana) and the contradictory legacies of this “African” World Cup.

The participants were: Andrew Guest, Chris Bolsmann
, Christoph Wagner
, David Patrick Lane, 
David Roberts, 
Derek Catsam, 
Jacqueline Mubanga, 
Raj Raman, 
Orli Bass
, Rwany Sibaja, 
Laurent Dubois
, Achille Mbembe
, Jordan Pearson, Sean Jacobs, and Alex Galarza (all via Skype); and Liz Timbs, 
Dave Glovsky, 
Alejandro Gonzalez, and 
Peter Alegi (in East Lansing).

The audio recording of the discussion is available here. (For educational/personal use only.)

Africa's World Cup Opens 2013-14 FSF Season

AfricasWorldCup_Cover 2The Football Scholars Forum is pleased to announce the opening of its new season on Thursday, October 24, at 3:30pm Eastern Time (8:30pm GMT). We will read and critique Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann’s Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space (University of Michigan Press, 2013). You can hear more about the edited book in Peter’s interview with New Books in Sports.

As is customary with FSF, the editors, as well as several chapter authors, will participate in a live 90-minute session that takes place simultaneously in East Lansing, Michigan, and online. If you would like to participate in the Skype discussion, please contact Alex Galarza (galarza[DOT]alex[AT]gmail.com) with your Skype name (if Alex doesn’t already have it). Members are also encouraged to email questions to Alex before October 24.

On November 14, we will discuss FSF member Alon Raab’s special issue/edited volume on “Soccer in the Middle East” published in Soccer and Society (2012). In December, the focus shifts to football publications in a digital age, with special guest Jonathan Wilson, fútbol journalist, author, and editor of the quarterly magazine The Blizzard.

Quantifying Fútbol: Soccernomics with Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper

Soccernomics has been called “the Barcelona of football books” and the “Moneyball of soccer.” On Tuesday, April 16, FSF discussed this influential book with the authors: Stefan Szymanski (in East Lansing) and Simon Kuper (via Skype). One of the most important questions asked was: How does the introduction of big data and “soccer analytics” change our understanding of fútbol clubs, fans, and nations? The forum also featured intriguing comparisons between Western Europe and the United States. Joining the authors were: Andrew Guest, Brian Bunk, Christoph Wagner, Corry Cropper, David Kilpatrick, James Dorsey, Mark Siegel, Hikabwa Chipande,  Christian Orlic, Benjamin Dettmar, Peter Demopoulos, Steven Apostolov, Tom McCabe, Alex Galarza, and Peter Alegi. Listen to the audio from the session here. (For educational/personal use only.)

FSF April: Soccernomics

soccernomicsOn Tuesday, April 16, at 2pm Eastern Time (11am Pacific, 7pm GMT), FSF will meet to discuss Soccernomics by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper.

Combining an economist’s brain with a sports writer’s skill, the book applies serious data analysis to everyday soccer topics, revealing counterintuitive truths about the professional game and offering a potentially revolutionary way of looking at fútbol.

Stefan Szymanski will join us here in East Lansing for the session. He is the Stephen J. Galetti Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan. He started researching the economics of professional football in 1989, and has since come to spend his entire time researching the economics and business of sport. He has published extensively on sports related subjects, acted as a consultant to sport governing bodies and national governments, and appeared in court as an expert witness on the economics of sport. Szymanski is a founding partner, with Simon Kuper and Ben Lyttleton, of the Soccernomics consultancy.

Members who would like to participate in the online Skype discussion should contact Alex Galarza (galarza [dot] alex [at] gmail [dot] com) with your Skype name as he will be running the show.