Joey Barton’s scathing assessment of the footballer biography production line, “England did nothing in that World Cup, so why were they bringing books out? ‘We got beat in the quarter-finals. I played like shit. Here’s my book.’ Who wants to read that?” may probably be the most accurate thing he’s ever said. The literary sinkhole of 2006 saw a slew of biographies of players who were still mid-career, and they were all terrible, soulless cash-ins. If they were the manure, then it’s possible they fertilised the ground for more recent works including Dennis Bergkamp’s ‘Stillness & Speed’ and Pirlo’s ‘I Think Therefore I Play’.
To the august company of work concerning the best player Holland produced after 1988 and the effortlessly cool Italian maestro, I might add Ben Sigmund and Jason Pine’s ‘Fully Committed’. Not, I must say, because of the similarity of ability between them and Canterbury’s favourite footballing son, but because of what the book represents for the game in New Zealand.
It might be surprising to discover, in Ben Sigmund’s biography, that he’s not that interested in football beyond the team that he plays in. I say might be, were it not for the way the book portrays the man himself. This isn’t a game-by-game examination of Sigmund’s Phoenix or All Whites career, but a portrait of the artist as a young and somewhat less younger man.
Jason Pine’s decision to take a choral approach to the narrative, with paragraphs and chapters featuring family and team-mates in their own words, sets Ben’s own words in the context of those closest to him. Obviously the book relies on his word, and there’s no doubt some people who would contest some of the criticisms it contains, but in hearing the voices of his parents, his wife and his team-mates – it avoids becoming a one-tone bar room boast about achievement.
It covers 2010, the Phoenix, Ricki Herbert and that red card. But in some ways this book is at its best when, as it’s subject prefers, it isn’t about the football. The chapters featuring his wife Deanna, and the birth of their son Cameron, are visceral, powerful stuff. But so too are the periods in his life when Sigmund’s options appear narrow, when brick walls loom in every direction. Fortunately, as Nix fans would recognise, there’s never been a brick wall Ben Sigmund couldn’t run straight through if he put his mind to it.
Fully Committed is a story about a talented footballer who signed his first professional contract aged 27. It begins by talking about that night in Wellington when the howling wind was drowned out by 35,000 Kiwi’s realising their team was going to the World Cup. It ends with a much wiser, self-aware and measured man embarking on the next stage of his life.
But it’s also an insight into life as a footballer in New Zealand over the last two decades, from his brush with the doomed Kingz to his brief spell in the NZFC and finally joining up with the Nix. It’s a measured assessment of his own achievements and an offered question about the unfulfilled potential of those who took to the field as the game professionalised in this country – as anyone as determined and focused on success would ask as they bring their career to a close.
What is perhaps remarkable is the amount of change that Sigmund witnessed during his career. Football in New Zealand is often derided, but over the course of his career Sigmund saw professionalism’s false dawn and second coming. He was part of the team which took the All Whites to South Africa in 2010, an incredible achievement by itself. That’s why this book is important. This is the first book of it’s type in New Zealand, the story of a player going pro in New Zealand and reaching the biggest stage in the modern era.
Hopefully his voice, as it is in the book itself, will be joined by many more in the future.
You can get a copy of Fully Committed at branches of Whitcoulls and other retailers, more information is available on his website.
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.