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Book review – The Illustrated History of Football

When Guardian Cartoonist David Squires’ first book, The Illustrated History of Football, arrived in the post a fortnight or so back it’s no cliché to say it took me back to my childhood! I felt the same rush of excitement that I remember experiencing every time I got a new Asterix book.

I’ve always loved comic strips and I am an avid reader of Squires’ work, first becoming aware of him relatively recently when I clicked on a link that somebody had tweeted to one of his very funny and perceptive cartoons on both Australian and UK football. I’ve clicked on every such link ever since.

Interestingly, despite the fact that I follow more UK football than I do Australian, I tend to enjoy his Australian work more. Perhaps it’s his closeness to it, being a Sydneysider these days after emigrating from London in 2009, but for whatever reason it might be I think his Aussie cartoons are slightly more cutting than his other work.

Take this, amongst my favourite works of his that I have seen both outside and inside the book, from that awkward moment when Western Sydney Wanderers fans held up a homophobic banner during a Sydney derby. The cartoon eviscerates the RBB, shows their response to the controversy up for what it really is, has a relatively gentle dig at referees, manages to take a not too subtle swipe at a conservative politician in a way that even a kiwi who doesn’t follow Australian politics still understands and appreciates, and as for “new tie” – I just read that for the 600th time and it still raised a chuckle! Am I a bit weird?

The book does what it says on the tin – tracing the history of the game from cave men playing “kicky skully” through to a look at the future of the game beyond the dying sun enveloping the earth. (spoiler: Arsene Wenger is still in charge at Arsenal)

In between, 89 of the big moments that have shaped the game we all love are laid out over two pages each, one in text form and the opposite page in cartoon form drawing laughs from cutaway gags and a superb mixture of irony and cynicism.

The jokes are clever and by no means predictable. You never know who will pop up next, from Tony Blair to Linda Blair (reprising her role in the Exorcist to illustrate Gordon Banks suffering from a tummy bug at Mexico ’70), to the Cybermen, to a random character from three pages ago in a completely different story. I’d be lying if I said I laughed at every single page, but the overwhelming majority drew a good chuckle and a few gave me a good old belly laugh.

One of the highlights that illustrates, for me, Squires’ brilliance is Manchester City winning the Premier League in 2012, snatching it off United in the dying seconds of the season’s final game. It was one of the great finishes to a league I’ve ever witnessed and he depicts it masterfully. In my blogging experience, the most exciting games are by far the hardest to convey because what actually happened is far more amazing than any ability you might have to tell the story – it’s near impossible to do it justice. Yet in this instance he managed add to my enjoyment of the memory forever! From now on I will always picture Sir Alex watching Fenton the dog on YouTube during injury time…

I do have to cover off a few gripes though.

Obviously if you start reading something like this expecting to be upset if your pet moment in the history of the game isn’t there, you are just asking to be irked. I get that. Obviously the man has to sell books in the English speaking world and he couldn’t cover everything. I’ll bet he’s had a million e-mails from people saying “what about [insert my obscure football club winning the cup nobody’s heard of God knows when]” so I won’t bother whining about there being no mention of Roma…

I will however mention three omissions that bothered me – two minor and one not so minor. (If you know me you can probably guess the not so minor one)

Firstly, conspicuous by their absences were the game’s great tragedies. The Munich Air Disaster, Superga, Hillsbrough, Heysel… And I get why. It’s obviously almost prohibitively risky to joke about people dying. But… They are important parts of the game’s history and this is a book about the history of football. It almost seems inappropriate to not include them. It’s a dilemma for sure.

Ultimately though, I believe that some of the best cartoonists in the world are able to be poignant as well as funny. In a book of 91 cartoons we could have had four serious or even moving ones that I think would have improved the offering with some shade to provide contrast to the light.

I also have to say the book is also a touch too Anglocentric for my liking. Ok, ok, obviously as an Italy fan I can live with at least three out of our four World Cup triumphs being painted as blights on the game and the only Italian club achievement that rates a mention being Arrigo Sacchi and AC Milan inventing boring football… I can grudgingly wear that. It’s ok, I can take a joke!!

But I do think there are a few average English moments at the expense of some other more exotic ones that are arguably more notable.

While Leicester’s Premier League triumph was great, so too was Hellas Verona’s scudetto to name but one. There’s little sign of any great South American club achievements. I would love to have learned a little bit of something I hadn’t known much about before, like a great moment from the Copa Libertadores.

Every cloud has a silver lining though. The more depictions of England there are, the more we get to laugh at their misfortune – and hey, I’m all for that!

But those gripes are all just my Italokiwi opinion and others can and probably will argue the toss. I think the more serious problem, and one that’s less debatable, is the lack of acknowledgement of the women’s game. (You must have seen that coming!)

I counted up all the references to women in the book, because I’m anal. I found female spectators, a busy body neighbour, some mums, a secretary, some hotel maids, a prostitute, a nurse, some groupies, I could go on but suffice to say there were lots more ‘background cast members’ along these lines – but I couldn’t find a single woman kicking a football let alone any pages devoted to the history of the women’s game.

I know Squires is no misogynist, that’s obvious from the excellent politics he liberally peppers his work with, so I am a bit perplexed by this.

I flicked him a tweet asking him if he considered including any moments from the history of the woman’s game. To his credit, he replied:

“I did consider it and regret not including it. I wanted to do something about the wartime matches that drew huge crowds in Britain. But sadly, I ran out of time. I regret not doing something about that now.”

I looked through the list of acknowledgements at the end of the book and it was noticeable, again, that they were all men. I wonder if just one female set of eyes might have been enough to have said “hang on, mate…” Bah.

Oh well. Look, I don’t want to spoil my love of this book by over thinking this – because I really did love it and if I didn’t read anything that fails the Bechdel test then a lot of my favourite stuff would be out.

So my verdict is this – buy the book! You’ll love it. It may not be as pure as the driven snow but it’s a great light hearted look at football and worth every penny of the $30 odd bucks you’ll pay to land it on your doorstep.

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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