Book Report: The Game of Our Lives

game-of-our-lives“The world that English football is now played in has changed again. The country is increasingly diverse; society is more individualized and more networked, and the economy has become an exemplar of a globalized and deregulated liberal model of capitalism. Given its roots, English football has come a long way in adapting to wider changes in attitudes to ethnicity and gender. The journey is hardly over, but football remains an unusually powerful popular theater in which racism and sexism are displayed and challenged.” (The Game of Our Lives)

Title: The Game of Our Lives – The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain

Author: David Goldblatt

Publisher: Nation Books

Publication Date: 2014

Origin: I received The Game of Our Lives as a Christmas present from my in-laws a couple of years ago.

Summary: The Game of Our Lives is an astonishingly thorough examination of football (soccer) in Great Britain, including: its origins and growth, cultural significance, financial explosion and shenanigans, changing demographics, disasters and triumphs, and England’s international fortunes and misfortunes.

It really is the story of British football, told in exceptional detail. Goldblatt oganizes the book by topic:

  • Introduction: England is Paradise
  • Aspiration and Illusion: The Economics of the New Football
  • Keeping it Real? Match Day in the Society of the Spectacle
  • English Journey: Football and Urban England
  • Playing the Race Game: Migration, Ethnicity, and Identity
  • Football at Twilight: Britain’s Endgame
  • You Don’t Know What You’re Doing: The Misgovernance of English Football
  • Last Man Standing: English Football and the Politics of Gender
  • Conclusion: Opulence and Squalor in the Football Nation

Because of this structure, things bounce around a bit chronologically – often resetting, so-to-speak, at the beginning of each chapter – but the result is a focused examination of each topic.

My Take: Anyone who’s read my reviews of other soccer books knows that I love getting a view of the wider context and insight the behind-the-scenes, and The Game of Our Lives really helps with the former. It provides a brilliantly comprehensive view of the overall landscape into which more biographical and anecdotal pieces fit; if something like The Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game is a node in a network, then The Game of Our Lives is the network or web that links many nodes.

However, the same detail and depth that are such strengths of The Game of Our Lives also make it a bit tough to read.

That said, though, while I found it to be a bit of a grind, it was an enjoyable grind…like a hard work-out or an exhausting-but-rewarding project.

Read This Book If: …you’re very interested in professional soccer, particularly in Great Britain.

Notes and Quotes:

“However, football clubs are not businesses like any other. They can attract massive capital injections as a down payment on glamour and status rather than future profit and they can go bankrupt and discharge their debts without actually disappearing.”

  • p5: “However, football clubs are not businesses like any other. They can attract massive capital injections as a down payment on glamour and status rather than future profit and they can go bankrupt and discharge their debts without actually disappearing.”
  • The first part of this quote from p27 reminds of tech bubbles: “The new football economy might by conventional reasoning be considered absurd, a madly spinning wheel of ever larger cash flows that enriches a very small and highly specialized labor force, but produces no profit. On the other hand, as the viewing and attendance figures attest, it is putting on a very popular show and that, in the end, is what it is there for.”

“The new football economy might by conventional reasoning be considered absurd, a madly spinning wheel of ever larger cash flows that enriches a very small and highly specialized labor force, but produces no profit.

  • p29: “For what in the end is a football club but a name and a complex set of stories, memories, traditions, and histories that this embodies? No amount of red ink can eradicate them or diminish their value for those who consider them important.”
  • p38: “What remains of religion in a secular world – and Britain has become among the most secular of societies – is the abiding need for collective energies, identities, and shared meanings.”
  • Today I learned, p91: “Salford Quays were once the epicenter of the world’s leading industrial city; the terminus of the Manchester Ship Canal. Trafford Park, just across the water, was home to the world’s first purpose-built industrial estate.”
  • p148, this quote was followed by many pages of detailed history and some truly appalling examples: “Within the conventional narrative the racism faced by the first generation of English black players and fans has been underplayed. Because the football world has clung for so long to the simple equation of hooligan and racist, the sheer ubiquity of racism on and off the football pitch has been missed. Nor has the considerable dignity with which black players dealt with it always been remembered.”

“Because the football world has clung for so long to the simple equation of hooligan and racist, the sheer ubiquity of racism on and off the football pitch has been missed. Nor has the considerable dignity with which black players dealt with it always been remembered.”

  • Quoting Sven-Göran Eriksson, on page 237: “There is more politics in football than in politics.”
  • p237: “Perhaps it takes the eye of a foreigner to see what is staring us in the face: football is a political game. Wherever there is power, money, and status at stake – and football offers all three – there is going to be a struggle over who makes the rules, who gets the loot, and who takes the glory. English football, which had thought of itself as studiously apolitical, has in the last twenty years become highly politicized.”
  • p249, speaking of the immediate impact of Adam Crozier when he took over the dysfunctional FA and instituted reforms: “In his two short years he moved the organization geographically and psychologically out of Lancaster Gate and into Soho Square; he created properly functioning commercial and marketing departments; excised the cancerous presence of Ken Bates from the Wembley Stadium project thereby keeping it alive; pushed for the appointment of the England team’s first foreign manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson; and brought a degree of professionalism and organizational urgency to the FA that were quite unheralded. What he didn’t do was make a lot of friends where it counted.” Of course, he was subsequently driven out.
  • p253: “As with the changes that swept through the financial world, the neo-liberal program of deregulation and commercialization in football produced a booming economic sector that delivered immense wealth to a small number of people, and created a regulatory environment in which any notion of the public interest and the public good was first decried and then resisted. Both banking and football had developed internal cultures of nonchalance, even disdain for the outside world and the rule of law, and both were blessed with systems of regulation in which powerful vested interests would look after themselves and block outside interference. Both have been subject to endless financial and legal scandals, calls for reform and committees of inquiry, threats of legislation and intervention, and yet both remain substantially untouched. Football’s status as the national game may not be burnished by this but its office is more secure than ever.”
  • p258, speaking of the awarding of the 2018 World Cup: “It is worth noting that while Britain’s heir to the throne and its prime minister cleared a lot of space in their diaries for the final struggle for votes, Vladimir Putin felt it necessary to put in an appearance only when Russia had won the bid for the 2018 World Cup. All the important work had been done long before.”

“It is worth noting that while Britain’s heir to the throne and its prime minister cleared a lot of space in their diaries for the final struggle for votes, Vladimir Putin felt it necessary to put in an appearance only when Russia had won the bid for the 2018 World Cup. All the important work had been done long before.”

  • p263 and 264 include a marketing lesson: “There remains a quiet desperation about the FA Cup. For status, glamour, money and TV audiences it simply cannot compete with the Premier League or the Champions League…No club has formally abandoned the tournament but the unmistakable trend towards fielding weakened, experimental and youthful sides speaks volumes.” So we see that the FA Cup isn’t especially important, and everyone knows it. “The endless incantation of the magic of the Cup in press releases, marketing talk, newspaper columns, and TV highlight trailers suggests its terminal disenchantment.” When you’re touting history and magic due to a lack of genuine interest in the present, you only succeed in amplifying what’s already known. In other words, toot your own horn too much and people are going to notice that no one else is.
  • p267…starts off well, before a dose of idiocy steps in: “Despite all the medical, social, and practical prohibitions, women played and watched football in late Victorian and Edwardian England. The spread of the game among working-class women, enjoying the sporting and economic emancipation of industrial work during the First World War, looks, in retrospect, like the first stirrings of the kind of football mania that gripped boys and men in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1921 the FA, the Football League, indeed the entirety of the England football establishment put a stop to all this. No FA affiliated club was permitted to allow women to use its facilities.” And things have barely changed since then, as p269 continues, “Football made the composition of the board of the average FTSE 500 company look like a paradise of sexual equality.”
  • p273: “Yet at the same time as football players are charged with greed, indifference, cynicism, and laziness they have been elevated to the level of exalted role models. It is a notion so universally acknowledged that the last three prime ministers, Blair, Brown, and Cameron, have all very publically reiterated it. Yet under no rational calculus could it be considered wise to make poorly educated and cosseted teenage millionaires, however technically gifted, personally dedicated or grittily determined they might be, the nation’s moral weathervanes. This whole ridiculous apparatus of expectation and assumption goes into high gear when players’ misdemeanors and bad behavior, on and off the field, are reported. It is unfair on them and helps perpetuate a dressing-room culture where widespread problems of mental illness, gambling addictions and alcoholism have been hidden.”

“Under no rational calculus could it be considered wise to make poorly educated and cosseted teenage millionaires, however technically gifted, personally dedicated or grittily determined they might be, the nation’s moral weathervanes.”

  • p278, clearly applicable to many modern businesses: “Operating inside a network rather than a hierarchy, the postindustrial football coach must be a manager of complexity, consensus and coordination.”

“Operating inside a network rather than a hierarchy, the postindustrial football coach must be a manager of complexity, consensus and coordination.”

  • p283: “Deploying a theatrical and calculated mixture of love and rage, threat and reward, the hairdryer rant in the face and the smashing of tea cups, Ferguson created a dressing room where loyalty and solidarity, self-respect and intense collective ambition appeared to trump greed and self-interest.”
  • p287: “The world that English football is now played in has changed again. The country is increasingly diverse; society is more individualized and more networked, and the economy has become an exemplar of a globalized and deregulated liberal model of capitalism. Given its roots, English football has come a long way in adapting to wider changes in attitudes to ethnicity and gender. The journey is hardly over, but football remains an unusually powerful popular theater in which racism and sexism are displayed and challenged.”
  • p288, closes the book on kind’ve a downer: “I continue to hope that English football might offer the moments of grace, the collective drama and invented rituals and solidarities from which a different kind of nation might be imaged: the kind of more joyous, brighter and fairer society that Crosland had in mind. But I am left wondering whether the best it can manage is to be the canary in the mine of our impending global mediocrity and domestic fragmentation.”
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Posted in Books, Everything, Soccer, Sports

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