Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson
Fear and Loathing in La Liga, Sid Lowe

After this year's World Cup, I decided to make a serious effort to follow soccer. I attempted something similar after the 2010 World Cup, but gave up when it proved difficult or impossible to find matches on tv, or find sources that wrote about soccer with regularity. In 2014, the Premier League has at least three games on tv every week, and while Spain's La Liga is currently broadcast on a channel I could not get even if I wanted to, the options for creative workarounds are much better. So I pick Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona to follow, and engage in that ultimate sign of seriousness, reading my way through the literature on the subject.

Spurs and Barça were chosen for reasons of politics. Tottenham was, for most of its existence, a Jewish enclave in north London. British attitudes towards such people being what they are, the team and its supporters came in for a lot of abuse. The non-Jewish Tottenham supporters turned this around in 'Yankee Doodle' fashion and re-christened themselves as a "Jew Army"; if there's one thing guaranteed to win my heart over, it's the eagerness to stand and take it on behalf of someone else. (I first learned about this years ago at Normblog--here's a representative post) Barcelona was a similar matter: I've read enough about Spain in the Civil War years to know that a positive association with Franco was a non-starter, which ruled out Real Madrid and, as I discovered, Atlético Madrid, who were once sponsored by the Air Force. Barcelona made itself into the home of Catalan resistance to Franco, embraced its identity as mes que un club, and spurned putting any sponsorship on their kits for the longest time (the first sponsor was Unicef, in order to raise money for them). From Wilson's book I also learned that the two clubs were linked: Spurs developed the passing, attacking, pressing style of play that, through the Dutch, came to be associated with Barcelona.

Wilson's book occasionally overwhelms with technical detail: it explains a number of concepts easily enough, but many others require watching enough football to know what he's talking about. It's in this manner that detailed technical knowledge arises, though: one must learn and put learning into the service of observing reality. The book comes alive most when talking about English soccer, which is not surprising: Wilson demolishes the poor arguments put in favor of doing things the traditional way with a passion and intensity that simply does not exist elsewhere in the book.

Lowe is a superior theorist, though more journalistic of a writer. He grasps that the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry is not as either club would have it, that neither coalesced into what it claims for its identity until the 80s--or later. Real Madrid's anti-fascist credentials during the Civil War were as good as Barça's; after, for a brief period, they were better. But Real Madrid has consciously and repeatedly chosen to walk away from that legacy while Barcelona have embraced it. It's a silly rivalry, in a way, because these are two of the teams who have the money to get literally any player they want; they are two of perhaps half a dozen who are always buyers. Barcelona has just been cannier with its identity. Real Madrid is a club for fans who just want to say their team won something each year.

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