Soccer Men

Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World's Most Popular Sport


By Simon Kuper

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Simon Kuper’s New York Times bestseller Soccernomics pioneered a new way of looking at soccer through meticulous empirical analysis and incisive — and witty — commentary. Kuper now leaves the numbers and data behind to explore the heart and soul of the world’s most popular sport in the new, extraordinarily revealing Soccer Men.

Soccer Men goes behind the scenes with soccer’s greatest players and coaches. Inquiring into the genius and hubris of the modern game, Kuper details the lives of giants such as Arsè Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Jorge Valdano, Lionel Messi, Kakáand Didier Drogba, describing their upbringings, the soccer cultures they grew up in, the way they play, and the baggage they bring to their relationships at work.

From one of the great sportswriters of our time, Soccer Men is a penetrating and surprising anatomy of the figures that define modern soccer.


Soccer Against the Enemy
Ajax, The Dutch, The War
Soccernomics (with Stefan Szymanski)

To my father, who suggested the
idea for this book, as he did for so many other
projects; to Pamela, for tolerating me while
I wrote it; and to Leila, Leo, and Joey,
who I hope will read it one day.

In his book The Football Man, published in 1968, Arthur Hopcraft marvels at the fame of soccer players—at least in countries other than the United States. Say the word Georgie in Manchester, Hopcraft writes, "or in close proximity to some kind of [soccer] activity in any other British town," and everyone will know at once that you are talking about Best. If you say Matt, they think Busby. Denis evokes Law, Nobby means Stiles, and so on. Hopcraft explains this "not by the fanaticism . . . but by the deep and lasting impact made by men of extraordinary personality in the context of sport."
Hopcraft began covering soccer at the age of sixteen. English talk show host Michael Parkinson, an early colleague at a local paper in the tough miner's town of Barnsley, remembers him as "the first reporter I had encountered who wore a bow tie, which took courage in Barnsley in the 1950s."
Later Hopcraft became a well-known writer for television; in 1979 he wrote a famous adaptation of John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But before abandoning soccer he packaged much of his best work in The Football Man, and it's that book that made me decide to write this one.
In his book, Hopcraft anatomizes English soccer of the time in a series of profiles: "The Player," "The Manager," "The Director," "The Referee," "The Fan" (mostly about hooligans), and so on. Hopcraft meets and describes George Best, Alf Ramsey, a young Ken Bates (then chairman of Oldham), and many others. He takes them seriously, not as demigods but as ordinary men and craftsmen. His overly polished prose is now a bit dated, and we no longer need his assurances that soccer is important enough to write about (quite the opposite: We now often need to be told that it isn't). Still, The Football Man is a wonderful book, and prescient in places. Hopcraft tells us that contrary to what many people in 1968 thought, a European Super League would never happen, but he adds, "A more likely suggestion is that a domestic Premier League may hive off from the English Football League to confine top-quality soccer to perhaps a dozen of the country's major areas of population. This is a perfectly rational idea, and one which is known to find favour among a number of men in influential positions in soccer."
I would never dare compare myself to Hopcraft, and I don't wear bow ties, but men of extraordinary personality still make an extraordinary impact in the context of sport, and in Soccer Men I give my take on the soccer men of our day. I have done my best to understand what they are like, not as demigods but as ordinary men and craftsmen.
Like Hopcraft, I began writing about soccer at the age of sixteen: a profile of Dutch player Ruud Gullit, published in World Soccer magazine in October 1986, for which I think I was paid about $40, which was a lot of money to me then. (I'll come clean straight away and say that a lot of the profiles in this book are of Dutchmen. Just be thankful I didn't grow up in San Marino.) I've been profiling players, and managers, and directors, and sometimes even fans ever since. I joined the Financial Times newspaper in 1994, and am there again today, but in between I've had stints at the Observer (one of Hopcraft's old papers) and the Times (London). I have also written for innumerable magazines and papers from Japan (good pay) to Argentina (not so good).
I have never thought that most soccer players have anything special to say. I know a colleague who believes that only by speaking to a real live player can you access truths about the game. This man is forever texting players, and saying things like, "If you speak to Franz Beckenbauer, he'll tell you that . . ."
I reject that idea. I do believe that you can access truths about the game by speaking to Arsène Wenger, if he feels like telling you. I don't believe you can access them by speaking to Wayne Rooney.
In fact, now that I have reached middle age, I've increasingly given up chasing interviews with players. It isn't worth the humiliation. Sometimes a magazine will call and ask, "Can you get an interview with X?" I always say that you can: if you want to spend weeks sending faxes that somehow never arrive, phoning impatient agents on their cell phones, hanging around training grounds, and trading favors with boot sponsors. In the end you'll get an interview with X. He'll probably turn up hours late, say, "I hope we'll win on Saturday," and then drive off again.
Another colleague of mine describes acting as an interpreter for a star who had just joined Real Madrid. As the two of them sat in the car heading for the press conference where the star was to be presented, my colleague asked him what message he wanted to convey to the waiting media. The star looked surprised at the thought. "The aim," he explained, "is to say nothing."
Soccer players almost never say, "No comment." As the English playmaker Paul Gascoigne once pointed out, if you do that, the newspaper will report that the player said, "No comment," which makes him look suspicious. Instead, the player says sweet nothings.
I live in Paris, and the other month I caught Franck Ribéry being interviewed on French television. It was impressive to see how fluently the phrases rolled out: "We played well.... Another big game coming.... Let's hope we can win. . . . Only the team performance matters." In its way, it was a perfect performance. This kind of drivel often satisfies interviewers, too. Many newspapers and television stations barely worry about the content. What they are trying to show is access to players—or the appearance of access. That by itself is enough to sell. I think I sold my interview with Kaká to publications in eight countries.
Of course, sometimes you catch a player on a good day, often after he has retired, and then the interview is a pleasure. I felt that in some of the profiles in this book: going around Cape Town with Bruce Grobbelaar, around Rotterdam with Johnny Rep and Bernd Hölzenbein, or sitting in the Polo Bar in Ascot, England, with Glenn Hoddle. Soccer players tend not to respond well to abstract questions about emotions ("How did you feel when? . . ."), but if you ask about specific moments or places or people, they sometimes get going. Even interviewing active players can be worthwhile. These people are roaring with energy, almost never have low blood sugar or a hangover, and are fascinated by what they do. Nicolas Anelka and Rivaldo were not pleased to see me, but they did say interesting things.
Then there is the intangible sense of a person that you can get only from actually meeting him: his aura, if you like. Once in the Nou Camp stadium someone introduced me to a bandanna-wearing Ronaldinho. While we exchanged pleasantries, I had nearly a minute to take him in from point-blank range. As he stood there, his legs were constantly in motion. He was bouncing, almost dancing on the spot. He also couldn't stop looking around. This may just have been desperation to escape a British geek, but I risked an instant psychiatric diagnosis: attention deficit disorder.
After interviewing great players, we journalists often compare notes. We rarely ask each other what the guy said, because we know it was probably boring. Players today are such corporate men—more of which later—that they usually say exactly what you know they are going to say. Instead, the first question from journalist to journalist is usually, "What was he like?"
After I interviewed Kaká (who said little of interest), I duly reported back to colleagues that he'd been an extremely pleasant, polite bloke. A while later, a German friend of mine interviewed Lionel Messi in Barcelona. "What was he like?" I asked. Well, my friend admitted, Messi had said nothing of interest. But otherwise he had done everything he could to make his guest happy. "What a sweet little man!" my friend marveled.
We ask, "What was he like?" in part because we are looking for the secret of the man's success. We want to believe that great players become great in part because of the men they are. They cannot just be good at kicking a ball. We assume their characters must also be conducive to great achievement. Surely, there are personality traits that unite the firecracker Maradona with the brooding Zidane and the homeboy Messi. In other words: Are superstars exceptional people?
I hope this book adds up to something like a group portrait of the profession. Let's start with the players' life paths. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, popularized the "10,000-hour rule." This is a notion from psychology, which says that to achieve expertise in any field, you need at least 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin: "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again.... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time."
One constant of players' autobiographies is therefore a childhood spent kicking a ball around and, in a cliché of the genre, sometimes sleeping with one. There's one thing all the great players, from Maradona to Messi, have in common: They hit the 10,000-hour mark, at least.
Hitting that mark has consequences for character. Few of the game's superstars have broad life experience outside soccer. From their early teens, when they typically start the move into top-class soccer, they are actively discouraged from developing interests outside the game. One friend of mine, who had a modestly successful playing career, says it's not that players are stupid. Rather, they're blinkered.
That characteristic has probably worsened over time, as the sport has become ever more professional. In various ways, the superstar has changed over recent decades. In particular, two superstar types have all but died out: the leader and the rock star.
From the 1960s, when media attention for players began to grow (see The Football Man), until the 1990s, when television money began to flood the game, the profession that soccer resembled most closely was rock music. Like rock stars, players were pursued by fans and groupies. Like rock stars, they tended to peak in their twenties. Like rock stars, they could say and do and drink and take drugs almost as they liked. Strange to tell, few clubs before the 1990s demanded that players looked after themselves. And so you got rock-star players like George Best and Maradona, and even rock-star managers like Malcolm Allison.
These men lived hard. Not only did the clubs allow it, but players had little to lose by ruining their bodies. After all, few made much money from soccer. Best was "young, popular and rich by lower-middle-class standards," notes Hopcraft in his profile. "It is only because the pay and conditions of leading [players] were so recently those of moderately skilled factory helots that Best and his contemporaries look so excessively and immodestly affluent." Soccer had given these players a brief window in which they could live like rock stars, and so they did.
The other type of superstar common from the late 1960s until the 1980s was the leader. Maradona was one (being a rock star didn't get in the way), but the ultimate leader-superstars were Johan Cruijff and Franz Beckenbauer. Both men were born just after the Second World War, as part of western Europe's baby boom. By the late 1960s, in a world growing in prosperity and shedding deference, the boomers were seizing power for themselves. They demonstrated against Vietnam and led the street revolutions of 1968. On the soccer field, too, they made a power grab.
Cruijff and Beckenbauer didn't only take responsibility for their own performances, but did so for everybody else's as well. They were coaches on the pitch, forever pointing and telling teammates where to move. They helped the nominal coaches make the lineups. They didn't do deference. They demanded a greater share of the game's profits. Cruijff shocked his club, Ajax Amsterdam, by bringing his father-in-law in with him to conduct his pay talks.
Yet when soccer changed in the 1990s, both leaders and rock stars were doomed. With all the new money coming in, clubs became better organized. They regained control over their players. Often the manager—typified by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United—became a sort of dictator over his team. Clubs also began to focus more on the physical and demanded that their players abandon rock-star lifestyles. Even Ronaldinho had to leave Barcelona when the club grew fed up with his partying every night, particularly after he began to take along the teenage Messi. In soccer, the rock star was ousted by the corporate man. Liverpool's defender Jamie Carragher, in his autobiography Carra, describes the "robotic, characterless ideal modern coaches want."
Soccer players today are almost all followers rather than leaders. Joan Oliver, when he was Barça's chief executive, insisted to me that Messi was a leader. But it turned out that by leader, Oliver meant something very different from a Cruijff or a Beckenbauer. Messi, Oliver explained, was a "twenty-first-century leader": someone who didn't speak much but led by example. That's not what Cruijff would have called a leader.
So today's superstar—Lampard, Kaká, Messi—is a slightly monomaniacal corporate man and yes-man. (In my profile of Florent Malouda, I describe his battle to turn himself into just that person.) Sure, they want to win. Like all good corporate executives, they take their jobs seriously. And they're paid a lot to win. They practice hard. A few are driven fanatics—Edgar Davids, profiled here, for example. But anecdotal evidence doesn't suggest that all superstars are like that. Boudewijn Zenden, who played alongside Davids on the great Dutch team of 1998, told me that it simply wasn't true that everyone on the team was a driven fanatic. The one thing they all had in common, Zenden said, was that they were very good at soccer. Davids was known inside the game as a driven fanatic. Other superstars, by contrast, give every appearance of being relaxed. Wayne Rooney emphasizes in his autobiography how "laid back" he is. Steven Gerrard (himself a "twenty-first-century" leader by example only) confirms, "What I love about Rooney is, however big the occasion, he's relaxed.... No warm-up, no tension, let's get cracking, lads. No worries." If you have the gifts of a Rooney, you probably don't need the personality of a Davids.
The myth of the superstar as driven fanatic is one that sports fans like. It suggests an explanation for how these legends got where they are: a route we could all follow to succeed in life, no matter how much or little talent we have. This was the myth behind those ubiquitous advertising posters featuring Tiger Woods: "We know what it takes to be a Tiger." The idea was that Tiger lived every second of his life in devotion to golf and had gotten where he was thanks to fanatical drive. Then it turned out that Tiger spent much of his time picking up girls in bars. In other words, he is a slightly monomaniacal corporate man who got where he is through a natural gift, good coaching, and hitting the 10,000-hour mark (or in his case, given that he started when barely out of the crib, more like the 20,000-hour mark). He works very hard and relaxes the rest of the time, like millions of successful people in all fields. Other than being a brilliant athlete, Tiger has no special characteristics.
I suspect that's true of most of soccer's superstars. "The very rich are different from the rest of us," Scott Fitzgerald mused to Ernest Hemingway. "Yes," said Hemingway. "They have more money." Great soccer players are different from the rest of us, too: They have more talent. Otherwise, the scary truth seems to be that they really are rather like you and me.
It's still worth reading about them. First, these are the heroes of our time—in countries other than the United States and, increasingly, inside the United States, too. We all want to be them; we want to understand them better. Second, each one is shaped by his background. Xavi is a different kind of central midfielder than Gerrard largely because they come from different places. Just as any biographer of anybody would do, I have tried to locate these players in their origins. With David Beckham and Eric Cantona—both now earning their keep in American soccer—I was most interested in how others respond to them.
Once I've met the guy, or have watched him play and read and spoken to a lot of other people about him, I am free to go off and write what I like. That is because soccer players almost never read me. Hopcraft points out the problem of reporters who follow one club all year. They are the journalists who are most likely to get access but are least able to write honestly. "The mere preservation of a tolerable social connection between such a man and the club's players and officials means that he is unlikely to be uncompromisingly critical of them," says Hopcraft. I don't have that problem. I show up at the club, do the interview, leave forever, and then publish it in the Financial Times or a little Dutch magazine. I can be uncompromisingly critical.
"In the main in this book I am more concerned with people than technique," writes Hopcraft, and so am I in mine. I am also concerned with technique, with the craft of soccer: what distinguishes Rooney or Rio Ferdinand from other English players, or why Lampard and Gerrard are so good for their clubs and so disappointing for England. But most of the time, I try to describe these players as if they were human beings. What would you think of Michael Essien or Edwin van der Sar or José Mourinho if he lived next door to you, or worked in your office? There are no demigods in this book, just ordinary men, successful professionals pursuing their careers, often rather bemused by the world's response to them. Hopcraft died in 2004 at age seventy-one, but I hope he would have approved.

Most of these profiles were previously published in the Financial Times, the Observer, the Times of London, Hard Gras in the Netherlands, and an array of other publications. I thank them all for permission to reprint the articles here. I have tidied up the odd phrase and corrected some errors, but I haven't tried to make myself seem more prescient than I was at the time.
A few pieces—including many of the ones about English players—were written especially for this book.
Throughout I have used the word soccer to describe the sport. Many fans—including many Americans—assume this is some cringeworthy American invention. It isn't. Soccer is originally a British word, a contraction of association football, and until about 1970 it was the most common word for the game in Britain. There's nothing wrong with it. However, I have kept the word football whenever it appears as part of a proper noun, a set phrase, or a title: for instance, the magazine France Football, the style "total football," or the book The Football Man.

The Players

Bert Trautmann and Helmut Klopfleisch
September 1997
It's a couple of days after Germany knocked out England at Euro 96. The German team is staying three hundred yards from my front door, in the Landmark Hotel. I walk past the Allsop Arms and the local tramps, who are wearing discarded England caps and scarves, and turn into the Marylebone Road. At the Landmark I have arranged to meet Helmut Klopfleisch.
I know Klopfleisch from a year I once spent in Berlin. He is a moonfaced electrician who was born in East Berlin in 1948 and became a Hertha Berlin fan soon afterward. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall went up, separating him from his club. For a while Klopfleisch spent Saturday afternoons huddled beside the Wall with other Eastern Hertha fans, listening to the sounds coming from the stadium a few hundred yards away in the West. The border guards soon put a stop to that.
For the next twenty-eight years Klopfleisch followed Western teams around Eastern Europe. The Stasi, the East German secret police, followed him. Klopfleisch was often arrested—in 1986, for instance, for sending a good-luck telegram to the West German team at the World Cup in Mexico. In 1989, months before the Wall came down, he was expelled from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Since then he has followed the German national team around the world. He has become the unofficial team mascot, licensed to hang around the hotel and chat with players.
This evening he is sitting at a table in the lobby of the Landmark with the president of Werder Bremen and an old man in checkered trousers. Fritz Scherer, the former president of Bayern Munich, is with them, but excuses himself as soon as I arrive. The old man in checkered trousers is tall and tanned, with elegant gray hair and a perfectly buttoned shirt. It is immediately obvious from his aura that he is a legend.
When we are introduced I fail to catch his name, and so I guess that he is Fritz Walter, captain of the German team that won the World Cup in 1954. But after a couple of minutes I realize that this man is Bernd Trautmann, "Bert" to the English. He is indeed a legend: a German soldier in World War II who was taken prisoner by the British, he stayed on in Britain after the war ended, turned out to be a promising goalkeeper, and ended up joining Manchester City. Most famously, he broke his neck during the FA Cup final of 1956 but played on as City held on for victory.
Trautmann talks like a legend, slowly and ponderously, knowing that whenever he talks, people will listen. It's a style common among very beautiful women.
The conversation turns to Nelson Mandela. Trautmann coughs, and the rest of us fall silent. "I have ordered Mandela's book," Trautmann says. "In my house in Spain I have two thousand books, and I have read most of them. When I come home," and he looks around our little circle, "I will read that book." With great formality he takes a handful of nuts from the bowl on the table.
This goes on for a couple of hours, yet I find it interesting. First of all, Trautmann really is a legend, so nothing he says is dull. But also, the atmosphere at our table is calm and soothing. I assume that this is typical of team camps when everything is going well. The Werder president and Trautmann occasionally order rounds of beer, nobody looks around to see if he can see anyone more interesting (Jürgen Klinsmann, say), and every speaker is permitted time to hold forth.
Klopfleisch alone says little. The general opinion—which I think he shares—is that as a simple electrician, he should be grateful to be here at all.
When Trautmann doesn't have anything more to say, the Werder president explains to me why the German camp is so calm: The Bayern players are behaving themselves. It was different in the past, he assures me. He can say that because his good friend Fritz Scherer has left. "Uli Hoeness—that's the arrogance of Bayern in one man," says the Werder president.
"Paul Breitner," says Trautmann. The Werder president shivers as if he has food poisoning.
The Werder players are very serious characters, he says. Sometimes there'll be a talk on religion in town, and a group of them will go along. Not the Jehovah's Witnesses or anything like that. No, serious theological evenings. Not really Bayern's thing, he thinks. The Werder president says that Werder and Bayern represent two sides of the German character.
"North and South?" I guess.
"I'm afraid I must correct you," he says. "Werder is the Germany of the collective. No stars. Everyone works hard to build something together. The Germany of the 1950s, as it were."
"And Bayern?"
"Bayern is the Germany of today. Too rich, spoiled, always quarreling, and disliked everywhere. And yet they usually win."
That leads us to the great question: Why do Germans always win? Surely, these men must know.
Trautmann takes some more nuts. Klopfleisch and the Werder president look polite but uncomprehending. They don't see my point. After all, Germany doesn't always win. They didn't win the last World Cup, for instance. No, things are not going well for Germany at the moment. The new generation doesn't want to work, and . . .
I give up.
Have they had a nice time in England?
Oh, yes. They are all Anglophiles. There is a tranquillity about this country that Germany lacks.
"You know," says the Werder president, "I grew up in East Berlin. Later I fled to the West. So the division of Germany determined my life. It was the same, of course, for Herr Klopfleisch. And Herr Trautmann became a legend as a result of being taken prisoner in the war. But in England nothing has changed for a hundred years. It's the Old World. I like that so much. The war put an end to all that in Germany."
I learned one thing during my time in Berlin: When it gets late and there is beer on the table and a foreigner present, German conversations turn to war.
"I am a simple man," says Trautmann. He pauses. "This is what I have always remained, but I read my books, and what I read is this: The French, the Americans, the English, they all knew exactly what Hitler was going to do. And so as a simple man I ask myself: Why didn't they do anything? If France had chased him out of the Rhineland in 1936 . . ."


On Sale
Apr 22, 2014
Page Count
400 pages
Bold Type Books

Simon Kuper

About the Author

Simon Kuper is one of the world's leading writers on soccer. The winner of the William Hill Prize for sports book of the year in Britain, Kuper writes a weekly column for the Financial Times. He lives in Paris, France.

Stefan Szymanski is the Stephen J. Galetti Collegiate Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan's School of Kinesiology. Tim Harford has called him "one of the world's leading sports economists." He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Learn more about this author