He’s in the pink | Interview with Simon Kuper

Editor’s note

In Jan 05, in belated observance of the 10th anniversary of the publication of Football against the Enemy (1994), we spoke by telephone with Simon Kuper of The Financial Times. He portrays the volume, ranked 23rd in an Observer survey of the 50 best sports books (8 May 05), as “very much about a time” in the early 1990s, when football was less prominent and less talked about as an ingredient in a nation’s politics and culture.

An updated version of Kuper's first book appeared in the United States in 2006. Soccer against the Enemy

Ten years later, therefore, it made little sense, Kuper said, to think about an anniversary edition, although his work can be seen as foundational for anthropological explorations of the game that were to come. (But see the version published in 2006, pictured at left, and his interview on Only a Game on 1 Jul 06.) The Observer, in its assessment, writes that “the book’s strength is Kuper’s ability to back up his central thesis—that football is the medium through which the world’s hopes and fears are truly expressed—with some impressive legwork. … [W]hether talking to an East German fan coping with Stasi intimidation or investigating the corruption behind Argentina’s 1978 World Cup triumph, the author never fails to convince that this truly is the game that shapes the world.” That Kuper could see football as a vessel of political and social insight helped give shape to the more recent wanderings of Franklin Foer, detailed in How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (2004).

Ethnographies and first-person reporting in European broadsheets, in fan magazines such as When Saturday Comes and FourFourTwo and in a growing roster of dissertations and academic articles about soccer’s cultural significance owe some debt to Kuper as an early experimenter with the genre. Kuper himself continues this work in a weekly column in the Financial Times, although his attention now encompasses sports like cycling, cricket, basketball and rugby.

He returns often to football, however, as in the four excellent book-form magazines titled Perfect Pitch, published between 1997 and 1999 by Headline. In Kuper’s introduction to the first issue—on the theme of “Home Ground”—he addresses the inspiration: “Surely, we thought, there was room for a Hard Gras in England?” referring to the literary football magazine from Holland. Alas, the project was discontinued after four issues. Kuper was editor or coeditor of all four, each sublime in its own way. Other themes are “Foreign Field,” “Men and Women” and “Dirt.” We have managed to procure all but the “Men and Women” issue through booksellers in the UK. In 2003, Kuper wrote Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War, published by Orion. It was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, an award that Football against the Enemy had won previously.

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