He’s in the pink | Interview with Simon Kuper

To write his first book Kuper traveled to 22 countries over nine months, between 1992 and 1993, on a £5,000 advance from the publisher. He was not a professional journalist and, at 23, had not completed his studies. “I began this book as an outsider” he writes in the first chapter, “Chasing Football around the World.” “I had never sat in a press box or spoken to a professional footballer. … The big names scared me. Interviewing Roger Milla, for instance, I could barely look up from my list of prepared questions.” The publisher’s advance did not go far in Western countries, and Kuper found himself staying in youth hostels. Managers and players comment on his dire straits and worry about a tear in Kuper’s jacket—although some footballers thought it might have been a fashion statement—but it is these acknowledgments of self-doubt that help make Kuper’s book pleasant to read.

Interview with Simon Kuper

GG: You say Football against the Enemy was “about a time,” but looking at the book now would you have added anything, any points of emphasis or disclaimers to what you had written?

SK: You know when I look at the book now it feels like somebody else wrote it because it was so long ago. I’m sure I would have done things differently now, although I find it hard to say exactly what. What I do think is that I couldn’t have written it now because we know so much more about the world and about the football world. On the Internet you can find out all these things about clubs and about football situations throughout the world, whereas when I was going to Ukraine or Cameroon, when I tried to read about them beforehand there was really nothing to find at all. Football was hardly reported in the newspapers as a social or political event, so there weren’t any of these long features which are now very common about the meaning of some soccer event for politics. To write the book now would be (a) somewhat pointless because the material’s all out there; (b) it’s now very common to take that approach so it wouldn’t be worth doing; and (c) the world has become much more similar. When I went to Ukraine or Hungary these were vastly different places from say Holland or England.

Now people will all watch the same football on TV so the fans are subject to the same influences. You see European Championships or World Cups they all dress the same, they paint their faces in the national flags. So their differences are much less vast. I think also because the world is much more democratic now than 10 years ago, the influence of soccer on politics is less important than it was, although conversely it’s talked about much more.

GG: In your mind, when you started working on that first book, were you doing something new that you had not read about in other writings or works of other reporters?

SK: I remember I once heard this radio program about the Rangers-Celtic match and the impact that had on the tensions in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. This was on the BBC. That struck me as really interesting but I didn’t know anything about it. In 1988, I was very keenly aware of the euphoria in Holland when they beat Germany [2–1, in the semifinals of the European Championships] and how this was linked to World War II. Then you got these occasional theories that you half-heard about how Brazil winning the World Cup kept the military regime in power in 1970. So there were these little mentions here and there, but it certainly wasn’t the industry it is now. As everybody always says, there wasn’t much being written about football anyway in those days so there wasn’t a huge body of literature to read.

GG: Has your relationship to the game changed in the time since? Your brief with the Financial Times seems to be pretty broad, including sport in general.

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