Howler Book Club: Drawing the game out

Win a copy of The Illustrated History of Football, our latest book club selection

The Illustrated History of Football (Random House UK, 2016), by David Squires

The opening sentence of the Introduction to David Squires’ “The Illustrated History of Football” (details on how to win a copy below) reads, “Before the arrival of organized football, people would drift through life bereft of purpose.” The copy on the back of the book starts like this: “Football was invented as a means for people to have something to talk to their dads about.” I like sarcastic people.

This book warms the heart not only because Squires is a sharp, insightful writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s major events and landmark turning points. He’s also a gifted, wry caricaturist. His book looks nice but it’s sardonic and dark, like a football supporter/soccer fan. As the jacket copy notes, Squires “relives some of football’s most glorious moments” and “helps pierce football’s overblown balloon.” It’s good medicine, and funny as hell.

May as well just admit that for as much as we love it, ours is a game of heartbreak. Yes, we celebrate Pele, Leicester City and Iceland (some of us anyway), but mostly watching, playing and loving soccer is like life: One near miss after another. Blown calls, shots off the post or into the parking lot, goalkeeper mistakes. People biting other people. FIFA. Shocking kit launches. Clueless or malicious owners. I could go on. Similarly, jobs don’t work out, insurance companies don’t feel your pain, relationships crumble, readers don’t like your writing. Caring about soccer preps you for all of it, as much as anything could. Other sports aren’t like this: even basketball teams who lose score 100 points; American football teams get seven points for scoring even once; a day at a baseball game is a win as long as the sun comes out and you get a hot dog. Not soccer. Oh, not our game. As the author notes, “the creation of football led to the blissed-out state of utopia the world enjoys today.”

Squires lives in Australia and was born in Swindon. He does this kind of thing for The Guardian every week, and having only recently discovered him I’m still happily making my way back through his version of recent soccer history. He debuted as a cartoonist in a Swindon Town fanzine and has designed at least two mascots: Swindon’s Rockin’ Robin and West Ham’s Herbie the Hammer. I like the dichotomy he presents as a serious thinker on the game (he is) who has himself contributed to the applesauce of modern football. As Squires makes clear, the game contains everything: Glory and greed, awesomeness and absurdity, with the greed and absurdity characteristically hogging the pie chart. Three late entries make this perfectly clear: page 174’s subtitle is “Liverpool Blow the 2014 League Title”; the next entry is about Luis Suárez biting Giorgia Chiellini; this is followed by a consideration of Germany’s 7–1 win over Brazil entitled “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” in which Scolari asks Löw if he can spare a few goals and Löw answers, “Someone else wants a bailout from the Germans…” Ha ha (say the Greeks, who get a laugh of their own at Angela Merkel’s expense in page 155’s description of Euro 2004).

The author has divided football history into 91 “chapters” (a near-miss…90 would have been perfect — but Squires had to have known that perfect would’ve been all wrong), and even though some of them spring to life around admiring descriptions of Herbert Chapman (in which he wanders off for a half-sentence to refer to Piers Morgan as a “shitehawk”), 1967’s Lisbon Lions, Panenka’s Panenka and Tiki Taka, the author is at his best when he’s annoyed. His chapter on “Mussolini’s World Cup” opens with “As hard as it is to believe that FIFA would award World Cup hosting rights to a brutal dictatorship, that’s exactly what they did in 1934.”

The three chapters on the Argentine Junta’s 1978 World Cup are grim fun. Noting that the “Catholic Church in Argentina had compared the coup to the resurrection of Christ,” Squires notes that FIFA had nonetheless decided that “this nation, soaked in the blood of human suffering, was the ideal location for the world’s biggest sports competition.” The next chapter, which reads a little like science fiction, describes Scotland’s belief that they were going to win it(!) before they had to play Peru and Iran. Dark indeed. And then, surprise, in the next chapter, Argentina win amid “allegations of match-fixing, doping and widespread shithousery that persist to this day.” A few pages previous, he had lamented Holland’s inability to maintain their lead in the 1974 World Cup final under the heading “Total Fuckwits.”

The chapter on the North American Soccer League contains a panel in which Donald Trump, sitting next to Muhammad Ali, leans toward the champ and says, “You want to hear again how I could probably fly if I put my mind to it? Hey, what kind of name is ‘Muhammad’ anyway?” The last paragraph of the book, in a chapter entitled “Stadiums in the Sky: The Future of Football,” goes like this: “The Year is 2019 and you’re at a Premier League game. On the moon. Well, your hologram is. You’re at home, having your organs juiced for space car lubricant. You need TrumpTokens.”

Heartbreaking, yes, but funny. And there’s something about the way Squires draws that’s funny too. On page 99, Pele, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer and Keith Weller (speaking of Leicester…) appear in a panel together with the same weird, wide, circular eyes, and yet somehow Pele radiates pure magic, Best seems sauced, Beckenbauer looks like he regrets leaving Bayern and Weller is just creepy. Maybe I’m projecting, but that’s pretty good cartooning if you ask me. Later on, Messi and Ronaldo get the same treatment; one looks pre-pubescent, the other like he would sacrifice his child for a Ballon D’or. I may see if I can arrange for Squires to design a mascot for the team I support. Timmy the Timber? Whose wide eyes might communicate the desire to fell a tree? That would give me something to talk to my dad about.

The Illustrated History of Football

We’re giving away two copies of The Illustrated History of Football! For your chance to win, tell us which event you think is most deserving of its own chapter in football’s history books and we’ll pick two of the best. Submissions must be made to hello@howlermagazine.com before Tuesday, March 7, 2017.