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Simon Kuper: 'I was lonely, homesick and doing a book I wasn't equipped to write'

20 years ago, the seminal Football Against The Enemy was published and subsequently won awards & critical acclaim.

IN JULY 1992, Simon Kuper left England on a ferry. In his rucksack, there was a typewriter, traveller’s cheques and not much else. He had been given an advance of £3500 and would spend the next nine months travelling the world, desperately trying to cobble together something resembling the pitch he’d sold to his publishers.

I was 22 and I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, you’ve taken on too much’. It was a crazily over-ambitious idea for a book. I had the idea a couple of years previously. It was based on a BBC documentary about Celtic/Rangers games and the increased tension in Northern Ireland. I had seen the Holland reaction to beating Germany in 1988 which was all about World War II so I had a few stories.”

“I had grown up playing football in Holland and I saw when I came to England that it was almost like a different sport. I was a midfielder and in England I never got the ball – it was always going over my head. And I would think ‘How did it get so different’. So there were elements like that to it as well and I thought ‘There’s a book there’.”

Kuper had some journalistic experience but not much. Occasionally he wrote about Dutch football for World Soccer magazine. Some doors opened up when he won a travel-writing competition in The Independent. On the back of that, he sold the idea for what eventually became Football Against The Enemy. The book would focus on the politics and cultures of various countries, and how football fitted in.

But there was a constant worry and anxiety. In the days before Trip Advisor, Kuper relied on guide books to get around. But for some cities, information was scarce. His father, an anthropologist, had contacts – people that had travelled throughout Europe and beyond. They passed on contact details of friends of friends. Sometimes, it was all Kuper had to go on.

“Through my Dad, I was in this network of anthropologists so I’d often arrive in a city with two or three phone numbers that somebody who had been in Estonia, for example, had given me.  So I’d stand in a phonebox and call these strangers, not speaking any Estonian or very little Spanish, and a voice on the other end would say ‘Oh, no – he’s dead’ or ‘He doesn’t live here anymore’. So often, just getting an interview was an immense achievement.”

Now, any football writer will spend weeks and months attempting to speak with any club employee – player or otherwise. Kuper, in his early twenties, staying in youth hostels and spending days on trains getting to his next destination, had little in the way of credentials. He seemed out of place.

I had a letter from World Soccer, because I was writing about Dutch football for them. But I remember I went to this club in Hungary and they were playing a Uefa Cup match and I had gone to the General Manager with my letter and he said ‘You don’t look like a journalist’. A couple of people said that to me – they were very surprised because I looked like a student. I dressed like a student. I had this one jacket that was getting shabbier and shabbier. And people in football dress-up so I looked like a student journalist.”

Still, Kuper broke bread with many influential football figures. One memorable and genuinely heart-warming chapter sees him take a night train from Rome to Venice because of a pending appointment with Helenio Herrera – the iconic manager of Barcelona and Inter Milan (with whom he won back-to-back European Cups in the mid-60s). They speak about the intricacies of the game for hours before Kuper accompanies Herrera to his dentist – the legendary personality clutching the young journalist by the arm as they make their way through the streets.

Soccer - Training Day - National Recreation Centre Kuper spent an afternoon with the legendary Helenio Herrera and has never forgotten the family's kindness. Source: Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

Despite his inexperience, Kuper was treated with kindness and respect by the vast majority of the characters that crop up in the book.

“I have a friend – Kate, a girl I was at university with. The Herreras had gone on holiday to Leeds and had done a house swap there for a couple of years in the ’70s – God knows why. Kate was a little girl in Leeds at the time and the Herreras had two children and she became friendly with them. So when I was doing the book, she said ‘I know this football manager – Helenio Herrera. Have you ever heard of him?’ So I replied ‘As a matter of fact…’ So she arranged that interview for me. They saw me as a kind of friend of the family and were incredibly kind to me. Mrs Herrera, Helenio’s wife, invited me to stay in their flat.”

Inevitably though, the goodwill wasn’t shared by everyone. Stepping off a plane in Cameroon, Kuper had his traveller’s cheques stolen by the baggage handlers.

I went to the British Embassy and a woman there left a message for my parents along the lines of ‘I’m calling from the British Embassy in Cameroon, can you call me back?’ So my parents thought I’d been killed, obviously.”

While in the country, he attended a national team training session and spotted a familiar face: Roger Milla – the cult hero of the 1990 World Cup. Desperate for content, he nervously approached the then-superstar.

Soccer - African Nations Cup - Final - Cameroon v Nigeria - Stade Mohammed V, Casablanca A terrified Kuper could barely look at Roger Milla when he interviewed him for Football Against The Enemy. Source: Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

“I was just terrified. I had paid something like 500 quid to come to Cameroon. I had to do a book that was okay. I couldn’t see someone like Roger Milla and not ask him for an interview. So I went up to him and said, in bad French, ‘Can I interview you?’ And he said ‘Sure, be here at the same time tomorrow’. I showed up and went to find a guy who could translate for me because my French wasn’t good enough. Milla’s there and we get the interview. I’m really surprised. I was very scared and I hardly dared look at him. As we’re chatting, I’m thinking ‘This is a page, now I’ve got another page’ because I felt the book had to be about 200 pages.”

In September 1993, Kuper was back in his parents’ house and printing off the manuscript. He was finished with football. It had taken over his life for fourteen months and he was ready to move on and concentrate on important matters, like economics. Then, the reviews began to roll in.

The Sunday Times read it and said ‘This is a really poor book’. At the time it was a very influential newspaper and a lot of my friends read it so I was crushed. Then, mostly, the reviews were positive. I didn’t have any enemies. I hadn’t been built up so people were nice. The publishers were talking of doing the paperback version and at that point I thought ‘Well, it hasn’t failed, it was okay’ and that was my goal.”

Then, in late 1994, everything changed. Football Against The Enemy was nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

“I was at the world’s worst journalism training course in Hastings and I’d already bunked off a couple of days. I said to them ‘My book’s been nominated for this award. Can I have a day-off to go to London?’ and they grudgingly let me go. Matthew Engel, who has since become a colleague at the Financial Times, was the chief judge. He gave his little talk and said ‘The winning book is fresh and young’. And I thought ‘That’s what people have been saying about my book. Jesus Christ, he’s going to give it to me’! And they announced it. I went up and shook his hand and I said ‘It couldn’t have happened to a poorer man’. I had never had any money. Suddenly I had £3500.”

Austria Nick Hornby Nick Hornby had a positive effect on Kuper's literary career and championed Football Against The Enemy from the very start. Source: Lilli Strauss/AP/Press Association Images

Afterwards, Kuper socialised with some heavyweights in a Cambridge pub – sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, who had been on the judging panel, and Nick Hornby, whose Fever Pitch had won the award two years before. That book, along with Pete Davies’ superb All Played Out, had captured the zeitgeist. Suddenly, there were intelligent, thought-provoking books about football.

The next day back at Hastings, a call gets put through to me. And that had never happened before. It was a Dutch publisher saying ‘Mr Nick Hornby called us and he said we should publish your book in Dutch so we want to make you an offer for the Dutch rights’. And that was really good of Hornby. He didn’t have to do that.”

“And the week before Christmas,  it all suddenly took off and went crazy. There weren’t any other football books so you bought Fever Pitch, All Played Out and Football Against The Enemy because there wasn’t much else in that sort of vein. We were at the start of the wave but neither Nick Hornby or I created it. Really, Pete Davies was John the Baptist to Hornby’s Jesus, as John Gaustad, the founder of Sports Pages Bookshop told me.”

The book changed things. He started in the Financial Times in January 1995 but led a double-life. Other publications paid him handsomely to write about football. In his first few years at the FT, he made more from freelance football writing than from his day job. But despite Football Against the Enemy having been a game-changer for him, Kuper remains disappointed with it.

“My thinking, when I re-read it about eight or nine years ago, was that it’s not very well executed – it’s messy. Do I think it’s a great book? No. I think it’s a great idea. I would’ve executed it more professionally now but I wouldn’t do that journey in the same way with a rucksack and all of that. I like to sleep in a hotel, in a proper bed. I’d meet people in cafes so it wouldn’t have the colour that it has. It’s uneven. It wasn’t a great book but it was an original book. I get more response to Soccernomics now. This is a bit more cult.”

But Kuper smiles for much of our chat. He enjoys the reminiscing and the memories and the nostalgia. Though the melancholy remains too.

“I’ve got a folder with old train tickets and old notebooks and accreditation from the Brazil versus Argentina game. But it wasn’t a good time. I was lonely and homesick, I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was doing a book I wasn’t equipped to write. I was not an experienced writer. I was in countries I didn’t understand. I wasn’t in control and that’s stressful.”

“It’s a book of discovery, not of certainty.”

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