Book Review: Football & Chess by Adam Wells

Posted November 15, 2012 by William Spicer
Categories: Book Reviews

In Football & Chess, Adam Wells cogently argues that despite the vastly differing images the games have developed, there is in fact a deep connection between them. To be sure, the argument the author makes is the games themselves are similar not that playing the games are similar. It is more useful to compare the chess player and the football coach as opposed to the football player whose equivalent is the Chess piece.

The first hundred or so pages describe, thankfully for readers more familiar with just one of the games, the technical similarities of the two games (e.g. dominating the midfield) and highlight differences in vocabulary. Wells uses plenty of diagrams and examples which make his argument easy to absorb –culminating in the use of the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan: the ‘game of two halves’. He shows in relative depth how the two coaches’ strategies influenced each half (though there is not any mention of the specific goals).

The last forty-odd pages give a primer on general strategic concepts, psychological factors, general features of the games and a discussion of their aesthetic appeal. If you think this sounds parchingly dry, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to read how enthusiastically and crisply Wells does this: “[i]n a single brilliant move by Mikhail Tal can be found intuition, logic, clarity, courage, aggression and devastation –a beautiful combination of the delicate and ferocious.”

There is little not to recommend about the book; my only gripe is that there were not more whole examples (most of the Chess and football examples show snippets of games). Indeed many areas of the book could be expanded to whole books but as there are not any other books of this kind, the publisher can hardly be blamed for not commissioning a multi-volume work.

The biggest recommendation I can give to this book is that it has left me enthused about playing Chess (I had not played for years previously) and highly excited about football strategy.

Book Review: Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football by David Winner

Posted November 15, 2012 by William Spicer
Categories: Book Reviews

When the Netherlands were beaten in their successive World Cup final, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, the 2010 Dutch side’s response to a team of superior technique was deplorable, throwing in tackles that made Joey Barton look lightweight, and what was British Rail really quite punctual. On the other hand, three lost finals. The Dutch underachieve at a far higher lever than the English. But my sympathies arose not from the brilliance of the current side but my somewhat belated obsession with their 1970’s team, and their general football culture. David Winner really sold the Dutch to me –part of me wished I’d been born there.

Brilliant Orange is a cracking read covering the origins of one the most highbrow football cultures ever to have existed. Reading it brought an awareness of the dearth of my own, it left me feeling I would have been a much better player had I grown up there. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s comment on the front cover: “as a Dutchman reading it, it’s a kind of mirror. It shows you things about yourself you’ve never seen before”, for me, this is serious endorsement about the quality of Winner’s perceptions of the Dutch.

The book itself is tastefully presented and numbers the chapters with squad numbers rather than the usual sequential numbers of a team. The text focuses on past Dutch sides rather than those likely to be still fresh in the memory. For English readers much will seem eerily familiar –failure on the breast of expectation, and, most definitely, penalty misses. The Dutch have lost five penalty shoot-outs. Such is their notoriety in this matter the German people now wave five fingers at Dutch football fans in preference to any other rude finger-based gestures. Ow.

Yet this is not your average history of a football culture rather, without being dry or verbose, it takes in topics such as architecture, Dutch traditions of democracy, which evolved from space (the three-dimensional stuff, not the stratosphere upwards) being first frontier. The Dutch had to master their geography, and do so together. As far as I can see this, the limited land and its consequent profound necessity for cooperation has produced the two main traits that mark Dutch football: genius positional play brought about by superior spatial awareness and a consensual attitude to politics that means everyone gives their tupence worth. The neurotic genius of Dutch football also touches on some less savoury topics: racism and scandal. But the overriding feeling is one that Total Football is of a profoundly positive nature, a profound expression of Dutch society.

Perhaps the only gripe I had with book was when it became clear Winner was reluctant to draw conclusions that cut the mustard –although I should point out that David Winner, Dutchophile may well have good reasons for this; he may be too enamoured with the country to criticize it too harshly -what would he say about the 2010 World Cup final; or he may have caught a little of Dutch lack of clinicism himself. Either way, Brilliant Orange is a must read for anyone who loves their football with more than a morsel of culture.

Great Political Football Teams

Posted November 15, 2012 by William Spicer
Categories: Off the Pitch

Great Political Football Teams

It is common conception that politics and sport do not mix. But, given the all-pervasive nature of politics, this is unrealistic. It could also be said that given the near-omnipresence of football, any political theory or practice cannot afford to ignore it. Witness Gordon Brown’s well-timed but hardly left-wing politics on club ownership.

With May Day coming up I celebrate football teams who have made great political statements, or worked for a great political cause.

Anti-Fascism and Anti-Totalitarianism

FC Start 1942

This team was hurriedly put together in Nazi-occupied Ukraine including eight Dynamo Kiev players, before the legendary “death match” against the German “ever-victorious” Flakelf team, FC Start had already notched up six consecutive victories. In the following games the details are disputed but it’s generally agreed the first decidedly unfriendly friendly was won 5-1 by FC Start. Flakelf then demanded a rematch.

It is reported that the re-match was won 5-3 despite the deathly consequences of winning with the match ending when a FC Start defender (Goncharenko) dribbled past the whole defence, rounded the goalkeeper before turning to boot the ball toward the half-way line. The German referee felt obliged to prematurely blow the final whistle.

Whether the whole team were promptly shot or sent to labour camps is disputed but either way, FC Start paid a high price for their bravery.

Euskadi 1937

During the Spanish civil war, Athletic Club (Bilbao) president José Antonio Aguirre sent a Euskadi XI on tour, throughout Europe and Mexico. They even entered the Mexican league with many players remaining in Mexico after Franco’s military victory. The tour raised money for the Basque cause against Franco.

Barcelona 1937

Similar to the Euskadi XI, with the club on its knees financially it sent a team on tour throughout Europe but also to the USA where it was received as ambassadors of the Spanish Second Republic

Anti-colonialism and Nationalism

Athletic Club (Bilbao) 1898 – present

Athletic Club’s policy of playing only Basque players is the epitome of a mature and positive nationalism, which starkly contrasts with the terrorist antics of ETA. FIFA still does not recognize the Basque country’s national team.

National Freedom Front 1958

As the movement toward Algerian independence grew, FIFA kicked Algeria out for playing Morocco (when Algeria was still technically part of France). The NFF played 91 games winning 67, and doing a great deal more for the cause of Algerian independence.


Uruguay 1916

Modern Britain may have a proud record against racism but it was Uruguay who were the first to field a black player. Isobelino Gradín and Juan Delgado took to the field in sky blue against Chile in the South American championship. Gradín scored two goals in a 4-0 victory. Chile complained and perhaps because of the clarity of their complaint (“Africans on the team” ref. Galeano), the result stood.

Treviso 2001

After one of their players was racially abused, this Italian team took to the pitch wearing boot polish on their faces.

ASD Nuova Casteltodino 2010

This Italian side left the pitch after one of their players was racially abused by another player.


Paraguayan Red Cross 1934

This team was formed during the oil-driven war over the Chaco between Paraguay and Bolivia. The team played exhibition matches which raised enough funds to help treat both Paraguayan and Bolivian casualties of war. Notably the team included Arsenio Erico, the Paraguayan footballer who would become the highest goalscorer in Argentine league history.

Arsenio Erico

Further Studies

I am unaware of any teams having a significant impact when taking a stance against homophobia, mental health stigma or physical disability stigma. If you do, get in touch!

FC St. Pauli are also worthy of investigation…