He's as sick as a Flaubert's parrot

January 11, 2002

Soccer fan Steve Braunias is tackling the literature of the beautiful game on an Oxford fellowship. Huw Richards reports

It would be possible to start a lively debate as to which of "football literature" and "New Zealand soccer fan" is the greater oxymoron. But Steve Braunias is living proof that the fan exists, and argues fervently that the literature does as well.

Braunias, 37, deputy editor of The Listener - New Zealand's leading literary and current affairs weekly - has spent the past few months pursuing his contention as a member of the Reuters journalism fellowship at Green College, Oxford. He argues that football literature existed long before the publication in 1992 of Nick Hornby's autobiographical Fever Pitch , the point at which the literati first acknowledged the game.

He agrees that it is not the sort of project habitually associated with Oxford. "You might say it has come to a pretty pass when Oxford recognises writing about pretty passes," he says. But subverting stereotypes is clearly one of his hobbies.

He diverged from rugby-fixated compatriots when, as an eight-year-old in the Bay of Plenty seaside resort of Mount Maunganui, he saw a superannuated soccer pro performing a ball-juggling act in a visiting circus. "He was an overweight Scotsman, about 45, bald and with bad skin who gave a display of 'keepie-up' with the ball, flicking it up and keeping it off the ground. It was absolutely dazzling, a revelation and the talk of the town - at least I thought it was," Braunias says.

A friend's father, learning of his new-found fascination, lent him a copy of Brian Glanville's Soccer - A Panorama , one of the best general histories of the game. "I was particularly fascinated by the story of William 'Fatty' Foulke, a goalkeeper from the first years of the century who weighed about 20 stone. When his career ended, he was reduced to saving penalties on a seaside beach for pennies, where he caught cold and died. Glanville is a real stylist - a decent novelist as well as a sports writer - and I was fascinated by the tales in the book and in particular by the pathos of the Foulke story."

Without ever having seen a game - "there was only rugby in Mount Maunganui then" - Braunias had become a football fan. Or, to be more precise, a fan of football writing. "There was no football on television, the VCR did not exist and the only real contact was BBC radio at 9.06am on Sunday morning, through a barrage of scratches and whistles, proclaiming messages such as 'Cowdenbeath 3, Partick Thistle 2'. The distance was both a tyranny and a blessing. All you could do was read about it and construct an exotic fantasy world."

Over the past 29 years Braunias has scoured New Zealand's bookshops and built up a library of 194 football books while going through school and starting a career in journalism. His time in Oxford has been spent rereading the best of those books, going through the Bodleian Library's football holdings and interviewing key figures such as Glanville, Hugh McIllvanney and Simon Kuper, editor of the shortlived football literary magazine Perfect Pitch .

"I was more excited about meeting Brian Glanville than I would have been to meet any footballer, except perhaps George Best," says Braunias. "He is an important figure, not just to me but to football writing in Britain - and still active as a writer, although largely forgotten by younger writers."

Glanville has been at it since the late 1940s, but Braunias argues that there was good writing before that. "There was a writer called 'Old International' in the now-defunct Athletic News . His was period, archaic stuff, but it had literary virtues. Ivan Sharpe did not write his book 40 Years in Football until 1952, but it is a charming, highly literate work.

"Received wisdom is that the key moment is the appointment of Geoffrey Green at The Times in the early 1950s. Green was an extraordinary writer who should figure in all football anthologies. He had an unusual baroque, lyrical style - easy to put down because of its apparent pomposity, but for sheer imagery he was quite sensational. The only comparable writer is a Latin American, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, who has written a wonderful book called Football in Sunshine and Shadow ."

Braunias argues that class was the reason why football writers did not receive the same recognition as cricket counterparts such as Neville Cardus. "It was assumed that because it was a working-class game, it could not possibly have a literature."

He enjoys the quality of writing in the British broadsheets as exemplified by David Lacey of The Guardian , while admitting that they do not fill him with the same enthusiasm as their forerunners.

Between hard covers, he sees the big change as "moving beyond the football itself to the more personal and confessional approach written from the fan's point of view". This was exemplified by Fever Pitch , which he describes as a "sensational achievement, superbly written". But he notes that Pete Davies's All Played Out , based on England's 1990 World Cup campaign, predates it.

Braunias hopes to see writers emerging who "combine the engagement of a fan with the authority of the best reporters". He nominates Kuper as the best bet. He sees no reason why "The Great Football Novel" should not be written. Indeed, he suspects, it already has, albeit in non-fiction form, in Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro - "An In Cold Blood about Italian football".

And Braunias may soon contribute to football literature. A 10,000-word report is all Oxford demands in return for his term's fellowship, but he already has two publishers interested in a book-length study.

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