I still struggle to remember what prompted me to buy this book. Prior to buying it, I had never heard of the author and the title seems too vague to warrant any extra attention. I suspect that I bought it on one of those days when I had craving for a football title and was ransacking Amazon for a one to include in my cart before check out. Being unsure of what led to its purchase, the randomness was complete when I picked it out to be part of my 2020 TBR list.
The first thing that strikes a reader about The European Game is its uniqueness. It is an unusual football book. It is a potpourri of all sorts – travelogue, history, tactics, culture and youth development systems. It explores a range of top European football clubs through the lens of these themes without taking its focus off the football. The author, Daniel Fieldsend travels from England by train to the cities that host these clubs and on each stop, he spends days therein and in each chapter, there is an exploration of what makes that club thick. There are twenty chapters with each chapter covering one of the 18 football clubs. One of the additional chapters is a summary of sorts and the other discusses the transfer market.
The uniqueness of each chapter is dependent on the contact who chaperones him through the club during his visit. If it is the team doctor who shows him around then most of the exploration is centred around how sports science has evolved and impacted that particular club. If it is a youth team coach then the history of scouting and youth development comes to the fore. A common theme that runs through the book is an exploration of the picturesque surroundings, history of the club and the legends who have coached and played there, runs through each chapter for each club covered. The writing in The European Game is impeccable; very easy prose that makes the content approachable for almost any reader. The author struck gold when he chose to leave out clubs in his native Britain while making occasional comparisons between the structure and philosophy of the clubs he visited and clubs in his home country. That choice elevates the travelogue theme of the book as the author’s observations are firmly woven like those of an outsider and the unbiased.
My favourite chapters in the book were those of Athletic Bilbao and Ajax. The former because the Basque-only policy has always been intriguing to anyone with a keen eye on European football and reading a little background into the Basque nationalism is interesting. The latter was an exciting read particularly the parts where the differences between Van Gaal and Cryuff football philosophies were explored in some details. The only issue I had with the book was the exceedingly optimistic view of the tactics that each team claimed to own. There were no downsides to the upsides of each tactical view. You look at the results of some of these teams and wonder why it was all hunky-dory on the pages of The European Game but grim on the pitch. This is a minor quibble as I found the tactical insights quite illuminating all the same. I have thoroughly enjoyed this book and glad that I managed to read it in less than three years after purchase (the random nature of my TBR lists means that nothing is ever guaranteed) because while most of the content is historic, it is better to read now while most of the characters discussed are still active in the game.