Book review: Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid

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Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: Sid Lowe, the Guardian’s Spanish football expert, takes a look at one of football’s fieriest rivalries through the lenses of the history of modern Spain.

In Depth: Published in 2013, arguably at its recent and super-charged height, Sid Lowe charts the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona from its deep beginnings in early 20th century Spain.

The book starts with a short history of the clubs and Spain. It identifies the widespread assumption that Real Madrid represent the centralised Spanish State. This comes from its Royal (so therefore Real) patronage as well as its historical association with the Francoist dictatorship. On the other side of the rivalry stands Barcelona, the chief outpost of the Republic and victim of the Spanish Civil War, with its passionately defended Catalonian identity. Although instantly recognisable, and the basis of this book, Lowe quickly challenges this distinction and argues persuasively that the Spanish Civil War was a much more complex conflict, particularly in its relation to these two clubs.

Challenging the historiography of the period, something you wouldn’t expect of a book primarily about football, Lowe outlines how the city of Madrid, as much as Barcelona, suffered at the hands of the Spanish Civil War. Presenting the conflict as Franco/Spain vs the Republic/Catalonia, and ergo Madrid vs Barca, is therefore too simplistic. This is also a product of decades of bitter rivalry between these clubs, where these identifies have been both imposed by rivals as well as acted up to.

After this chapters are chronologically ordered and focus on individual players or teams from the clubs overlapping histories. Highlights include; the politics behind Barcelona’s signing of their first post civil war star László Kubala; the deep history of controversial referees in El Clásico matches, one ref was beaten up by Madrid players after a defeat to Barca; the management of Barcelona by the English coach Vic Buckingham, who also managed Ajax and helped to indoctrinate a young Johan Cruyff into the virtues of the ‘total football’ philosophy; the shocking but widespread use of bonuses by the rivals to motivate smaller clubs when facing their rivals, an extreme example was when Madrid could have won the league on the last day of the 1991-2 season away to Tenerife but lost 3-2 after Barca had offered Tenerife a sizeable bonus to win; the ‘dream team’ of early ’90s Barca with Cruyff as manager and the talents of Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário who won four consecutive league titles and the clubs first European cup at Wembley in 1992; the initial success, but then intrigued political downfall, of Louis Van Gaal during his first Barca spell; the extravagant but disastrous Galácticos policy of Florentino Pérez in the early 2000s; and the rise of the Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and it’s superstar Lionel Messi. The final chapter brings the rivalry up to the titanic, but exhausting, battles between Guardiola and Mourinho.

One particularly interesting chapter looks at the Real legend Alfredo Di Stéfano. Signing for, and very almost spending his career at Barca, Di Stéfano was controversially stole at the last minute by Madrid, supposedly with the help of the regime. Here the book is very much a true history book, focusing on archive materials uncovered by Lowe of Francoist reports on Di Stéfano and his suitability for Real rather than Barca. Lowe comments that this signing, and how it happened and was perceived, secured the early image of Barca as the victim of the centralised Madrid. Lowe then looks at the famous five consecutive European Cups Madrid won in the 1950s, largely driven by Di Stéfano’s genius. This is pinpointed as central to Madrid’s identity and shows why the European Cup remains Madrid’s obsession today. One great passage from the night of Madrid’s fifth consecutive European Cup final at Hampden Park, with some 127,621 in attendance, where Santiago Bernabéu told his players that “Man has five senses and five fingers on each hand … You have four European cups.” Madrid duly went on to win 7-3 against Eintracht Frankfurt in a match so brilliant BBC Scotland continued to show it every year at Christmas.

In the interest of balance one final chapter of note looks at Helenio Herrera, Barca manager from 1958-1960, who won back to back La Liga titles in a turbulent reign during Madrid’s period of European dominance. Lowe brilliantly compares Herrera’s arrival at Barca to José Mourinho’s at Madrid in 2010: the worlds most famous manager, who (initially) had the media eating out of the palm of his hands and who employed a direct & physical tactical approach to overcome his rival’s technical gifts. Aside from this there are hilarious, but quite worrying, anecdotes of how Herrera hired a man to sleep with the girlfriend of a player who was too besotted about her to effectively concentrate on football. And also how “amid countless rumours, Barcelona’s doctor was forced to deny that the ‘sugar’ supplements that Herrera handed out were something else altogether … [as] players complained that they couldn’t sleep after games.”

Overall this book is a wonder for any football fan. Lowe’s interviews with past players from Madrid and Barca are a particular highlight as they include all of the star players and coaches mentioned, demonstrating the respect he is held in in Spain.

Best quote: “We creat ballon d’ors, others buy them.” Joan Laporta, former Barcelona President.

Have you read any books on football which rival this one? Please leave your comments below.

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Book review: Our Kind of Traitor

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Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: Whilst on holiday, a young British couple meet a charismatic Russian and quickly befriend him and his family. However his intention to reach out to British intelligence leads them into a dark world of industrial scale money laundering involving the Russian mob, Swiss banks and prominent members of the British establishment.

In-depth: Another month passes and another big screen production of a work of the prolific author John le Carré has come. Upon the recent cinematic release of Our Kind Of Traitor, and being another post Cold War book of his I hadn’t come across, I was keen to see how this story from le Carré set in current times holds up. (I have recently read and reviewed his excellent The Night Manager).

This book is set in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the recent great financial crash, a topic which not only indirectly influences the plot but also springs up in conversations throughout the novel.

The story is made up of four acts. First a young British couple; Perry, a restless 30 year old professor at the University of Oxford; and Gail, a high flying and beautiful lawyer at a prestigious London law Inn; are on a luxury holiday in Antigua. Through an impromptu game of tennis they meet the wealthy, charming and outspoken Russian called Dima. Dima quickly builds a bond with the young couple, particularly by introducing them to his slightly bizarre family, which includes his religious mute of a wife, Tamara, and among others, his sad, but beautiful young daughter, Natasha, who is constantly hiding in her books.

Dima’s intentions in befriending Perry and Gail have clear intentions from the start however. He wrongly assumes the young couple as British spies and asks them to contact their masters to help him move to safety in London. Describing himself as”the world’s number one money launderer,” Dima believes his secrets will secure him the safety of the protection of the British intelligence services.

Here begin the second act. Shocked, but equally intrigued, by Dima’s assumption of him as a British spy, Perry returns to Oxford and meticulously draws up a document of all Dima has told him. He then seeks out an talent spotting Oxford colleague for a doorway to British intelligence. Suddenly Perry, and Gail, are in the basement of a Bloomsbury town house explaining Dima’s words to two agents.

Their minder and interrogator, Luke, is a young agent with a not so distinguished past. Married with a young son, he feels he is rapidly growing apart from this young family due to past infidelities and the emotional distancing his career has brought. Keen to repair and rebuild his life, and field record, Luke takes Dima’s story to his superior, Hector. With Hector’s arrival an operation to meet and fully hear out what Dima has to offer is hastily arranged through Perry and, at Hector’s insistence, Gail.

This operation is the book’s third act, and takes place at the 2009 Roland Garros tennis final in France. Meeting at the final, which Roger Federer runs away with, Perry and Gail rekindle their friendship with Dima. A tennis rematch between Perry and Dima is arranged for the next day, with Dima being secretly introduced to Hector in the massage rooms. Hidden within the steam, Hector learns of Dima’s reasons to flee and what exactly he has to offer.

This is that Dima has fallen from the favour of a man called the Prince, the head of his Russian mob (the vory). Fearing for his life, after his close friend was murdered in proxy by the Prince, Dima is being strong armed into signing over his substantial banking assets to the Prince and his likely murder. These assets reveal information on money laundering on an industrial scale, involving the vory, Swiss banks and members of the British establishment including the fast rising Audley Longgrigg MP.

Convinced of Dima’s worth as a asset, Hector returns to his masters in London to win the support to move Dima and, as promised by Perry, his entire family to the UK. In the meantime Hector authorises the lifting of Dima, and his family, to a safehouse in the Swiss mountains until his passage to London can be secured. Perry and Gail’s skills in managing Dima and his family become crucial here as tensions rise as London stalls.

Finally Hector succeeds, although not after upsetting a number of interests in politics and high finance. London wants Dima, but at first only him. To tease out his information and story, before granting the leverage of his family safe haven. Struggling to convince Dima, and himself, that this is how British Intelligence services work, Perry escorts Dima to the airport, and leaves him with Luke, boarding an empty, chartered plane.

Here the book dark conclusion arrives. The plane explodes in the sky, killing Luke, Dima and the pilots. Who instigated this remains unexplained, as does the fate of the rest of the stories characters, which is a troubling but effective end to the story.

Overall Our Kind of Traitor is a harsh tale full of growing tension with the feel of an impending and dark conclusion. However I was not expecting such an abrupt one. Le Carré’s earlier masterpieces of course depict the Cold War, but it is refreshing to read a story such as this which doesn’t require this setting. Dipping his toes into the recesses of modern financial crime, the Russian mob and of course, Roger Federer’s backhand, this is a welcome departure from what you’d expect from le Carré.

Have you seen the new film of this novel? Or what is your favourite John le Carré novel? Please leave your comments below.

Review: Modern Romance

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: One of the USA’s funniest young comics, alongside a leading sociologist, takes an insightful look at romance in today’s digital age.

In-depth: The best characteristic of this book is it’s ability to introduce in-depth sociological and psychological terms in a funny and easy to relate to way. It looks at how the rapid developments in technology and communication in recent decades have driven changes in the attitudes, as well as the behaviour, of those seeking romance.

The book is centred around the recent changes to perceptions of love and more specifically marriage. The authors identify a shift from the ‘good enough’ marriage model of the war-time/post-war generations. This consisted of finding someone normally from your immediate neighbourhood who was ‘good enough’, so essentially someone who isn’t a serial killer, and then marrying them at a very young age. This is contrasted with the current concept, which views romance and love as the pursuit of the one perfect soulmate who is ‘out there’ somewhere.

Much of the stress of modern romance derives from this conception, but the authors state that although often a much longer, wider and stressful search, the results if successful can be much more fulfilling.

The authors look at how marriages are now taking place at later ages, often coming after a newly emerged life stage of ‘early/emerging adulthood’. Young people can now enjoy experiences previous generations could only have dreamed of, such as traveling the world, trying a number of different jobs before deciding upon a career or taking their time choosing a partner.

Ansari identifies this lifestyle choice as visible in other choices made in today’s internet age. The comforting idea that something of the best possible type is out there for you, waiting to be discovered, drives many individuals in what were once almost thoughtless tasks. Such as deciding which Chinese restaurant to go to tonight? Or which TV series on Netflix to binge next? Now long, online searches, often very dependent on the opinions and views of others, take place before these decision are made. As with romance many people do not just want ‘good enough’ any more.

Ansari looks at the whole host of tools which now drive and affect people’s searches for this romance today including text messaging, online dating sites and apps such as Tinder. By basing the book on focus groups and volunteer case studies there are naturally many cringe-worthy, hilarious or even offensive examples.

One section looks at the minefield of how much people consider the length of time before they respond to interested parties text messages. The book here achieves a wonderful balance of outlining some quite serious scientific research into these areas, which compares the chasing parties to lab animals who have been tested for performing simple tasks for a reward, and the conclusion so eloquently but funnily captured by Ansari. That having the uncertainity of a reward, i.e. a delayed or non existent text response, can “enchance their dopamine levels so that they basically feel coked up.”

Another section looks at dating apps which, after some expected horror stories, also have some reassuringly positive consequences. The privacy afforded by online dating is a blessing, and particularly in more traditional or religious societies. After visiting Qatar the authors outline how youngsters, unable to publicly pursue or obtain romance, use dating apps to organise parties which creates social and romantic encounters simply forbidden elsewhere. Often a hotel room/suite is used a venue and there is the wonderfully ironic use of burkas by young women who can whilst wearing these, anonymously wander into the hotel of the party and find the room where it is taking place.

Overall, and in conclusion, this book is based on the interesting idea that the internet has given people the massive benefits of so much more choice and scope when searching for a partner. However this is wisely, and often humourously, balanced with the many debilitating affects this level of choice can bring.

Have you read this book or anything to do with the world of modern dating or romance? If so, please leave your thoughts below.