Football, for all that people have opinions, is not a game of them. It's a game of facts, of things that actually happen, though people insist on piling opinions all over it, like custard, or gravel, or freshly-dug earth. Opinions are, after all, the easy bit: it's perfectly possible to make a living spouting arrant, insipid and utterly illogical nonsense, as the ongoing career of [insert your least favourite journalist's name here] demonstrate. Facts, though. Facts are tricky. You have to get them right.
I've never met Dave Hartrick, co-editor of the wonderful In Bed With Maradona, though in the interests of full disclosure I have sent a few pieces their way, and he did once write an excellent meditation on treachery, loneliness and pubic hair for my blog. But having read his book, I think it's fair to say that he's good at facts; this volume crams them in by the hundreds and thousands, making Rafa Benitez look like a strange man with a short list. (Oh, wait ...) Physically it's of fair size and heft -- were you so inclined, I reckon you could use it to stun a seagull, and probably really annoy an ostrich -- but this weightiness is justified by the volume of knowledge nailed to every single page. You can open this book anywhere, and learn something, and that's intensely joymaking.
At heart, 50 Teams ... is an eclectic, chronological amble, in extremely well-informed and pleasantly eloquent company, through the history of football, beginning with its humble amateur origins and concluding with the relentless professionalism of today. Of course, there are teams 'missing', just as there are stories you'll have heard before. This isn't the "50 Best Teams Ever" (that would be boring) and nor is it "50 Untold Stories Of Obscure Teams And Their Aceness" (that would be a terrible title). It's about significance, and football teams achieve significance in all kinds of ways: by winning, yes, but also by losing, by taking advantage of economic opportunity, by imploding in a hot mess of financial mismanagement, by being first to do something, by being first to not do something, by pioneering this tactical innovation or that transfer policy ... you get the idea.
So rubbing shoulders with Cruyff's Ajax and Pele's Brazil are Exeter City, included for their part in catalysing football in Brazil, Pro Vercelli, the lost giants of Italy, and Colo Colo, the first Chilean side to conquer the continent. Off the pitch, Tottenham Hotspur make it in as the first football club to embrace public ownership, while Eintracht Braunschweig are plucked from obscurity to receive their dues as the team that introduced shirt sponsorship into the big leagues. And while some teams are conspicuous by their absence -- Matt Busby's Manchester United don't feature in any of their incarnations, for example, and so far as I can see Dulwich Hamlet aren't mentioned at all -- there isn't a single team included that doesn't feel worthy of a spot.
Crucial to this, and to the success of the book, is that each team is treated with equivalent respect; the formation of Enfield Town is told with just as much care and attention as Maradona's World Cup adventure. Selections that could have come across as either tokenistic or wilfully obscure feel, instead, considered and personally important. You come away with the impression that here are fifty stories that Hartrick believes are worth his time in the telling, and that, ultimately, is why they are worth the reading. It's his opinion, yes, but he's backed it up.
Two years in the making, here are familiar stories told in fresh ways, and unfamiliar tales brought blinking into the sunlight. Here is a book that you can dip into for five, ten, fifteen minutes, or one that you can curl up with for an afternoon while your tea goes cold. And above all, here is a cavalcade of facts, anecdotes, facts, quotes, facts, trivia, and more facts. If knowledge is power, this book is mighty.
To read an excerpt, and order a copy, visit Ockley Books