The Beautiful Game

Football has always been a part of my life. I’ve never played, but I’ve watched and been lucky enough to visit many stadiums in Europe. But the reason I call it ‘the beautiful game’ is because for many of my reluctant readers, football can be a great pull into reading. This latest crop of books appeals in many different ways – each book may be ‘football themed’, but each is distinct in its approach and subject.

Striker Boy by Jonny Zucker
Nat has spent most of his life travelling with his father, after his mother died, leaving them both heartbroken. Most particularly, he spent a year in Brazil, honing his incredible football talent. When Nat and his father move back to England when Nat is thirteen, he is appalled at the house his father has bought, and completely fed up. But then he plays a footy game in the park, and every boy’s dream comes true for him – he is spotted by a scout.

The scout is from Hatton Rovers, the team he supports. However, there is more than one problem. Hatton Rovers is facing relegation and the club needs saving. Nat is only 13, but tall enough to pass for 16. Will they break all the rules and sign him up for professional football?

When the unthinkable happens and he starts training with the first team, it turns out things are even more complex than he thought, and the club’s veteran striker takes an instant dislike to him. As Nat suspects all is not what it seems, a sports reporter suspects the same about Nat…

This is a fun, exciting and pacey book with a solid main character. What’s more, the plot goes beyond football and delves into thriller territory with plenty of action on and off the field.

Footballing readers will envy Nat for his rare talent and luck in being spotted, but there is also evidence of much camaraderie among certain team mates, and the volatility of training – the on/off days, injury and team selection. Overall, Zucker shows that players are rewarded for hard work and loyalty, but that even within the golden world of top-flight first team football, there are moral dilemmas to face.

The most striking quality about Striker Boy though, is the complete zest and enthusiasm Jonny Zucker shows for the game, his characters and the story. It makes the reader want to be a teen again, to be trying out for a team again, and retain the dream of playing for a top side.

Nat is so engaging as a main character, a fabulous yet flawed boy with an empathetic nature and a good heart, so that the reader can’t help but root for him, even when he makes wrong choices. Every manager would want this kid in their team, and every librarian will want this book in their library. An excellent novel for age 8+ years.

The book has been re-published to raise awareness of mental health, after the very sad passing of author Jonny Zucker. Profits from the book are being donated to the charity Mind. You can buy it here.

Kick by Mitch Johnson
Twelve-year-old Budi works full time in a sweat shop factory in Jakarta stitching, or, if the foreman’s feeling mean, boxing football boots. He dreams of playing for Real Madrid like his hero Keiran Wakefield. But Budi’s life is a million miles away from his hero’s. Life in Jakarta is hard: he doesn’t live in the deepest slums, but there is no money for his education, and his family are struggling to get by.

One day, when he’s playing football with his friends, and they kick a ball through the window of local landlord and gang leader The Dragon, Budi will have to risk everything to pay his fine or end up dead.

This is a startlingly refreshing football novel in that it introduces a whole new way of looking at the beautiful game, and also gives an interesting perspective on a very different way of life, far removed from its Western world readers. Although some of it may be shocking to some young readers (it does contain a reference to prostitution and does climax with some violence), and the way of life itself may shock others, it also shows the similarities between football-mad children across the world. The things that Budi has in common will resonate here, such as an ongoing interest in food, football mania – both watching and playing – and most of all friendship.

In fact, above all, this is a beautifully perceptive tale of friendship between Budi and his older friend Rochy. Rochy is certainly more worldly wise, but he lives in even worse circumstances than Budi. In the end, though, the sacrifices he makes for Budi pay off, and the novel ends surprisingly, although without resorting to complete fairy tale transformation.

There is also the burgeoning relationship between Budi and his grandmother, as she relates stories to him that help him to make sense of his world, and his place within it, as well as steering him towards making the right choices in life.

The one weakness in the text is the reader’s difficulty in envisioning Budi’s entire situation. The streets and his home don’t feel described fully enough to visually create a sense of place in the reader’s mind, but Budi as a character is so well-rounded and his dreams so delineated, that it’s easy to fall under his spell.

This is a clever way into discussing other issues in the guise of a football story, and as the pundits say, ‘nice one’. You can buy this novel for 9+ years here.

  

Ultimate Football Heroes: Iniesta, Bale and Gerrard by Matt and Tom Oldfield
I honestly can’t get enough of this series of books, and nor can my library kids. These three are the latest to pop through my letterbox. The books have now divided into two series: Ultimate Football Heroes, which features popular players of the moment such as Iniesta and Bale, and Classic Football Heroes (which everyone wants to be eventually), which focusses on retired all-time favourites such as Gerrard. Each book is a self-contained biography of the individual player, but written in a child-friendly accessible way.

With each there is much to admire. Particular highlights for me are the amount of dialogue within each text – there is lots of engaging conversation to move the story along – and also the underlying message in each text, that no matter the person’s talent, it still takes an incredible amount of hard work, determination and ambition. No one wins medals by taking their journey for granted. In the Iniesta book, the authors are keen to show his innermost thoughts and fears at the start – a young player being away from his family, but kept in check and reassured by teammates. The language may not be the most literary, but as a way into reading for the target age range, this is a great jumping off point.

These newer additions also have some extra data and YouTube web links at the back of the book for watching videos of key moments. I’m not a huge fan of web links – they are so easy to get wrong, but the few I tried worked, and it’s a neat way of enticing the reader. Pick your player here.

F2 Football Academy: How to Play Like a Pro by F2 Freestylers
If you’re a fan of YouTube and football, then this last book will probably appeal. Written by Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, known as the F2, these two men present football entertainment, tutorials on skills, and banter on their YouTube channel. The book is a spin-off; the text reads as they would speak it: “Our tekkers was bang on form.” It’s certainly not for everyone, but for fans, it treks through Brazil, tactics, skills, injuries, interviews, and is packed with full colour photographs and solid advice, such as to keep on trying. You can buy it here.