When I was about four, my Dad took me to White Hart Lane (home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club). There was no game on, but he was choosing his season tickets. (Things were different in those days!) I remember being very scared of the height of the steep bank of seats as I walked along the empty Upper West Stand.
Many years and games later, football continues to rule my life. The fixtures go into the diary before anything else, family meals are allowed to be interrupted only for football, and the garden isn’t a garden, it’s a pitch. So, it was great pleasure to interview two footballing greats – not footballers so much – as experts in their field: maths and football writer Alex Bellos, and football journalist and writer Ben Lyttleton, authors of the Football School series.
The Football School series aims to explain the world through football, and the latest in the series, published last week, is Football School: Star Players, a collection of fifty inspirational lives from the world of football, and is full of facts, inspiration, and Alex’s and Ben’s unique blend of humour, fun and personality.
Here, Alex and Ben answer my questions:
The more I read Football School, the more enamoured I become with using football as a way to teach all kinds of things from podiatry to metaphor! How did you form your collaboration and come up with the idea?
Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton
Alex: Ben and I met at a football conference more than ten years ago. When we discovered we lived very close to each other we kept in touch and became friends. We would often meet for lunch and chat about collaborating. We became aware that lots of children stop reading around the ages of 7-13 and we thought that one way to get kids reading would be to provide them with a book about a subject they felt passionate about. We also wanted to use football to open up the curriculum. Football is a great way to show how everything in life is connected. That’s how the idea of Football School began – as a way to get children to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.
Is much of your own life dominated by football? Do you play/watch/involved with fantasy football etc.
Ben: I would say so, yes! I write and talk about football every day as part of my job which is lucky because I LOVE the game! I used to go to around 40 games every season but now I have a young family, I’d rather play with them and watch them play. My daughter has just joined her first team which is a brilliant girls’ team that play in a league. I still go to some live games, just not as many, and I now take my daughters to a few as well.
I have played in a Fantasy League with the same people for over 20 years. Last season I lost out on the title by one point when Bournemouth scored a last-minute goal against Burnley! But in 2007 I won a trophy for the highest Fantasy League score in the whole country! A proud moment! I enjoy playing the game because it’s another way to connect with people through our love of football.
Alex, you’ve spent much time studying futebol – the Brazilian way of life. What’s the difference between English and Brazilian football?
Alex: Yes, I lived in Brazil for five years. I think that the key difference is Brazilians are much more technically skilled, on the whole, than English players. My opinion is that this is because of geographical and cultural factors, as we write in Football School Season 1. Brazilians do not learn to play on grass, because in Brazil grass doesn’t grow very well. Brazilians learn to play on the beach, on tiny concrete pitches, and indoors with a small ball: the challenges of these surfaces makes them overdevelop their technique.
Why is the English premier league so popular worldwide?
Ben: There are a few reasons for this. The game is so exciting in England, and has some of the best talent in the world. Players such as Mo Salah and Kevin de Bruyne are great to watch and capable of pure brilliance. The league is competitive and you never quite know what will happen next. In 2012, Manchester City won the league title with the last kick of the season, when Sergio Aguero scored a dramatic winner against QPR. You can’t make up that kind of drama!
The coaches here are among the best in the world – top guys such as Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino and Mourinho. But the league is also really well-organised – we know in advance what time the games will kick-off, and the lunchtime games often suit an audience in Asia or North America. Something as simple as that can make a big difference – in Spain, for example, they change the kick-off times at quite short notice so you often never quite know when the game will be taking place.
You’ve managed to bring all subjects into football – biology, history, languages, geography. But does maths play the biggest part in football?
Alex: Ha! My stock response is that maths plays the biggest part in EVERYTHING! Of course it does! Imagine a world with no numbers…we’d be back in the Stone Age. When it comes to football, I think that the links between maths and football are perhaps more obvious – score lines, data, numbers on shirts – than the links with other subjects. But this is not to say that maths plays the biggest part. We take a holistic view: all the subjects are interlinked.
Can you tell me a bit more about Football School Star Players?
Alex: Star Players is a book of 50 profiles of football players who are inspirational role models on and off the pitch. We chose famous footballers with amazing life stories, but also lesser known players who have changed the game – or the world – in some way. For example, there’s the player who became president, the one who invented a new football boot and the one who survived the Holocaust to become the best coach in the world.
Alex, do you have an emotional relationship with numbers and football?
Alex: Of course! When I look at league tables I feel all warm and gooey: there is nothing more satisfying that looking at lists of numbers, especially when they represent important facts!
Ben, can you switch off when you watch football, or is it always ‘work’?
Great question! Football used to be my passion and my hobby, and even though now it is still work, I can still sometimes switch off to enjoy some matches – especially when my children are playing. I am actually pretty good at not commentating on what they are doing and still able to see the game as a tool for pure enjoyment and a chance to get some exercise with good friends, which is essentially what it is.
If someone says to you – football’s just a game. What is your response?
Ben: I agree – it is a game and we mustn’t forget that above all else, that’s exactly what it is. But it also has a wonderful way of emotionally connecting with people, which means it can have an impact beyond just the winning and losing of a game. It can bring people together, like it did when the Ivory Coast ended its civil war after the national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup for the first time.
It can be a lovely way for families to spend time together, cheering for the same cause. And footballers themselves have a unique connection with the communities in which they play and a lot of them make huge charitable contributions – by giving their time and support – to people, often children, who are less fortunate than themselves and need some help. So football is a game, but it can also be used as a force for good. That’s what we hope to do with Football School – take the game itself and use it to help children discover a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.
Can you really explain the whole world through the prism of football? What about Brexit?
Alex: Of course we can! We could write a whole book on football and Brexit! For example, we could write about immigration, such as foreign players in our leagues, and our players abroad, and how this will change with Brexit. We could talk about the history of the Champions League. We could write about footballers who became politicians. Once you start looking, you will find many links.
What is your view on women’s football?
We are passionate about women’s football and incredibly excited about the women’s World Cup this summer. We’re not that old but we know that around 1920, women’s football was more popular than men’s football in England. One team, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, would regularly sell out huge stadia like Goodison Park (whose capacity was over 50,000). The men who ran the FA sadly – and unfairly – banned women’s football in 1921. It’s an important part of history as it coincides with the suffragette movement and it’s something we explore in detail in our History lesson in Season Two.
We have been inspired by stories of parents and educators who have told us of the book’s positive effect among their children, and that includes girls. Ben has two daughters who love to play football and he loves hearing them talk about their favourite players and goals to their friends. There are many more opportunities for girls to play football now and coverage of the women’s game is improving, with matches on TV and newspapers giving regular coverage to the women’s league.
At all the school talks we do, the girls are just as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the game as the boys; at our first event, when we invited a few children up to invent their own goal celebrations we were blown away when one of the girls did six back-flips across the stage! That was impressive! Since then, we have done lots of school talks – many at all-girls schools – and found the same enthusiasm for the sport, even if we have yet to meet such another talented gymnast!
Football School Star Players includes many stories of inspiring women players, such as Nadia Nadim, who escaped from a brutal regime growing up in Afghanistan to play for Denmark and Manchester City, and Brandi Chastain, the US player whose dramatic penalty won the 1999 World Cup final. She has promised to donate her brain to scientific research after her death.
With huge thanks to Alex and Ben for answering ALL my questions. And you can buy Football School Star Players here.
Would you like to be a sportswriter like Alex and Ben? The Guardian and Football School have teamed up to launch a competition all about sports writing. To enter, you need to write a 600-word match report on any sporting event, or a 600-word profile about a sports person. You can enter here for a chance to win ‘an opportunity to watch a Premier League football game as a journalist in the press box’, your entry published in The Guardian, or a signed bundle of Football School books and goodies. You need to be aged between 7-12 yrs, and enter before 19th May.