Around the time of the 1998 World Cup in France, an Indian bubble gum company began giving away football cards free with its gum, causing an entire generation of pre-teens, some of whom had never watched football, to debate endlessly the relative merits of Gabriel Batistuta and Alessandro Del Piero.
The cards, with action pictures in front and a short biography at the back, served as an initiation into an unfamiliar sport, helping newbies separate the Italians from the Germans and the forwards from the midfielders.
The 2010 World Cup might be in full swing, but no bubble gum manufacturer seems to have caught on. In the absence of trading cards, the dilettante will have to turn to other, more expensive sources of easy-to-digest football knowledge. World Cup 2010 Superstars aims at fulfilling this breach with its glossy, hardcover presence.
The coffee table book, authored by Paul Fisher, provides introductions to the 32 teams at the World Cup, detailing their qualification routes and their tactics, and the profiles of the top players and coaches.
The book's publication predated the naming of squads, and so the profiled players include injured absentees such as Michael Ballack and Rio Ferdinand and names that didn't make their coaches' squads such as Theo Walcott and Javier Zanetti.
That the book went to press early had consequences elsewhere too. “Aside from Michael Ballack,” reads the Germany introduction, “the international squad plays its football for German teams and has not been honed by the intensity of Champions League knock-out rounds.” Much gnashing of teeth must have occurred at the publisher's offices when Bayern Munich, which supplies the bulk of Germany's squad, reached the Champions League final in May.
That apart, the choice of players is skewed in favour of high-profile teams. While six French, seven German, and nine English players command breathless descriptions, not one player from Mexico, Slovakia or Japan (all of whom made the last 16 in South Africa) finds more than passing mention.
The players from ‘smaller' footballing nations who do get full-blown treatment, without exception, ply their trade in England or at the top two or three clubs in other European leagues.
The book also features descriptions of great World Cup matches from the past, one for each of the pre-tournament favourites. This is an inconsistent mix, with genuine classics like the 1954 final between Germany and Hungary rubbing shoulders with fairly unremarkable clashes such as Spain's shootout defeat to South Korea in 2002 and a truly bizarre selection in Holland's 2-0 win over England in a qualifying game for the 1994 World Cup. That too as the pick of great games for the Dutch, who have participated in more iconic matches than perhaps any other team at the World Cup.
The graphics illustrating team tactics reveal sketchy research, with players squeezed uncomfortably into identical 4-4-2 formations. Spain's central midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso occupy the flanks, for instance, while Brazilian holding midfielder Felipe Melo finds himself at left back.
Fisher's writing is usually crisp and engaging, with the monotony of crunching tackles and pinpoint crosses eased with an interesting tidbit or two. We learn, for instance, that Clint Dempsey is a rapper in his spare time, that Miroslav Klose trained as a carpenter, and that David James collects action figures.
On occasion, however, the prose does get a little clunky. “Yet the silky striker who has brought much beauty to the beautiful game was ‘Le Sulk' in those difficult years when adolescent shyness pupates into youthful nonchalance,” reads a line in Nicolas Anelka's profile. Controversies, around John Terry's infidelities for instance, are merely hinted at, with phrases like “off-field persona” and “flurry of headlines.”
Despite its flaws, the book serves as a decent entry point for its primary target audience, the new fans of the game. With concise player biographies packaged attractively alongside photographs that convey the intense action of the international game, World Cup 2010 Superstars is bound to appeal to recent converts to football fandom.
Easily accessible tables and statistics from qualifying tournament are a handy tool for anyone gripped by sudden doubts as to whether Slovenia or Slovakia finished atop Group 3 in Europe.