Review: ‘The Ugly Game: How Football Lost its Magic and What it Could Learn from the NFL’ by Martin Calladine

In the first in a (very) sporadic series on this blog, I will be reviewing books devoted to the beautiful game… starting with one that turns that popular notion completely on its head.

First of all, I must confess that I have never watched anything more than a few seconds of American Football and that’s normally been by accident. It has never piqued my interest in any fashion whatsoever. In all honesty, few sports except association football do. I will partake in ice hockey, tennis and basketball when they grace the television during major events like Wimbledon and the Olympics. Besides those ephemeral occasions, the domain solely belongs to the most popular game on the planet.

I had heard about this book before finally getting around to read it because its author, Martin Calladine, is both prominent and refreshingly unrepentant in his viewpoints on Twitter and he also graces my blog as one of the other dozen or so WordPress accounts I follow. To be on that list means to me that not only do I believe the content they produce is engaging for my own sake but that they convey ideas that I feel deserve a wider audience completely irrespective of whether I agree with their opinions.

The basic premise of the book, which reads like a collection of well-structured essays, is that the modern game has lost its sheen, principally because of the influx of big money into institutions such as FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League most notably and alongside that, the author randomly happening upon an NFL match in the early hours of the morning and it rekindling something he had liked but lost during his childhood.

The publication is not a weighty tome by any means, clocking in at fewer than 200 pages. That is to its advantage, however. Many much longer books about football outstay their welcome well before you reach their conclusions and gargantuan bibliographies. Calladine achieves this because the tone can and does skip from light and humorous to cutting and critical in the space of a paragraph and it doesn’t feel jarring. The numerous photographs used throughout add rather than detract from the prose and are always captioned in a off-tangent, humorous manner that normally hits the spot.

Calladine also doesn’t talk down to his audience and he stresses throughout that whilst structurally, the NFL is a lot fairer than the Premier League in particular, it isn’t without its own problems, so he avoids the trap of being preachy and bashing you over the head for still retaining your love of football.

You also get the sense that much like a mature romantic or platonic relationship that just fizzles out eventually over a prolonged time period, there is no chance for him to rekindle it without at least adopting some of the measures that he emphasises once more at the end of the book, which features updates on the changes that took place since it was first published in 2013. Even since the addendum, there have been developments in the game, chief amongst them further reports into FIFA corruption and close to home, the spiralling TV deals, League Three proposals coming (and going) and the extremely controversial restructuring of the EFL Trophy.

The author’s personal politics are quite overt throughout the book and whilst certainly understandable as to why he adopts position ‘x’ on a topic, it could potentially put off some readers who prefer to stick their own comfort zone (which is sadly not a rare phenomenon).*

I don’t want to spoil in detail chapter by chapter what Calladine talks about. Suffice it to say, I derived 39 topics I could use for further blogposts that don’t have Bury as their focus from it, so there is plenty of meat on the bones despite being able to blast through it from cover-to-cover in an evening sitting. I intend to cover each of the topics in separate blogposts.

If there was a failing, it still didn’t convince me to watch the NFL. I was much more knowledgeable about how it works off-the-field and think a lot of it would indeed be beneficial (and viable) if some of the rules were transferred to football. Now that on occasion NFL matches are hosted in the UK, it will doubtlessly serve to increase the awareness and potential audience size the gridiron game enjoys. However, it is coming at the cost of considerable ire back across the pond and is a remarkably similar idea to the hated ’39th game’ concept that Richard Scudamore once touted, only for the Premier League to back down in the face of opposition from FIFA and vitriol from fans.

If you have a passing interest in the NFL, some of the passages will be more immediately relevant and relatable but I don’t think any prior knowledge is required to still enjoy the content to the fullest. I look forward to any future books Calladine publishes and whilst my own personal orthodoxy is somewhat different to his, that I thought it was one of the best non-fiction works I’ve read in the past few years is its own endorsement. So if you’re after a short but constructively critical book on the ‘beautiful game’ whilst we await the return of the domestic season, you cannot go wrong with ‘The Ugly Game‘.

*My own personal politics are different to Martin’s but I believe I can separate the personal from the sporting… as you will see in future posts!