Reading the game: The greatest football books ever written

With the return of Premier League and EFL matches looking like weeks, if not months, away, our focus has undoubtedly shifted to the greatest games, teams and dynasties of the past. 

As we look to get our football fix in a world without fixtures, there’s suddenly an understandable desire to reflect back on our favourite memories that made us fall in love with the sport in the first place.

Those iconic incidents and seasons have of course been recorded through articles, documentaries and podcasts, but it’s hard to beat a book when it comes to a detailed recollection of seismic events in sporting history. 

But which football books are the greatest? With an almost limitless selection to choose from, we’ve picked out some of our favourites. It’s far from comprehensive and of course highly subjective, but here are our five essential inclusions on any football fans’ reading list…

1. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinniss

There’s a good reason why football clubs are so cautious when it comes to allowing authors to have ‘behind the scenes’ access. While it can produce a memorable and positive portrayal of a team – such as in Michael Calvin’s excellent book Family: Life, Death and Football: A Year on the Frontline with a Proper Club about Millwall – it also has the potential to be a complete and utter PR disaster.

But the more shambolic the club, the more entertaining it is for the reader, which is what makes The Miracle of Castel di Sangro so fascinating. Joe McGinniss chronicles Italian minnows Castel di Sangro’s first ever season in Serie B and chooses the perfect time to be embedded with the club. He witnesses everything from match-fixing and absurd superstition, to the death of two first team players in a car crash and even the truly farcical signing of a ‘fake player’.

This is one of those books that has to be read to be believed, offering an incredible insight into lower league Italian football during the 1990s.

2. A Season with Verona – Tim Parks

Sticking with the Italian theme, Verona-based novelist and professor of literature Tim Parks decided to dip his toe in the world of sports writing in 2001. The result was one of the greatest football books ever written. His astounding knowledge of Italian culture, politics and everything else in between elevates this account of a year following Hellas Verona far above your typical diary of a season.  

Parks paints a vivid picture of life supporting a Serie A team around the turn of the century. From the racism of Verona’s Brigate Gialloblu ultras to the history of Italy’s towns and teams, this book is an absolute masterpiece on a number of levels. 

3. Football Against The Enemy – Simon Kuper

Roger Milla in action for Cameroon - Book

Simon Kuper is one of the great football writers, having penned a host of books that warrant inclusion in this list. There’s one that stands out above all the rest though. Football Against The Enemy is a staggeringly wide-ranging snapshot in time, where Kuper recounts his extensive travels around the world of football in 1994.

The author transverses the globe, digging into the politics behind the beautiful game and talking to characters from every facet of the sport. It’s a remarkably in-depth study covering 22 countries and should be considered essential reading for anyone who truly wants to understand the origins of today’s sporting landscape. 

4. Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and its World Cup Dream – Charlie Connelly

Mario Frick in action for Liechtenstein - Book

It can be interesting to take a deep-dive into the biggest events and most famous teams in history, but there’s nothing more enlightening than books about the minnows who play football simply for the love of the game. 

This is a category that’s rich with wonderful tales – from Thirty-One Nil by James Montague, to Paul Watson’s Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory. But somehow Stamping Grounds stands above all the rest. 

Charlie Connelly follows the Liechtenstein national team for the duration of a typically unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign, trying to understand why people dedicate their lives to following and playing for one of football’s whipping boys. In the process he gets under the skin of what makes the people from Europe’s fifth smallest country tick.

It might not instantly sound like a classic, but it’s an absolutely fascinating journey into a largely undiscovered corner of football’s tapestry. 

5. Sightlines: A Stadium Odyssey – Simon Inglis

Boca Juniors La Bombonera stadium book

If you thought that football in Liechtenstein was a niche topic, Simon Inglis takes it to a whole new level in Sightlines: A Stadium Odyssey. This is the story of a sports architecture historian’s trip to see some of the most iconic (and some more obscure) stadiums around the world; simply because he’s fascinated by stadia, rather than any greater significance!

Ultimately it is an ode to obsession, something that most fans can surely relate to. Inglis recruits a translator to drive him to every stadium in Buenos Aires over the course of a couple of days, much to the bemusement of his travel companion. Then he heads off to everywhere from Bombay to Beirut, in search of the grounds that have the best story to tell. 

In truth it’s a book about much more than just stadiums. Each arena provides a window into a particular event or period in history, making this a captivating read that’s surprisingly hard to put down.