Brian Glanville: A conversation at his London home about soccer and books

By Mike Woitalla

I ask Brian Glanville how many books he’s written, and he answers, “Too many.” It’s actually about 60, more than half of which are soccer books, fiction and non-fiction, from the man who started his sports journalism career as a teenager, has covered 13 World Cups, and at age 86 writes regularly for the Sunday Times of London and World Soccer.

His novel, “Goalkeepers Are Different,” was published in 1971. I came upon it in 1993, and it remains my favorite soccer novel. Fortunately, When Saturday Comes recently published another anthology of Glanville's soccer short stories, “The Man Behind the Goal.” On the non-fiction front, in time for the 2018 World Cup, he’s updating the next edition of “The Story of the World Cup,” the most entertaining and informative account of the tournament that has been played 20 times since its 1930 launch.

Glanville’s seventh novel was his first soccer novel,  “The Rise of Gerry Logan," published in 1963. It was translated into several languages, including German, with the title “Der Profi.” In 1968, six years before captaining West Germany to the 1974 World Cup title, Franz Beckenbauer said it “was the best book on soccer I have ever read.”

Photo by Toby Glanville courtesy of Brian Glanville.

I first met Glanville during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, when it was already known that the USA would host the 1994 World Cup. While foreign journalists seemed unanimous in scoffing at the idea of a non-traditional soccer nation hosting soccer’s showcase event, Glanville correctly predicted it would be unequivocal success. “The Americans told me I was their only friend,” said Glanville, who at the time wrote for England’s Sunday People newspaper and had a column in the New York Post. “I knew when it came to sports Americans don’t accept anything but top rate.”

A conversation with Glanville is always rife with delightful anecdotes. Asked about his first World Cup, in 1958, he starts chuckling as he tells how Brazil's team psychologist advised Coach Vicente Feola not to play Pele or Garrincha because they weren’t mentally suitable.

“A Brazilian journalist asked Feola what he thinks about the psychologist,” says Glanville. “The interpreter said, “Senhor Feola is not saying he wished the psychologist to go to hell, but he is thinking it.”

After Feola started lining up Pele or Garrincha, they became the stars of Brazil’s victory.

Glanville’s fondest memories of a World Cup come from England 1966, when he filed with the Times of London his account of England beating West Germany, 4-2, in the final. Afterwards, he wrote the screenplay for “Goal!”, the official film of the 1966 World Cup.

"We’ll never win it again,” says Glanville of the current England national team:

“It’s a very ordinary team. It will get to the finals, it’s practically there, and it won’t do anything when it gets there. We desperately need what you call a playmaker. And the only one we have is Jack Wilshere. And he’s in and out of trouble. And injured all the time. He’s probably the only English player who can bloody well pass the ball. We have nobody who can suddenly do a [Andrea] Pirlo.

“I don’t think we’re lacking in natural talent. If you look at under-19 and under-20, we’ve had a marvelous run. But [Premier League] teams don’t give these young players a chance. It’s worth taking those risks but they don’t take those risks.”

In Glanville's London home in the Holland Park district, I'm drawn to books, which not only fill the shelves, but are also stacked on the window sill and coffee tables. If you look closely, you can find some of his, like the "Soccer Nemesis" (1955), "A Cry of the Crickets" (1970) and "England Managers" (2008), in which he portrays the national team's first 12 full-time managers.

I ask him to name his favorite books.

"There are quite a few," he says. "And the general level has gotten very high."

The first that come to mind are Leo McKinstry's "Sir Alf," a "marvelous biography" of England's World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey, and John Moynihan's "The Soccer Syndrome."

Then he mentions Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, whose books include "Nice Guys Finish Last: Sport and American Life," "The Simplest Game" and "SoccerTalk: Life Under the Spell of the Round Ball." "An excellent writer," says Glanville.

Glanville was 19 when he wrote his first book, co-writing “Cliff Bastin Remembers,” the 1950 autobiography of the England and Arsenal star.

“I was absolutely Arsenal-mad,” says Glanville. “The first time I saw Arsenal lose, 5-2 to Chelsea, when I was 10 or 11, I burst into tears.”

But becoming journalist meant no longer being a fan.

“I cut off deliberately,” Glanville says. “A lot of journalists don’t, particularly the East London boys.”

Before I leave, we take another scan at the books. "You must mention the 'The Glory Game," he says, when he spots Hunter Davies' inside look at Tottenham Hotspur during the 1971-72 season.

1 comment about "Brian Glanville: A conversation at his London home about soccer and books".
  1. frank schoon, September 29, 2017 at 10:11 a.m.

    I always like Brian Glanville's books. I have one called "The Book of Soccer", which is great ,lots of anecdotes and discussions. It is a great filler when discussing soccer, adding to the tapestry of this beautiful game.
    I had a book that pertained to only ANECDOTES of great players. I lend it out and I forgot to whom... Does anyone knows the name of it.

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