With the World Cup kicking off in a matter of days, it’s probably a bit too late for a pre-Russia 2018 reading project. Moreover, Russia has proved less evocative, at least for English-language sports writers, in comparison with its Brazilian predecessor. New books on the topic have been thin on the ground (notwithstanding Andrei Kanchelskis’ recent autobiography), and the best older books on Russian football have not been reissued with a “what’s in store this summer” afterword. Even so, there is plenty of good reading to get you stoked for Russia 2018–or at this point, to carry you through those depressing hours when there is no football to watch. Here’s a quick top 5 reading list. I am planning to do a review of at least the first book; after that, we’ll see how things go.
1. Mark Bennetts, Football Dynamo (2008; rev. ed. 2009). Despite being a decade old at this point, this book remains the most contemporary English-language account of Russian football. Bennetts writes of Russian football in its first phase under Vladimir Putin’s stabilizing regime, and it contains the seeds necessary for thinking about the decade that followed: the call for importing foreign superstars (most notably at Anzhi Makhachkala), their subsequent dismissal when the national team was not transformed by higher quality competition, the purchasing of the upcoming World Cup. Look for the “revised and updated” edition, which incorporates a new final chapter on Zenit Saint Petersburg’s 2008 UEFA Cup victory and Andrey Arshavin’s emergence as the star of Guus Hiddink’s Euro 2008 Russian semi-finalists. If you are reading one book to prepare for a Russian World Cup, this is probably the right one.
2. Various Authors, The Blizzard Online Archive (2011-present). If you don’t have time for even one book, you should at least consider some articles from Jonathan Wilson’s quarterly independent magazine, The Blizzard. It remains the best source of high-quality football writing in the English-language world, and its coverage of Russia has been as interesting as of nearly any other topic in the sport. All of the magazine’s stories are available for free from its online “Articles” archive, but the catch is that you can only access three of them per month unless you have a subscription to the magazine (digital subscriptions run only £20/year). That means you will have to choose carefully, but almost any article by Igor Rabiner will be a rewarding choice (consider especially “Fallen Idol” and “Before They Were Rich,” his accounts of Spartak Moscow and Zenit respectively; or “Russia’s Victory” on the bid for the 2018 World Cup). There are also two photo essays on Russian fans (of Zenit and lower league sides, respectively) by Misha Domozhilov and Sergei Novikov. And if you can’t get enough of Russia 2018 corruption, consider James Appell’s “The Dark Heart of Russian Football” from Issue Zero. Finally, there is Michael Yokhin’s account of the October 1999 Euro qualifier between Ukraine and Russia. So much quality material, you really should consider that digital subscription . . .
3. David Downing, Passovotchka (1999). Understanding Russian football is impossible without understanding Soviet football, and Downing takes his readers back to a fascinating early episode of post-World War II football in this account of Dynamo Moscow’s 4-game 1945 tour of Britain. In addition to the tour itself, Downing sneaks in quick chapters on pre-Soviet Russian football and the transformation of the league during the pre-war Soviet Union, and even a very quick account of the early development of English football. A very nice read for those who enjoy the deep history of the sport.
4. Jonathan Wilson, Behind the Iron Curtain (2006). Though not strictly speaking a book on Russian football, Wilson’s first book is a lovely Perestroika era travelogue of former communist republics in Eastern Europe. The whole book is a delight, but chapters on Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus will probably be the most relevant ones for this World Cup. Poland, of course, deserves a read too. Just make sure to get to that chapter before the end of the group stage or it may lose its relevance. Truthfully, this book is one of the classics of the post-Hornby boom, and is worth anyone’s time who is not already familiar with it.
5. David Conn, The Fall of the House of FIFA (2017). I will confess that David Conn is not my particular cup of tea. Having said that, he is the go-to author if you would like to confirm your distaste for the capitalist corruption of football. His history of FIFA’s corruption, from its earliest days to its recent legal problems, will undoubtedly scratch that itch. Sepp Blatter is the book’s central figure from the outset, and he will not surprise you. Indeed, you will not find any surprise heroes (unless you are surprised to find that the football played in the author’s childhood was a simpler, more honest game), and outrageous corruption will abound. Some of it will touch on the bidding for the current World Cup, and you will learn exactly what you would have expected to about the game’s corporate overlords. It should be a refreshing palette cleanser while you are watching the greatest sporting event in the world.
BONUS: Brain Glanville, The Story of the World Cup (1973-2018). The definitive English-language history of the World Cup, augmented effectively every four years since its initial publication, as The Sunday Times History of the World Cup, to account for the previous tournament and set the stage for the forthcoming one. Ironically–or not–the most recent edition will not be released in the US until after Russia 2018, meaning it will begin its American life already out of date. Readers who can’t wait for Glanville’s account of Brazil 2014 can always order the British version from amazon.co.uk; the rest of us can probably make do with one of the book’s earlier iterations. While there is nothing particularly Russian about this book, it is a classic account of the tournament’s history that deserves to be taken seriously, even if Glanville’s authoritative pronouncements on games and players may warrant a grain or two of salt. Even so, as good a starting place for learning the history of the World Cup as you are likely to find (and the same can be said of his more compact if less updated history of the European Cup).