Monday, September 29, 2008 by Paul Grech
Growing up as a football mad teenager, the weekly purchase of Guerin Sportivo was a must. The Italian magazine was cheap enough and, in any case, I could easily get the money for it off my parents with the excuse that it was helping me learn Italian.
But what made it such a must read in the eyes of a kid fed up with the banalities that proliferated what were roughly the English equivalents of Match and Shoot was the serious edge to its writing. Games were analysed in detail, arguments eloquently put forward and players from every corner of the world spoken about.
This latter insight – remember, this was the pre-internet era – always fascinated me. How much football did these guys get to watch to be able to talk with such authority about an eighteen year old in his debut season in South America? How many people did they know and how did they manage such a wide range of contacts?
Those questions remained at the back of my mind until reading Filippo Maria Ricci’s – a regular writer in Guerin Sportivo - opening chapter in his book ‘Elephants, lions and eagles’. Ricci’s opening gambit reveals that most of his early writing about African football was gleaned by visiting African embassies in Rome in the hope of gaining access to newspapers from the respective countries.
An ingenious way – even if a myth shattering one – of getting a leg up the journalistic ladder.
Ricci’s interest in Africa, however, wasn’t exclusively down to it providing him with a previously untapped niche’ but rather a genuine one. And it is around that love of African football and his regular trips to the continent to follow up stories that this book is centred.
As with any book written from such a personal perspective, you have to allow room for the author’s own idiosyncrasies. So it is here where Ricci, wittingly or not, is often guilty of name-dropping people he met on his trips, something that can be irritating if you pay too much attention to it.
I didn’t but the same cannot be said of the tactic of resorting to articles he’d written – translated, of course – about the particular subject he happens to be talking about. It smacks of laziness and an attempt to add pages to a book that is very much on the anorexic side of thin. Whatever the aim of adopting such a style was, it has passed me by.
It is disappointing because otherwise the book is hugely enjoyable. Ricci is engaging, has a very interesting story to tell ad adds insight on a continent about which very little is known.
It also suffers because of inevitable comparisons with the high standard set by other When Saturday Comes books (Morbo and Tor in particular) but, even so, - and despite other shortcomings – I don’t regret buying and in the main it was a good read.
Anyone who is still thinking about making the purchase however, would be well advised to proceed with eyes open so as to avoid being disappointed.
Category A Look At