Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: ‘Football Made Simple’: Opening new ground


Passion, which often spills over the boundary between the folly of blind affection and that of fatuity, has had the potential to bring about the conflicting feelings of glory and shame in Malawi’s most popular sport, football. But, despite the horde of flying arrows of passion it triggers, very few can readily call to mind the technical, tactical, physical aspects that make football typical football.
Nevertheless, the very few that cannot readily call to mind the tactical, technical, physical and other aspects that make football resemble football should not shoulder the blame ‘alone’, more so because the publication of books on sports has been treated as a mine field very few have been willing to tread on.
To cap it all, there is a yawning gap in terms of published sports books that revolve around, say, a sport setting, event, athlete, history etcetera locally.
As the rest of the world has moved on- from book publication to sports films such as ‘Field of Dreams’ (which tells the story of a farmer in Iowa who hears a magical voice in his maize field and gets inspired to build a baseball field), ‘Million Dollar Baby’ (whose protagonist is a woman who is determined to establish herself as a no-nonsense boxer despite negative stereotypes)- Malawi has remained stuck.
And, with many areas ripe for exploration- areas such as Sports Bios, though they are sometimes blamed for stretching the limits of accuracy through their overcapitalisation on dramatic effects; sports drama, which examines the intense elements of sports; sports family, which caters for both books and films with a sports theme that suits all audiences- it falls nothing short of a shame that the country is stuck with the basics while the world moves on.
Fortunately for Malawi, there are some citizens who feel uncomfortable with the status quo, and have set about clearing the road for sports publications. One such individual is Balaka-based journalist Bartholomew Boaz, who has published the book ‘Football Made Simple’.
In so doing, Boaz has joined other reporters in the Southern African Development Community region, including Zambia’s Moses Sayela Walubita, a former reporter at the Zambia Daily Mail and Zambia’s former press secretary at the United Nations, who compiled a trajectory of Zambian sports in the book, ‘Zambia Sporting Score: A Period of Hits and Misses’.
Boaz has also joined Zimbabwe’s cricketer Henry Olonga, the author of the acclaimed autobiography, ‘Blood, Sweat and Treason’. Olonga will forever be remembered for his black armband protest against the country’s president Robert Mugabe, leading to his subsequent self-exile in his attempt to hold on to dear life. The book was a hit so much so that it was long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, apart from being nominated for the ‘Best Autobiography’ award at the 2011 British Sports Book Awards.
Is Boaz bound to scale similar heights? Let’s have a brief walk through the book.
Covering lost ground
The book, in tandem with the author’s promise in the Preface is only “…meant to explain some basic skills of football to such people [people who follow the sport and others] (who) wish to play but do not know what it takes]” and not provide a historical background of football in Malawi. And it introduces the basics in an easy format.
However, it becomes absolutely clear that the book is, in the final analysis, meant for the aspiring footballer, as espoused by its focus on such aspects as passion, knowledge, vision, reaction, adaptability, awareness, skill, composure, confidence, mental toughness, speed, endurance, stamina, strength, and things like those. Who else, apart from the aspiring footballer, needs these?
This observation (that the book is more about the aspiring footballer than it is about the casual spectator) is reinforced by the fact that the 72-page book focuses on ‘Football Field and Equipment’, ‘Flexibility Exercises’, ‘Positions’, ‘Formations’, ‘Skills’, ‘Tactics’, ‘Football Terms’, ‘Meanings of Referee’s Signals’, ‘Football and Education’ in the nine chapters that are ‘Football Made Simple’. 
While the book largely addresses issues in general terms and by repeating obvious issues such as “Football is a ball game played on a rectangular grass or artificial green field, with a goal post at each end of the pitch”, and the duration during which a full game of football is played, the information provided is enough to get one going. After all, that’s what the basics are all about.
In fact, by capturing up-to-date aspects in the modern game, it ably reflects football trends. This is, undoubtedly, due to the fact that the book was published just this year.
To its credit, the book ensures that photographs of local players, save for an occasional Ivory Coast marksman Didier Drogba’s appearance, are laced between the general tips.   
The structure of the book is based upon various elements applicable in the modern game, ranging from pitches and equipment, formations, exercises, tactics, to referees’ signals, giving the reader a comprehensive start-up ‘capital’ with its array of detailed analysis and quality. Even more interesting is the good balance between pictures and text. As they say, every sport first appeals to the eye before it ‘appears’ in the heart.

Save for the occasional anecdote, like when the author recollects an incident that occurred at Kamuzu Stadium while on duty to cover a match between Malawi and Ivory Coast and a woman spectator got excited when the teams appeared from the dressing rooms for warm-up mistakenly thinking it was time for the teams to tussle it out, each chapter follows a similar pattern, typically describing the basic rule or responsibility.

Undoubtedly, the greatest contribution of the book is its ability to create a one-stop reference ‘stage’ for all issues football, offering the reader the opportunity to first create pitches, players, equipment, tactics in their minds before they tread on the actual pitch.

This notwithstanding, questions will arise about the book’s size, which looks more of a casual magazine than a publication that captures serious discourse.
There are also indications that the book was done in a hurry. This is clear when the publishers have hidden’ some text that has found itself at the wrong place with semi-opaque seal tape. For instance, on Page 68, the last paragraph has been sealed with tape in a feeble attempt to ‘delete’ the words, “It is said that while young, Didier Drogba was forced to repeat a class because he was…This creates the impression that the work was hurried. #
The same mistake occurs on Page 56 and 57 where the statement, “Through pass is given to a teammate who is in a position to score because they can easily create one-on-one battle with opponents when a team is attacking”, is cast in seal tape. It is the same thing on Page 8, where words ‘Modern’ and, on Page 9, the word ‘number’ are ‘deleted’ with seal tape.
It is also clear that there was scanty research on the local game, and this may not be entirely the author’s fault: record keeping, in the corridors of the Football Association of Malawi and the government system at large, is a national malaise that shows no signs of healing. In fact, further research on the names of foreign players who appear (in the book) alongside such players as Malawi Senior National Football Team midfielder Robert Ng’ambi, forward Russell Mwafulirwa. Instead, it is only Ng’ambi and Mwafulirwa who are captioned, pointing to a lack of knowledge about other players on the African continent.
The book is also replete with minor, but serious, flaws. Pictures and information about the Malawian football stars of the 70s, 80s, 90s are conspicuously missing from the book, creating a picture that Malawi football has jumped from a vacuum to something. At least a combination of black-and-white and colour pictures would have given the book a feel and touch of both old and new.

Finally, while the book itself does not have an overall conclusion, it is clear that the author wants to fill the gap that has existed for a long time in the local game, and keep Malawians abreast of modern football tactics, techniques and physical demands.

When all is said and done, Boaz has done well to furnish the avid football follower with invaluable knowledge. That is to say, if the reader seeks a starting point in football, there is no better place to star than ‘Football Made Simple’.

But if the reader is out to get detailed information about local sports since independence, it is best to look elsewhere.

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