To an English fan this phrase normally conjures up images of cold, aging yet excitable men in dodgy jackets rambling about a beautiful game of two halves and any other bizarre metaphors or clichés they can drum up. In his new book, Football Dynamo, Marc Bennetts retains all the passion for the game, but rather than merely commenting on the skills of a player or the faults of a ref, he uses his love of football — and of the Russian game, in particular — to comment on the social, historical, and economic changes Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is a fantastic read. Bennetts bravely embarks on a study of Russian football and its teams; their industrial, communist, or military pasts; the iron rule of the managers; and the shady corruption that clouds the triumphs of the modern game. His paean to the Russian game involves all, from the players and managers to the oil-and-gas-rich oligarchs (who, following in Abramovich’s footsteps, have injected a huge amount of capital into this fast-growing premiership) and the politicians (who tactically support or distance themselves from this sport in times of public need) to the hooligans (organized gangs who use the game as a playground for violence and dismiss English football hooligans, their one-time heroes, as having gone soft). Everyone is given a voice, and everyone —a publicity managers permitting — is subjected to Bennetts’ probing.
His interviews with the various sporting heroes he meets give him the opportunity to criticize and praise Britain and Russia, and his asides about these figures can be ingenious, ironic, and insightful. Don’t miss his interview with the academic Alex Smertin, who had the romantic idea that living and playing in England would allow him to converse with people who speak a poetic English embellished with Dickenslike description. Instead, Smertin encountered the slightly less lyrical — and more obscene — language spoken in the stands and changing rooms at Arsenal or Fulham.
This book does not merely have a football focus. Along with Bennetts’ research we are presented with the author’s love for Russia and its people. Having lived and worked in Russia for over a decade, Bennetts is not blind to the country’s faults, but, pleasingly, he is not jaded (as many expats can appear to be). His narrative reminds us of all that is exciting about living here: the nuances of the language (and the power and expressiveness of Russian putdowns and expletives); the foibles, superstitions, and homegrown fatalism. Through simple observations, Bennetts points out the differences between the Russian game and its British or Brazilian analogue — like the distances teams travel to an away match and the lack of gardens that give youngsters the private space to practice their keepie uppies.
With the season drawing to an end, fans of Russian football may wish to fill the void by reading this up-to-date account of the successes and failures of the league teams and the national squad. But I would also recommend it to anyone who fancies an enlightening and entertaining journey into heart of Russia.
Football Dynamo by Marc Bennetts, Random House Books, 2008
(253 pp. plus references, acknowledgements, and index)