World Cup Special – The beautiful game in crime fiction

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In case you missed it, the World Cup kicked off this week. It’s that time every four years when it seems that everyone, no matter what their day job or what colour flag they wave, sits down to watch football for an entire month. All over the world people will be switching on to see who lifts the cup. Will it be the hosts Brazil, one of the other strong South American contenders, a European powerhouse, or perhaps one of the dark horses? And will the 2014 World Cup inspire a fine work of crime fiction the way England 1966 inspired Paul Gadsby’s recent Chasing the Game? Because after all it’s crime fiction that brought us here, and it’s crime fiction we’re into, even if we look at a bit of football on the side.

While crime fiction lovers around the world will stop what we do to watch World Cup 2014 in Brazil, characters throughout the world of crime fiction also frequently enjoy the beautiful game. It gives them believability, makes them seem more like an everyman. Football, and the passion that surrounds it can often give a novel some added texture. So, while you wait for kick off, or pause in between matches, why not have a look at some fascinating football-loving crime fighters – and villains – from all over the world of crime fiction?

First we travel to France, and although Didier Deschamps’ Les Bleus are nobody’s favourites to lift the cup, especially with Franck Ribéry out injured, the French club Olympique de Marseille does a little better. Among OM’s vocal supporters is Detective Fabio Montale, along with the majority of the denizens in what is described as “Europe’s toughest, most violent and most vibrant city.” Jean-Claude Izzo’s brilliant and complex Total Chaos, the first in his Marseilles trilogy, sees three friends who grew up together on the mean streets of Marseille vow to put their life of crime behind them. When one is murdered and another returns to avenge his death, only to end up dead himself, it’s up to the final remaining member of the trio, Montale, now a police detective, to use his contacts in the Marseille underworld to ensure justice is served. The book is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of Marseille, its songs, its tragedies and its beauty – many of which occur on the field of the Stade Vélodrome.
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While Marseille are relatively successful – the only French team to win the UEFA Champions League – the same can’t be said for Hertha Berlin. Not today, anyway. Things were different in John Russell’s time, in David Downing’s debut spy novel Zoo Station. Hitler is pushing war onto Europe, while Russell and his son Paul spend their weekends at Hertha BSC matches – at least when Paul isn’t away at Jungvolk camps. As war draws closer and Russell finds himself travelling in his dual roles as freelance journalist and espionage agent, he and Paul start to miss matches, but they do manage to travel to London together, affording them a chance to see a match between Chelsea and Arsenal – a disappointing match, which only serves to reinforce 11-year-old Paul’s belief that Germany is the better country.
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England are playing a relatively young, domestic-based side, perhaps with more of a chance at Russia 2018 than Brazil 2014, but they should never be overlooked, in football or in crime fiction. Ian Ayris’ Abide With Me, named for the hymn sung before the FA Cup Final each year, follows eight-year-old John as he grows up in the East End of London, from his beloved West Ham United’s 1975 FA Cup win, to his falling in with local gangster Ronnie Swordfish. As John grows up he develops a friendship with Kenny, the boy across the road, and as their relationship grows deeper, so does the plot. Told through the eyes of John, in his distinctive first person voice, the novel is a brilliant examination of how football brings people together. It’s more about the characters than the crime – although the crime is there, and drives the story. Read our review here.
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Germany, France and England could be challenging for a final spot in Brazil, but it’s hard to look past Argentina. While Messi dominates on the football field, Argentinian crime fiction also packs a punch. Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes, the basis for the 2009 Oscar winner for best foreign language film, tells the story of a retired detective obsessing over an unsolved case from decades ago. As he attempts to write the story of the events that led to a brutal rape and murder, he teams up with an old alcoholic colleague, who leads him to Racing Club de Evellaneda, one of the most successful clubs in Argentinian football, in search of the elusive criminal. The book is a complex and dark examination of Argentina’s Dirty War – and at heart an investigation into justice, and who really controls it.
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On the other end of the scale from these football powerhouses, and ranked 62nd in the world at the moment, is Australia. The Socceroos won’t be playing in the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th, but Australian crime fiction is certainly something that my nation can be proud of. Likewise the amateur Sydney club in Adrian Deans’ Mr Cleansheets aren’t world beaters, but Deans’ novel is a great examination of football hooliganism, and the points where the underworld and the world of football cross over. Eric Judd – AKA Mr Cleansheets – plays goalie an is a local legend because he once received a letter from Manchester United inviting him to “come when he’s ready.” Six days before his 40th birthday Judd decides that he’s ready, but when he arrives in England he doesn’t quite find what he expected. Deans’ analysis of British football hooliganism is quite different in plot to his most recent novel Straight Jacket reviewed here, however it has the same fast, attacking style of writing that I enjoyed in his more recent work.
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These books represent five of the 32 nations playing in Brazil this month, and are a good headway into the world where football and crime fiction cross over. We’re certain there are more, so do let us know about your favourite football-crime fiction crossover novels in the comments below. Oh, and may the best team win!

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