Fans the world over dream of the opportunity to meet their footballing heroes and ask them anything. Journalist Amy Raphael has gone one step further, bringing together twelve famous fans and their footballing icons in a series of open interviews whose basis is in football but which divert into everything from comedy to the London riots, social media to grime music, and often, in the current climate, to the issues of Brexit and racism, with incredibly eye-opening results.

Much like the interviews themselves, the impetus behind the book goes far beyond the boundaries of football – half of the royalty earnings from the project will be donated to UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency, which protects and supports refugees and other forcibly displaced people around the world. The connection between refugees and football may seem a tenuous one, but what bigger platform to grant the programme and the crisis than that attainable via the high-profile attention of a book that boasts the names of both some of the most globally recognised and admired football personalities, the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Lucy Bronze, and figures from the worlds of entertainment, sport and politics as interviewers. Furthermore, in many ways, despite an often bad press about football, it has long been a sport that champions diversity and social responsibility. As Vivianne Miedema so straightforwardly puts it: “When I’m in the locker room, I don’t care if I sit next to someone from Africa or Asia or next to a boy. They are just people to me and I don’t understand how anyone can think differently.” A sentiment echoed by England footballer Eric Dier: “One of the greatest things about football is the diversity within a team. At Tottenham I’m sharing a dressing room with players from South Korea, Kenya, Belgium, France, Spain, Argentina, Colombia. That’s the beautiful thing about football. It brings people together in a way I don’t think anything else does.” Certainly, this book is proof of that, with figures including musician Johnny Marr, author Val McDermid, comedian Omid Djalili and politician David Lammy brought together with Pep Guardiola, John McGlynn, Frank Lampard and Eric Dier respectively, united, despite their myriad differences, by football, demonstrating the power of the beautiful game to offer a point of connection between seemingly unconnected individuals, from which interesting, surprising and even empowering discussions can emerge.

As a football fan, first and foremost, I particularly enjoyed the insight into the footballing stars in the interviews, learning from Steven Gerrard, for instance, that for him football “becomes less enjoyable the higher you go simply because there’s more at stake” or that after a loss, Pep Guardiola doesn’t “want to see the players at breakfast. I don’t like them”. The football discussions also easily segue into various elements of a footballer’s life and world, but other topics are less obvious and more unexpected, and some readers may find these discussions all the more fascinating. At any rate, I think this book proves there’s more to these sporting greats than some would give them credit for, and all of them speak passionately, eruditely and honestly, whether on the subject of scoring goals or feminism and football. In large part, I think the success of the interviews comes down to both the set-up and, in particular, the fact that this isn’t a typical interview commitment with the sporting press and the interviewers themselves who create a more informal and open environment for discussions. At times, because of a genuine meeting of worlds, the interviewer becomes the interviewee, but it’s part of the interesting dynamic of these interviews, which often feel much more like dialogue than a normal interview.

I loved the pairings and the range of contributors, both in terms of the interviewers and those from the football world, and it was pleasing to have female football represented. One possible route that wasn’t taken, however, that I think would have offered an interesting angle, would have been a male football fan interviewing a female footballer, but otherwise all of the interviews deliver something fresh and interesting. And as I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think there is a lot of potential to replicate the process in further books. Whilst sadly I suspect I won’t be called up in any potential future editions (unless I miraculously become a comedian or maths genius overnight, both of which I think are as likely as me becoming a professional footballer), for football fans, the book certainly makes you think about your own dream interviewee and just what you’d ask them. And in terms of a publishing opportunity, there’s no reason that the format cannot be rolled out across other sports. Whilst football does have the biggest profile and therefore the best opportunity of keeping the refugee crisis at the forefront of people’s minds, I suspect interviews between other celebrity fans and sports stars would be equally eye-opening on a range of topics and could similarly draw attention to important issues and the charities working in the field. But in terms of A Game of Two Halves, it is both an incredibly important book but also, I hope, a launchpad for more.

Amy Raphael has done a brilliant job of not only producing a first-class book that allows readers unprecedented access to some of the biggest names in world football but also in using that platform for bigger issues. The subjects and interviews themselves are all different but utterly eye-opening. But, for me, the pairing of Gary Lineker as interviewer for refugee and former Syrian footballer Fahd Saleh was particularly enjoyable, giving space to a different type of football narrative and the opportunity for a less-recognised football hero to be interviewed by a global name. In his Foreword to the book, Lineker writes: “Imagine this: Leicester is bombed and completely destroyed. We are forced to flee elsewhere.” How easily this makes you think that Gary’s and Fahd’s stories could have been reversed – Gary Lineker a footballer who had his opportunity to play football torn away from him by war and Fahd Saleh rising to the top of the world game and becoming a household name. In this interview more than any of the others, football and the refugee crisis meet head on and it offers a poignant reminder of how different life could have been and how important football is as something more than just a game of two halves.

J. Craddock 4.5*

A Game of Two Halves by Amy Raphael
Allen & Unwin 9781911630036 hbk Oct 2019