Ever wondered which goal Frank Lampard is proudest of, who Jürgen Klopp thinks will manage Liverpool in the future, what Rio Ferdinand thinks of Man United in the post-Ferguson years or exactly how many grey cashmere jumpers Pep Guardiola owns? In this collection of frank and funny conversations between footballers and their biggest fans, these vital questions (and many more) are finally addressed.
A Game of Two Halves shows a different side to some of the biggest names in football, reminding us of the common ground we all share. This project is published in partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with the goal of raising both funds for and awareness of their work with child refugees.
Jade Craddock was lucky enough to speak to author Amy Raphael and find out more about A Game of Two Halves.
Amy, congratulations on the book, firstly can you tell us a little about the background to the project and the partnership with UNHCR?
Thank you! I write at length about the inspiration for A Game of Two Halves (AGOTH) in the intro (buy the book!), but here’s a more concise version. In June 2016, I was distraught by the result of the Brexit referendum, which felt to me like a vote to close our borders. I wanted to do something to keep the conversation about displaced people going; one person is displaced around the world every two seconds, which is beyond shocking and virtually impossible to conceive. I then saw a photo of two young kids kicking a ball back and forth among the ruins of a Syrian city, trying to find some kind of normality, which in turn made me think about football as a universal game, a game that exists without borders. Football is, by its very nature, political; the current issue with racism in the stands is directly related to the toxic, divisive language used by certain politicians.
As a former sports editor of Esquire and as a lifelong Liverpool fan, I thought it might be interesting to pair up famous football fans with their heroes and partner up with UNHCR. I asked David Morrissey, a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, to help and he invited me to Lebanon, where we visited displaced Syrian families. I realise people are critical of the UN, but the work I saw UNHCR doing on the ground was really impressive.
It’s a very impressive line-up of interviewers and footballers you’ve brought together, how easy was it get these big names on board and logistically to get the pairings sat down in rooms together?
It was a logistical nightmare, but the goodwill across the board made the whole process relatively painless. There was only one example of prima donna behaviour and we managed to salvage that in one way or another. By the way, that person isn’t in the book.
How did you go about forming the partnerships, were they organic or was it a case of having to pair certain people up?
It was really hard to decide who to approach first! For example, I didn’t want either Gallagher brother to be paired up with Pep Guardiola because they are such famous Man City fans and it felt too obvious. So I approached Johnny Marr, who immediately agreed, and then went to City saying he was dying to meet Pep. But I approached Liverpool about Klopp first and then, once he’d said yes, worked out who he’d be best paired with. LeBron James would have been brilliant, as would Daniel Craig, but John Bishop is a Scouser and goes to as many games as he can – plus he has experience of interviewing people via his TV chat show and I knew Klopp would be pushed for time so needed a pro.
Did any pairing particularly surprise you in any way and how pleased were you in general with the way the interviews progressed?
I knew that Wretch 32 was a massive Ian Wright fan – he is from Tottenham, but ended up supporting Arsenal purely because of Wright – but I couldn’t have predicted the bromance that unfolded before my very eyes. They were literally finishing each other’s sentences and screaming with laughter. There was a similar vibe between Romesh Ranganathan and Héctor Bellerín. I was surprised that Frank Lampard stayed for two hours and was so open about his mother’s death and the Chelsea squad turning up to her funeral. And I certainly didn’t expect Eric Dier to ask David Lammy about the basic minimum wage or express his guilt at earning so much money.
Was there anyone you would have liked to have had involved either as interviewer or interviewee that just wasn’t possible?
I really wanted to pair Danny Boyle and Eric Cantona; the former was willing, but the latter politely declined. Perhaps because he is already signed up to Common Goal, a fantastic charity.
I think lots of football fans, myself included, will very much have their own dream interviewee, for me it would be Cesc Fabregas, closely followed by Arsene Wenger and Karen Carney, who I once had the pleasure of playing against, many moons ago, but who would be your dream football hero either present or past to interview and why?
As a kid growing up in the 70s, I had pictures of Kenny Dalglish all over my bedroom walls (next to Davids Soul and Essex). At some point in the mid-90s, I walked past King Kenny on the pitch at Anfield while being given a tour with Ian Broudie. Apparently, I went a ghostly white; I certainly couldn’t breathe. So perhaps I shouldn’t interview Dalglish. I would love to interview Klopp. It was very hard sitting in on his chat with John Bishop because there was so much I’d like to have asked him. If not Klopp, then van Dyke because he is magnificent both on and off the pitch. Or Roberto Baggio because he was one of the most exciting players I have seen.
There are brilliant combinations of interviewer and interviewee in the book, and I wondered whether the possibility of a male fan interviewing a female footballer had been mooted at all? For me, this wouldn’t be about box-ticking but to have a genuine male fan of women’s football and to get a different angle on the game.
I agree. I did try, but not hard enough!
I loved the fact that in the interview between Gary Lineker and Fahd Saleh, it’s Gary who interviews Fahd about his football career and life, it really made me think how easily roles could have been reversed if geopolitical circumstances had been different, so how important do you think this interview is and in getting a different football narrative across?
Gary’s dream pairing would have been Messi, but I’m not sure if the GOAT would have opened up, even if I had managed to secure time with him. I then thought that it would be great to have a Syrian footballer in the book, Fahd seemed the obvious choice and Gary the most appropriate interlocutor.
Similarly, there are a couple of great interviews with two icons of the women’s game, Lucy Bronze and Vivianne Miedema, talking about the way women’s football has developed but the sense that there’s still a long way to go. Having played myself in the 00s and my mum before me in the 70s, there was often a sense in which there had been little progress made in that period, but in recent years things have been developing, albeit still with a long way to go, but do you get a sense from players like Vivianne that real, irreversible change is happening?
I wrote about Arsenal Ladies, as was, in the mid-90s and so much has changed since then. But painfully slowly. The biggest changes have, in fact, happened since Clare Balding spoke to Lucy Bronze and I interviewed the sublime Miedema. France ‘19 raised the profile of the game, but it can’t just be about the big tournaments; people need to watch women’s games week in, week out. Women need to be paid properly. They need access to the same facilities as the men. I went to Lyon for the Four Four Two at the end of the summer to see the set-up there and it’s pretty impressive. I don’t, however, think that the women’s game should aim to be the same as the men’s, which costs way too much and which has, to a degree, been poisoned by pockets of vile racism.
A number of the footballers in the book – I’d even go so far as to say all of them – have been shaped by a multicultural, international dynamic in large part thanks to football, players like Hector Bellerin and managers like Guardiola and Klopp who have moved to Britain, and others like Lucy Bronze and Eric Dier who have experienced football outside of Britain, and there’s a real sense in which the question of borders and diversity are almost invisible to them in a way that perhaps they’re not in society at the moment as a whole. People are often quick to lambast footballers but it seems that there’s something everyone can learn from them in this respect?
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that all footballers are now woke, but some of them are certainly happier to speak out. Look at Gary Neville, rightly pointing the finger at Johnson for racism on the terraces. Look at the current footballers who have opened up about depression. Football kind of exists without borders in the sense that Premier League dressing rooms are incredibly diverse and none of the players seems to care or even notice. I would hope that gay male players may one day feel able to be open about their sexuality too……. I’m sure it will happen.
And building on that point, what role do you think football has in society today?
Football is, of course, tribal, but it’s also a unifying force. Even committed non-football fans will discuss England the day after a World Cup game. Football is escapism – and boy do we need some of that right now!
As someone who has been involved in and around football for a long time, what is your impression of where the game is at now, and I’m thinking here in terms more of matters off the pitch, and specifically the problem with racism that’s reared its ugly head once more?
I’m not sure racism ever went away. At the launch of AGOTH, Lineker talked about being on a commercial flight with England in the days before private planes. He was sitting next to John Barnes and an England fan came up and spouted some really shitty, racist crap. I personally think the FA should have a zero-tolerance policy and that players should walk off the pitch if they hear abuse from the stands (or from opposition players). It shouldn’t just be the likes of Raheem Sterling standing against racism.
It’s great to see a different side to many of these sporting icons, it seems to be one of those bizarre contradictions that footballers these days seem both more accessible in terms of social media but less accessible in terms of genuine interactions with fans, and I think one of the brilliant things this book does is let fans in a bit more, how difficult do you think this balance is for footballers nowadays? It seems a shame that we don’t get to see these different sides of footballers that make them that more relatable.
Social media allows us glimpses of our favourite players, but nothing more than that. I really miss the kind of longform journalism I used to do at Esquire in the 90s – spending a few days in Barcelona with Bobby Robson or an afternoon in Turin with Alessandro Del Piero. There are so many demands made of footballers and managers now that it’s almost impossible to get that kind of access. In fact, as John Bishop and I were waiting to go into Klopp’s office at Melwood, one of the press officers said that it was amazing we’d got an hour with him because it was akin to getting an audience with the Pope. I don’t think we’d have got that kind of access if we weren’t raising money for refugees.
I think much of the openness and honesty referred to in the previous question comes down to the fact perhaps that footballers feel more comfortable talking to those not associated with the sporting media, were you surprised or pleased by the levels of trust and transparency in the interviews? And do you think these are things that are lacking between footballers and the mainstream media?
You’re right. Had I been interviewing Klopp or Guardiola or Lampard, they might well have expected me to have an agenda or to be looking for a headline. So they were all more relaxed than they might otherwise have been. I also offered everyone copy approval. But, again, the willingness came from the understanding that AGOTH was raising money for refugees.
And finally, personally I’d love to see another book in this vein, and have a veritable long list of names to put into the hat, but is a second book something that you’d be interested and who would be the first football hero you’d be hankering after to get on board?
I have a list of people for a second book, but unfortunately the first book hasn’t become a big seller so I’m not sure there will ever be a follow-up. It’s a bummer to end on this… However, I will say that the couple on the top of my prospective list is……. Mick Jagger and David Beckham. Though somewhere in that mix is Rob Brydon doing his brilliant impression of Jagger, so perhaps it’s best that it remains a dream.
A Game of Two Halves: Famous Football Fans Meet Their Heroes by Amy Raphael
Allen & Unwin 9781911630036 hbk Oct 2019