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Friday, 25 July 2008

Book Review: Football Dynamo by Marc Bennetts

by Paul Grech

Hopes around Russia’s probabilities at the European Championships weren’t that high.  True, they had Guus Hiddink, a master in getting teams to outperform expectations, but their limitations were deemed to be too much even for him to overcome.  After all, they’d qualified for the championships largely because of England’s incompetence and their defeat to Croatia in the final group game.

Of course, that isn’t how it turned out to be.  Russia were one of the tournament’s great entertainers – their demolition of Holland in the quarter finals was arguably the best match of the whole competition - and Andrei Arshavin emerged as the true star of the tournament.

This, coupled with Zenit St. Petersburg’s greatly undervalued UEFA Cup success – this is a side that trashed Bayern Munich to get to the final – and the continued emergence of players from the Russian league where Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel is the latest example has raised the profile of the Russian game.

Given this background, Marc Bennett’s book Football Dynamo could hardly have been better timed.   

Attracted by the writing of Leo Tolstoy, Bennett decided to spend a year studying the language and culture in Moscow but has stayed there for over ten years. 

Not that it was always easy.  Understandably for someone in an alien culture, he was initially attracted by football, something that he could easily comprehend and feel an attachment for.

Yet rather than being simply a passing interest this has developed into a true passion for the local game and this book is the result of that.

The chapters are loosely dedicated to individual sides and, through a wide range of interviews – Oleg Romantsev is the only who he fails to talk to - coupled with his personal insight on Russian culture, Bennett manages to convey what each club is about.  He accepts the negative perceptions that outsiders may have of the Russian game but, rather than trying to put up arguments about why these views are incorrect, he tries to explain them so that they no longer seem so strange.

It is a successful approach, none more so when it comes to dealing with the subject of match fixing. For all the progress that has been registered and for all the money available to the likes of Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, it is impossible to get round the rumours of corruption.  Bennett never tries to give an answer as to whether this exists nor does he ever try give the impression that he will be in a position to do so, even though he does ask the question an awful lot.

Ultimately, he himself is trying to convince himself either way.  Everywhere he goes, he is met by official denials and unofficial resignation that corruption is part of the Russian game.  Yet neither view is overwhelmingly convincing leaving the read with the overwhelming sensation is that, whilst corruption might be present, this isn’t as widespread as some make it out to be.

Football Dynamo does not have too much historical depth to it which is acceptable since Bennett has opted to focus on what has gone one since the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Even so, certain mistakes – such the claim that Liverpool never faced a Soviet side: what about Dynamo Tbilisi? – should have been polished up.

Yet these are minor quibbles.  Bennett’s passion and fascination for the Russian game are infectious and, coupled with his inquisitive thirst for deeper knowledge, are elements  that help make this a hugely entertaining book.   

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