If there’s any sort of theme to the books I’ve reviewed in the Reading the Game, it’s that I look for the stories that don’t necessarily make the headlines. Even where I’ve chosen to read about a ‘big’ club, I’ve been much more likely to either avoid the ‘super clubs’ altogether, or read about the people controlling them, as opposed to the clubs themselves. That’s maybe why In the Shadow of Giants by Leandro Vignoli appealed to me; this book is about one of the most intense groundhops ever attempted.
Vignoli is a Brazilian journalist based in Canada who, having spent his footballing life supporting a massive club, decides to spend a couple of months zigzagging around Europe watching big city clubs who exist alongside one or more far more popular sides. Over 49 days, the author attends matches at 13 different clubs in eight countries and tries to capture why supporters stick with a comparative minnow and how matchday pans out when you follow a club which isn’t expected to challenge for honours.
The word ‘comparative’ does quite a bit of heavy lifting here, though; some of these clubs are bigger than you might expect. For instance, I’m not sure I’d describe 1860 Munich or Torino as ‘small’ clubs. In addition, two of the three clubs Vignoli visits in London currently play in the Championship and the only club from the ‘Big Smoke’ he watches who have played non-League football are Leyton Orient. To be fair, the author did abandon a planned visit to AFC Wimbledon in favour of catching a Queen’s Park match at Hampden Park – their remarkable history and subsequently abandoned amateur status meant that the Spiders were an excellent addition to what was already a dizzying itinerary.
Once I remembered that this book was written from a South American perspective, rather than through European eyes, the club choices made more sense. Every chapter is centred around a home match played by the small club being profiled; Vignoli vividly describes the matchday experience at each fixture, talks to the home fans, drinks with them. He makes a point of learning about the history and identity of the team he’s watching, then sharing this knowledge with the reader. In a nice touch, each chapter ends with a small box-out highlighting the next stop on the journey, the distance from the first club to the next, a snippet of advice for potential visitors and a song choice to sum up that part of the adventure.
In the Shadow of Giants had been a big success in the author’s native Portuguese and this English-language translation from Pitch Publishing is very readable. Starting in Barcelona, where Espanyol sit very much in the shadow of a certain heavily-indebted club, and experiencing games in Germany, France, Portugal and the Netherlands, Vignoli chronicles an adventure in which he is clearly having the time of his life. He never patronises the sides he watches; instead, he celebrates each in turn, writing respectfully and warmly of their histories and identities.
This is a well-paced and enjoyable book and has certainly given me a couple of weekend breaks to add to the ‘bucket list’. While I don’t know if I’d take on the kind of challenge that leads to a book like In the Shadow of Giants, I’d definitely like to follow in Vignoli’s footsteps by watching games at some of these clubs. Give this book a read and I think you’ll want to check out some of these teams too. You can get a copy at Stanchion, the football bookshop or from other retailers.