INFTH Book Review: Morbo

Morbo. In the passionate world of Spanish football, where pigs’ heads fly from the stands and clubs take on quasi-political roles in the lives of millions, it is an undefinable source of intrigue which keeps the masses coming back for more. In his book, Phil Ball admits early on to the impossibility of clear translation, but nevertheless places the force at the center of his arguments. It is morbo, he writes, that is the essence of Spain’s national pastime. Morbo; the self-perpetuating, ever evolving creature which forms the hub of rivalries across the peninsula.

This view of the game – through the vitriolic, morbo ridden inter club relationships that make up Spanish professional football – is a novel one indeed. It treats football not so much as a tool for higher political wrangling, but as a phenomenon deserving of appreciation in its own right.

An expert in his field, Ball is an authoritative guide, one that understands the context of his subject. While consumption takes an appetite for basic politics, a sense of fun continually pervades; the one that keeps fans interested in football and readers interested in reading.

Refusing to be drawn into the veritable whirlpools of political stereotype in which more parochial authors tend to bathe, Morbo takes an impartial and non-sensationalist stance on issues whose discussion too often veer towards cliché. In the eyes of Ball, teams synonymous with extremist political ideologies shouldn’t have their rigorously exploited public personas accepted at face value, rather questioned, and then investigated. The so-called fascists in Madrid find their right-wing status under threat, while Franco’s supposed control over the destination of honors in the mid-1900s is also queried.

Whether it be through conversations with taxi drivers or trips to second division matches, Ball finds a way to explore every facet of Spain’s most compelling rivalries. Both witty in his tone and clear in his analysis, Ball’s ideas are conveyed thoughtfully and creatively – never pretentious, Morbo is elegant and well-stated throughout.

The book’s comprehensive coverage of Spanish club football is augmented by an interesting discussion of the national team. La seleccion’s numerous failures prior to 2008 lie at the epicenter of a many layered and perplexing tradition of under performance – one made to fester by over blown reactions back at home and a paradoxical national personality.

From Alaves’ mysterious nickname to Sporting Gijon’s misguided official song, Morbo covers all aspects of the Spanish footballing landscape. However, despite the volume of content, fascination is never in short supply – even the most seemingly prosaic clubs take on an exciting personality under the writer’s careful gaze.

Phil Ball gives life to a culture that can sometimes be nauseatingly political.  Through morbo’s gaping window he observes, telling the story of one of Europe’s most obsessive footballing nations.

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