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Sports Book Chat: Musa Okwonga

Unknown Monday, July 25, 2011 , ,
It is hard to pin down Musa Okwonga. The blurb at the top of his blog on the Independent's website casually has him as a 'football writer, poet and musician', as if it was only natural for someone to be all of those three. Yet not even it goes as far as to include that he is an Eton educated lawyer in his list of achievements.

What Okwonga is without any shadow of doubt, however, is an author of two very good football books. His first, A Cultured Left Foot, which looks at the different elements that make up a truly great player was nominated for William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2008.

The second book, Will You Manage? looked at what makes a great (or not so great) manager which isn't a topic that hasn't been covered before but not in the way that Okwonga has. Suffice to say that Sun Tzu's The Art of War frequently gets a mention. It also goes without saying that this too is an excellent book.

It is his determination to look at popular subjects from different angles, to look outside football in order to find what determines success, that makes Okwonga such an interesting writer.

What's your earliest football memory?
Probably the 1985 Cup Final win over Everton (I'm a Manchester United fan). Back then they were an underachieving team of romantics, who alwatys tried to play exciting attacking football.

Did you immediately fall for the game or was it something gradual?
It was definitely an instant thing, my love for football. It's the fact that the game is so complex, but at first appears so simple, that is endlessly fascinating for me.

You're an Eton educated lawyer and also a poet: not too many people with those attributes who also follow football, let alone write books about the sport. What made you decide it was something you would like to do?
Looking at that list of attributes, I'm surprised that a publisher would touch me with a bargepole! Seriously, there are a huge number of people who followed football at school and in the City (not so many poets, though). And, in truth, it was the natural thing for me to get into. Football is second nature to my family - my grandfather managed the Uganda national team for several years, and a couple of my uncles were elected to the All-America squads when they were in college there. We all love the game, and that's a love which has endured no matter which professions I've gone into, or out of.

How much does your talent or skill for poetry help?
Being a poet definitely helps as a football writer. As a poet, you're constantly trying to find images and narrative forms that engage your audience; I'm conscious that I should always be concise, and that I should capture a moment for a reader. When I'm writing particular passages of prose, let's say when I'm describing a goal, I try to make them visual in a reader's mind. One of these days, when I pull my finger out, I'm going to try my hand at football poems that punters will enjoy, which remind them of their favourite moments in the game.

You've also come out with the fact that you're gay. Yet football as a whole seems quite homophobic. Is that something that bothers you? Could it be something that turns you off from the game?
Slight edit: I'm bisexual, I have a girlfriend of 14 months! But as to your question, it does bother me, though I understand the roots of that prejudice. It's based on a particular conception of manhood, which (given my own traditional, conservative upbringing) I once shared; that men who are gay are soft, are weak. I learned that this was absolute nonsense, and football will one day learn that too. And no: unlike hip-hop, which to my mind has far fewer redeeming features than football, I never lost my love for the game.

Similarly, what do you think of the recent case of Anton Hysen who announced that he was gay?
Anton Hysen is an excellent case in point. Brave guy, supported by his family and friends, he's showing how football is learning and developing. It'll be a slow process - we're talking about a sport that still shuns video replays - but we'll get there.

Where did the inspiration for the ideas behind each one of your books come from?
Football is a game with a billion viewers, and a billion experts. So I wanted to frame that raucous discussion with books that would encourage further debate, that would serve as the platform for talking points. I couldn't believe that no-one had actually written books about what makes great managers and players - I think they were too busy arguing about these subjects to put pen to paper. So I thought I'd have a go, and see where I ended up.

Although the style of your books is to break down complex topics to make them appear simple, it is quite obvious that you put in a lot of research and try to incorporate left field ideas in your writing. What's that process like? Do you determine what you like to research or do you let the research itself guide you?
I love getting under the skin of a subject. My attitude to football is that, love it or hate it, it's an exceptional social phenomenon. It's only existed for about 150 years in its modern form, but it dominates discussion the world over. There are probably religions who envy the reach of its influence. And so I try to place each of football's elements into a wider anthropological context, drawing on sociology, psychology and so on. Very often this approach yields exciting results. Aidy Boothroyd coached my football team for a session, and I noticed how he always used very positive language to point out flaws; so I asked if he'd taken formal training in communication. It turned out that he was 12 years' qualified in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which is used by several leading executives with their staff.

How often (if ever) do you re-read your books? Do you find yourself thinking that there is something that you would change?
I re-read my books as much as I look at photos of my exes, which is very rarely if at all; like photos of my exes, I don't own copies of them. I worry that having them around my house, even if they're out of sight, will make me big-headed that I've achieved through getting work published, and will remove my motivation. As Jay-Z said, "on to the next one".

On a similar vein, which one of the two books is your favourite?
My romantic favourite is my first book, A Cultured Left Foot, since that's where it all started. I had no name as a football writer, and when it received a nomination for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, that all changed. Will You Manage is also very dear to me. I felt great pressure to exceed the quality of A Cultured Left Foot, and I think I did it. It cost me several sleepless nights though - not of anxiety, but of writing.

What are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline?..
I have a very exciting project in the pipeline which I can't say anything about for now - but please get in touch in the next three months and I'll tell all. For anyone reading this piece, Paul has always been a tremendous supporter of my work, and so it would be a pleasure to share the news with him as soon as I have it.


This interview originally appeared in the June / July issue of Swinging Balls magazine.

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