A book that tries to define what makes a great sporting leader is rewarding mainly for its anecdotes.
US journalist Sam Walker researched 1200 teams across the world from the past 130 years to identify “the top 10% of the top 1%” units and leaders. Yes, I hear you ask, “Why?”
But he’s a highly competent chap, who disarms you early on by admitting that his primary reaction to champions is jealousy. You’re soon caught up in his mini-narratives of matches and moments – Cuban and Brazilian women volleyballers brawling at Atlanta; the mitt in the face that helped Boston’s Red Sox to a title; Shelford’s near-castration in “the battle of Nantes”. He references Machiavelli, the Talmud, unicorns, the Israeli army. He’s … dedicated.
The book also offers some illuminating historical frameworks: “poor, repressive” Hungary’s football team thumping England in 1953; the segregation that stopped baseball’s Negro League Homestead Grays of the 1930s and 40s from taking on the white world. It covers leadership problems – superstars, gross sums of money, even the potential irrelevance of captaincy itself.
So who are the great sports leaders? Apart from our lads (no Kiwi women, but decent enough coverage of female skippers from other countries), you may know cricket’s Clive Lloyd, who stood up for and to his players; Roy Keane, the footballing car crash; jug-eared, semi-literate baseballer . You probably won’t know Valeri Vasiliev, Becky Sauerbrunn or Neymar da Silva Santos Jr, but again, you’ll find them easy reading.
What makes these people captain-class? Walker works hard for answers. There’s bag-carrying, rule-stretching, pain-ignoring, kill-switching, luck-seizing and shadow-seeking. Every individual had his/her own formula – if they could spell the word.
The book pretty much and pretty honestly admits its own lack of a definitive answer. “The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves … historical greatness is the character of the player who leads it.” Sound of a deflating balloon, anybody?
It’s a text to read around in rather than through, and its anecdotes stay in your mind more than its analyses. But it works hard at empathy, and it does apologise for omitting the Scottish tug-of-war champions.
THE CAPTAIN CLASS, by Sam Walker (Penguin Viking, $38)
This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.