Book Review – I’ve Got Mail: The Soccer Saturday Letters by Jeff Stelling

Five grown men are sat around talking for several hours about football on TV… It sounds like the start of a joke, and for some non-football fans and cynics that is exactly what it is. It certainly doesn’t seem like the recipe for TV gold, but for nearly three decades Soccer Saturday has proven to be just that for millions of football fans, who’ve tuned in every weekend throughout the season to watch the gang talk about football with barely the sight of a ball, a pitch or a goal. And in the hot seat for the past 26 years has been the irrepressible Jeff Stelling, who manages, more often than not, to deliver the results as well as the one-liners, whilst keeping in check his merry band of pundits. Presumably as Jeff penned his latest tome, I’ve Got Mail: The Soccer Saturday Letters, he hadn’t foreseen that by the time the book was published this autumn ahead of the new football season, three quarters of the usual line-up would have been given the axe, with stalwarts Matt Le Tissier, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas heading out of Sky Towers. Indeed, in the book itself, he praises the quartet as being his dream Soccer Saturday team and bemoans other media outlets that have freshened up line-ups in recent times. Although he’s also quick to applaud the new generation of pundits, it does remain to be seen how Soccer Saturday without the three amigos will work. It’ll certainly take some getting used to, but in a time in which football and the world has changed exponentially, Soccer Saturday has changed along with it, though one fixture remains. As with the previous twenty-six seasons, Jeff Stelling will be at the helm for the start of another unprecedented season when the 2020/21 campaign gets underway, and his book is perfectly timed to coincide.

Whilst Jeff Stelling has had two volumes already published, the third uses as its launchpad correspondence he has received throughout his career, beginning with a telegram – yes, a telegram – in the late 1970s that would set Jeff on his journey to Sky Sports anchor. From there he works through various elements of the job and his roles, using letters and emails he’s received to explore everything from the pitfalls of fame and fortune to his charity work. There are letters full of vitriol, others full of thanks, and ones intended to blackmail, and each serves to feed into a narrative about Jeff’s experiences across his four decades of broadcasting service. However, although correspondence does feature in several of the chapters, it’s not quite as prolific as perhaps the subtitle The Soccer Saturday Letters suggests and generally is just a starting point to explore a theme, allowing Jeff licence to elucidate on the highs and lows of his life in the sporting spotlight. Call me nosy, but personally I would have liked to have seen more of the letters and emails, which really do add to the book, if only in censored expletives.

For football fans, however, overall the book is a great insight into the (not-always-) glamorous world of sports broadcasting, including the difficulties of interviewing Jose Mourinho when he’s not in a particularly accommodating mood, the best and worst Champions League experiences and the realities of awards ceremonies. And, of course, there are a smattering of Stelling’s (in)famous puns, including old favourites featuring Mo Eisa and Keaghan Jacobs, as well as some rarer offerings to watch out for. Aside from the natural repartee, there are also some really touching moments too that cover Jeff’s incredible charity efforts and the viewers’ affinity with him, and Soccer Saturday in particular, proving, if ever it needed to be proven, just how integral football and sports coverage is to people’s mental and social well-being. And the anecdotes and stories in the book will resonate for readers far and wide, for whom Soccer Saturday has become as much a fixture of the week as the games themselves. I for one will be tuning in as ever, looking forward to catching up with Jeff and his new cohort, and keeping my fingers crossed that Archie McPhee scores, so that his Nanny can get a mention.

(Headline. September 202. Hardcover 256 pp)


Jade Craddock


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2010/11: Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup 2011

Whilst here in England the weekend has been dominated by the FA Cup including Leeds brave effort at the Emirates, the return of Dalglish to manage Liverpool and Cup shocks from the likes of Stevenage, Notts County, Southampton, Torquay United and Burton Albion – an international tournament kicked off on Friday. Neither BBC Sport or Sky Sports included the fixtures or results on their football website pages.

The tournament in question is the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup. It is for the international teams who are part of the AFC, with the winners qualifying for the FIFA Conferations Cup. Whilst the Cup of African Nations (CAN) has gained greater coverage over the years in Europe, the Asian Cup is seemingly off the radar. It is not as if the Asian Cup is a newly created competition. It was first held in 1956 hosted by Hong Kong. Four teams entered (South Korea, Israel and South Vietnam joined hosts Hong Kong) and South Korea emerged winners from the round robin tournament.

The Asian Cup was held every four years from 1956 until 2004, with the events in 1960, 1964 and 1968 being four team round robin events. In 1972 in Thailand the competition changed to a six team event with Group Stages and then Semi-Final and Final. Eights years later in Kuwait the tournament expanded to 10 teams, but was overshadowed by the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Given this background it was a real achievement that Iran even completed the tournament, finishing 3rd. The ten team structure changed again when in 1992 in Japan it was reduced to eight. It changed once more in 1996 when 12 teams competed in the UAE and the format remained this way in 2000 for the event in Lebanon. However by 2004 the tournament grew again with 16 teams playing in China.

With the Summer Olympic Games and the European Football Championship scheduled in the same year as the Asian Cup, the AFC decided to move the tournament to avoid these other events. As a result the 2008 event was brought forward to 2007. Incredibly given the war torn situation in their country, Iraq emerged as winners. It was the first time Australia took part in the event after their move to the AFC.

The most successful teams are Saudi Arabia (winners in 1984, 1988 and 1996), Iran (1968, 1972 and 1976) and Japan (1992, 2000 and 2004) with three wins. South Korea won in 1956 and 1960, with Israel, Kuwait and Iraq having won in 1964, 1980 and 2007 respectively. Israel were expelled from the AFC in the 1970’s before becoming members of UEFA.

The current tournament – the 15th, takes place in Qatar between 7th and 29th January. So given the recent furore about its award of the 2022 World Cup, greater coverage here in England might have been expected of the event. 16 teams are in Qatar. Six teams did not have to take part in the qualifiers. These were: Qatar as hosts, AFC Asian Cup 2007 winners Iraq, runners-up Saudi Arabia and third-place finishers South Korea, with India and DPR Korea qualifying by virtue of winning the second-tier AFC national team competition, the AFC Challenge Cup, in 2008 and 2010 respectively. The 10 qualifiers are: Japan, Australia, Iran, Uzbekistan, China, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.

In terms of tickets prices, Group games have a top price of 100 Qatar Riyals [QAR] (approx £18) and the cheapest at 15 QAR (approx £2.60). For the Final the top ticket is 150 QAR (aprrox £27) and the cheapest 20 QAR (approx £3.50). Given that Qatar has one of the lowest unemployment rates (0.5% at 2009) and good average wages, these are cheap ticket prices and as a result virtually all games are sold out.

Six games have been played so far. In Group A, hosts Qatar lost 2-0 to Uzbekistan and China beat Kuwait by the same score. Group B saw Japan held 1-1 all by Jordan and Syria caused a shock be defeating much fancied Saudi Arabia 2-1. This result has caused the first major story of the competition as the Saudis sacked manager Jose Peseiro after this defeat. Australia got their Group C campaign off to a winning start with a 4-0 victory over India including a brace for Tim Cahill and one from the new face of Nintendo, Harry Kewell. In the same group, South Korea have also started the tournament with a win as two goals from Ja-Cheol Koo saw them overcome Bahrain 2-1.

The impact on Premier League teams is not as great as that during the CAN, but surely this is not the reason for the lack of coverage of the Asian Cup? Those playing out in Qatar from the Premier League are as follows: Tim Cahill (Everton – Australia), Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United – South Korea), Mark Schwarzer (Fulham – Australia), Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton Wanderers – South Korea), Brett Emerton (Blackburn Rovers – Australia), David Carney (Blackpool – Australia) and Brad Jones (Liverpool – Australia). The Aussies also include Championship players, with Leeds own Neil Kilkenny and Middlesbrough’s Scott McDonald in Qatar.

In terms of FIFA rankings (as at December 2010), the 16 teams competing rank as follows: Australia (26), Japan (29), South Korea (40), Iran (66), Saudi Arabia (81), China (87), Bahrain (93), Iraq (101), Kuwait (102), Jordan (104), UAE (105), Syria (107), Korea DPR (108), Uzbekistan (109), Qatar (114) India (142). Agreed not the strongest line-up in the World, but is this a reason to ignore it?

Football the global game? Certainly not in England if the lack of coverage is anything to go by.