Review: The Blizzard, Issue Zero

AIDAN KELLY: The Blizzard, a quarterly digital soccer publication, hopes to “break the shackles” of mainstream media constraints by offering more in-depth pieces on a wide spectrum of subjects – and for a price of our choosing.

The co-operative features some well known writers, including Gabriele Marcotti (who has written books on Fabio Capello and Paolo Di Canio), and Uli Hesse (author of ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’).

The name, we are told by editor Jonathan Wilson, comes from an English newspaper launched by an eccentric Sunderland businessman called Sidney Duncan in 1893. The title only published 12 times, with Duncan doubling the cover price in an attempt to cut circulation because the effort of collecting all the loot he was accumulating became “so tiresome.”

In Issue Zero, launched with little fanfare, you’ll find an interesting look back to MLS new boys Portland Timbers’ debut season in the NASL in 1975 (by Michael Orr); why the away goals rule should be abolished in two legged Champions’ League affairs; and how Bayern Munich legend Uli Hoeness – whose career was curtailed due to injury — has become a sausage magnate.

Other  topics covered are the merits of a European Super League, how the Netherlands’ move away from liberalism is reflected in its game (as witnessed during the 2010 World Cup); thoughts on whether doping is ethical; and how New Labour’s political strategy is like Dennis Bergkamp’s playing style under Arsene Wenger.

I was particularly pleased to see comic hero Roy Race outed by Scott Murray for his ruination of the English game. His talent for belting home last minute winners and securing unlikely victories from the jaws of certain defeats is blamed for warping the minds of tactic-starved British youth who read Roy of the Rovers and Tiger magazines. (I was more a fan of the short, rotund and optically challenged Mighty Mouse, a medical student by day and dribbling wonder by night, and his pal, the gentle Hebridean giant Hot Shot Hamish, whose ferocious efforts usually burst goalnets and whose shirts never reached the waistband of his shorts.)

The Blizzard provides us with 25 contributions in total, crammed into 188 photo-free pages, neither magazine nor book.

And the price? Well, that’s up to you, as the publishers are asking you to pay whatever you think their product is worth, not too dissimilar to the path Radiohead ventured down with its In Rainbows album in 2007. (It must be noted that Thom Yorke and Co. didn’t persist with the idea for their follow up, the King of Limbs, launched last month.)

I paid the recommended 3 pounds (about 5 bucks) for Issue Zero but would up it for future editions. The recommended price for Issue One, coming out in June, is 10 pounds sterling (16 bucks) — the cost of a regular book, but a tad more than most magazines. It will also be available as a hard copy, but the recommended cost of that (about 27 bucks when you include shipping) won’t see too many takers stateside I’d imagine.

If you consider its authors as soccer writing’s equivalent to rock stars, then you’ll probably love it. Even as a casual fan, you’ll still find enough in here to tickle your fancy. I await the “difficult second” offering of The Blizzard with the anticipation I had most Fridays for Hamish & Mouse updates as a 10-year-old.

MIKE CUMMINGS: There’s something in this first issue of the Blizzard that speaks to me on a personal level. Sure, it’s big and bulky, it kinda sorta looks like it was thrown together in a single all-nighter by a sophomore graphic design major, and it’s not at all accessible to casual fans. But the whole DIY approach — that is, all the bigness and bulkiness and non-accessibility — scream out “damn The Man” in a way I can’t recall seeing in sports media.

What I’m trying to say here is this: Anyone who’s ever written a single word for money knows how frustrating the whole process can be. First there’s the audience, most of which doesn’t care. Then there’s the employer, who only seems to care about the bottom line. Then there’s the final product, which often gets changed somewhere between the stages of idea and publication. And in today’s crazy media landscape, all of those problems are compounded by declining readership and advertising revenue (for traditional media), or questions of timeliness versus reliability (for newer media).

So, what’s a writer to do? If you’re the editors of The Blizzard, you just say “Eff it,” apparently, and then you put out a 188-page tome filled the gills with outstanding soccer writing.

Like Aidan said, it’s neither book nor magazine. But at the same time it’s neither old nor new media. There’s no photography, and there are no advertisements. There’s no corporate entity backing the project while pushing its own agenda. But there are names like Marcotti and Hesse, like Aidan said, but there are also names like Simon Kuper, names that scream respectability and reliability.

And here’s the thing: Issue Zero is really good.

Perhaps the best piece came right at the beginning, Hesse’s story about the German club St. Pauli and its struggle to remain socially relevant and responsible while also trying to balance its ledger. It’s fantastic reportage, and it’s stuck with me for several days, the way a good novel does.

Let’s just hope Hesse’s piece — and The Blizzard itself — can continue to find an audience. Maybe we’ll even see the start of a new approach to sports journalism. (Probably not, but I can dream of the revolution.)

There’s probably a reason Hesse’s story came first, and it might have something to with that stuff about damning The Man. Remember, its name comes is a reference to an obscure publication from the 19th century whose publisher actively tried to keep down circulation. Clearly, these guys aren’t going for circulation numbers. But, also clearly, they’re going for quality writing that will attract a fair share of dedicated readers.

What’s more, it seems to me that the writers and editors of The Blizzard are interested in exploring the places soccer and society intersect, particularly politics and social change. That becomes obvious when you read pieces like those by Kuper (a comparison of the simultaneous shift in philosophies of the Dutch national team and the country’s politics); Michael Cox (a story on the ways Dennis Bergkamp and Britain’s New Labour party were alike in the mid-to-late 1990s); Joel Richards (on how Argentina’s short club seasons tell us something about the country’s culture); and editor Jonathan Wilson himself (on what Red Star’s victory over Bayern in the 1991 European Cup meant to the soon-to-be kaput country of Yugoslavia).

When you consider that none of these would ever appear in traditional or new media, you’ve got to stop and think the same thing the editors of The Blizzard must have at the very start, as they schemed up a new project, neither book nor magazine, over a beer or six at an English pub.

Damn The Man. And bring on the revolution.

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