Rotten to the Core by Rob Murphy

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Rotten to the Core by Rob Murphy

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Some clever machinations in the making of World Cup finals provide for a very contemporary story of global corruption and espionage, while the book also harks back to recent British politics. As clever as all that is, it's not a perfect book - but still commendable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 228 Date: November 2017
Publisher: AuthorHouseUK
ISBN: 9781546282990

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It's 2009, and Russia look like being awarded the football World Cup hosting rights for the oh-so-distant 2018 tournament - that is, until England stick their oar in. They have solved their hooligan problem, and improved their transport system, and so at last are valid final holders. Watching this is France, who have to reciprocate with the Russians who helped them get France '98, and they have a plan. At this stage the UEFA European championship of 2016 has not been awarded, and while France remain favourites to get the job, again some upstart idea has poked its head above the parapet - a joint offering from Wales and Scotland. Yes, these two tiny countries, separated by 200 miles and without a brilliant connection from one to the other, and without some vital posh hotels here and there, and with no serious claim to soccer fame when it comes to winning things, are unlikely hosts. But what if France could persuade the world it was a good idea - and let Russian espionage prove it not to be so, with all the while the French around to pick up the pieces? All of the UK would be damaged, meaning England '18 would be dead in the water, and Russia would win out. And who's to say the Brits, with their devolution habits, and their first coalition government in a long time, could not get through without damaging themselves?

You have to commend the author for seeing the chance to write something with a historical basis, and yet a contemporary charge, as we're reading this in the run-up to Russia 2018. It's a book that takes a few liberties with the truth where that concept is concerned (funnily enough, Vladivostok is not a host city), and here it was deemed necessary to push back the vote for 2018 a year and more from when it actually happened in our world, allowing Scotland and Wales the chance to be compromised (and similarly Qatar 2022 is delayed further), but much more important and impressive is what the book gets right. Only a bit of checking around online proves the ideas of all the fictional bids to be more than feasible.

I couldn't swear by all the political aspects to the book, which add a whole other layer to the already established corporate espionage feel to proceedings. Needless to say the feel of the devolved parcels of power all fighting both each other and Whitehall is spot-on, and as for the coalition, well we're still feeling the aftershocks of that now, so the book still feels current and both alive to the happenings of recent times. What it does do, however, is bring no end of players to the table - a right tournament-full - as we have those in power in Cardiff, and Scotland, and at Downing Street, not to mention the characters from Russia and all those engaged with their own politicking in UEFA and FIFA. There are just too many characters here for them to ever be fully realised, and all come with their job identity in tow every time they're mentioned, which is necessary here, but also proves a lot of these people are just cyphers and puppets for the purpose of the story.

But it's a good story. Forget your feeling about football, this is a thriller that plays on the very contemporary fears of Russian infiltration and influence. The FSB agent we meet declares they have connections in the trades unions, and can compel strikes, and the reader is immediately on edge - with the most communistic opposition ever in Britain, the idea of foreign influence on unionised workers is the Red Peril of American fiction writ large and afresh for 2018. This is a book that shows the inherent threat in those who would Occupy, and it's only a few years since that verb was capitalised. It's a book that suggests the real problems come from within - it's not Russia that causes debates over using foreign labour or sticking to established, union-built safety regulations, after all. It's a book that does play off the perceived corruption in both FIFA and the countries it awards its tournaments, but while opening its drama out to be a fully global one, there's also something about it that suggests England isn't actually good enough to deserve the job, considering all the important factors involved.

It remains to be said, however, that it isn't a perfect read. With or without the copious characters, there is a forensic detail in the research that proves the whole tournament has been planned in the author's mind, right down to improving the A470 and A483 between Merthyr Tydfil and Ruabon roads, and cockle farmers off the Welsh coast. I was sold on how intriguing the set-up behind this whole white elephant of a football finals was without such detail. Cramming so much on to the page has also almost forced the author to be too brief at times, and the curtness leads him to tell, and not show - every political, industrial or other kind of affiliation must be outlined, and too many times the consequences of those is played out in summary and not an actual scene as seen. But the fact remains this book does make you think it's about football goings-on, only to prove the interconnectedness of so much more in our modern world. As such it's a distinctive and thoughtful brand of thriller.

For a true-to-life look at how money and politics has burst the ball of our game, we can suggest I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting The Lid On The Beautiful Game by The Secret Footballer.

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