In Canadian soccer, Paul James is as controversial as anyone. He's never kept his opinions about anyone to himself. So it's not surprising that James indiscriminately goes on the attack in Cracked Open, his equal-parts soccer memoir and harrowing personal tale of drug addiction. In fact, it would have been more surprising if he hadn't.
All the same, James's venom is staggering. When he writes a short article in The Globe & Mail calling for Dwayne De Rosario to leave Toronto FC, that's one thing: in book length, with James calling out players who didn't commit to his teams and executives who didn't support him and would-be friends who betrayed his trust, it's overwhelming. One minute James is relating a gritty story of trying to overcome his crack cocaine problem, and the next he's trying to settle an old score.
This book is an extraordinary thing. Self-published online by James, this is raw in the best sense of the word. James lashes out at, none-too-gently, an entire who's who of Canadian soccer: Stephen Hart, Jason de Vos, Julian de Guzman, Ali Gerba, Chris Pozniak, Tam Nsaliwa, Dwayne De Rosario, Bob Lenarduzzi, just to pick the ones you've heard of. That's not counting foreigners who spent time in Canada like John Carver and Tommy Soehn, or figures from the past like Kevan Pipe. He takes shots at the Voyageurs, Canada's national supporters' group, as an organization (and a few individuals). And woe betide anyone who is too aggressive about the 1987 Merlion Cup.
What I think James wanted was a memoir detailing his spiral into drug addiction, his fight to get out of it, and his opinions on how society's mistakes make an addict's problems so hard to recover from. What we got was a bit of that and a tonne of vitriol and old score-settling as James takes his hatchet to anybody who's gotten in his way over thirty years in high-level soccer. For Canadian soccer fans it's almost an essential read, but that doesn't mean James comes off well.
I'll start by picking nits: this is a self-published ebook and it shows. Editing mistakes crop up; spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and moments where I think his passion got ahead of his prudence. Annoyingly, James has picked up the habit of quoting, verbatim, long tracts of dialogue from years ago: conversations that I can't imagine he recorded. It's one thing when he's quoting a speech that he made, which is usually the case, but at times he quotes others and I wonder if their memories of those exact words will match James's.
However, even with the lack of editing the book mostly works. It is lively, and engaging. Most of James's previous writing experience has been in sports journalism but his writing holds up over long-form too. This book, almost uniquely in its genre, is eminently readable, if not necessarily for the reasons James intended.
In an interview as part of his podcast series on Red Nation Online, James calls this "a personal story about somebody that just so happened to live their life through the soccer industry". I realize that James is trying to make very important points about addiction, and how it's a disease rather than a personal failing, but I think most people who read this book will be downloading it for James's soccer story rather than his personal one (for a book titled Cracked Open, James surprises by devoting most of the space to soccer). The book reads like a soccer story involving addiction rather than vice-versa.
Most of the time, when James is speaking of his addiction and the roots of it, it reads well. He takes responsibility for his own failings in that department and speaks candidly. His final chapter, where he talks about what he thinks society must do to help addicts like him, is good stuff and I wish he'd explored it at more length. At the end of the day the vast majority of this book, both intellectually and in word count, is a remarkable soccer memoir.
One minute, James is battling with low self-esteem, bemoaning his physical appearance, talking about thumping children who made fun of him. The next he's back at old Canadian U-20 tournaments, calling out players or criticizing fans who went onto the Voyageurs board and wanted his scalp. He refers to five-year-old Facebook groups accusing him of ruining Canadian soccer, dwells on message board posts that are more than a decade old. It's so uneven: the story which opens the book of a horrible drug encounter is intense, but a later chapter on an unfortunate encounter with GO Transit staff is an embarrassing, poorly-written distraction. And, even as an adult, he still wants to thump these people.
The chapter on the 1987 Merlion Cup, Canada's most serious match-fixing scandal, is worth the ten dollars alone to anybody interested in Canadian soccer history. The Merlion Cup scandal is often forgotten these days but James looks back with a passionate but revealing eye. The legacy of the bribe in Singapore follow James throughout the text and he's defensive about it, although when it comes time to write about his role in the events James at least goes into detail, fingering one player as the ringleader while denying that he did anything wrong.
James firebombs his bridges. Fans, players, ex-players, coaches, bureaucrats, nobody is safe from his poison pen. It's enjoyable but doesn't make one sympathetic for the more heart-wrenching parts of James's story. He enjoys little "toldya so!" moments, like when he says he resigned from coaching the Canadian U-20 team because Holger Osieck favoured forward Wyn Belotte and he preferred Rob Friend at the 2001 Jeux de Francophonie. At every turn, Paul is right and his critics are wrong.
I actually agree with much of what he has to say, both about some individuals and about Canada's soccer philosophy. There's no doubt that, in his U-20 coaching days, James dealt with his share of me-first egomaniacs. When he bemoans the shortage of character in the national program from top to bottom he's not wrong. But the truth is that James doesn't come off any less self-absorbed: it takes two for a clash of egos. His aggression against anyone who struck him the wrong way, by the end of the book, had me less confident even when I agreed with him: you wonder where the problem is are when one person is constantly at the centre of such a storm.
The book comes off as indiscriminately resentful. Ex-players, such as former Canadian international Tam Nsaliwa, have already made headlines lashing out at what James has said and I'm sure that's the tip of the iceberg. It is one bitter man's memoir, one side of a long, complicated story. It's an important perspective on a Canadian soccer team that shaped today's national team and a disquieting glimpse at the psyche of the man who shaped it. If you're interested in the recent history of Canadian soccer, I intensely recommend it. I'm just not sure it's the kind of recommendation Paul James will want.