Books: We wuz robbed (if not killed outright...)

With luck, the England-Scotland matches won't spark a cross-border war. Yet soccer often has a close affinity with malice and mayhem.
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The Independent Culture
Passovotchka: Moscow Dynamo in Britain, 1945

by David Downing

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99, 276pp

Manslaughter United

by Chris Hulme

Yellow Jersey, pounds 10, 273pp

The Miracle of

Castel di Sangrio

by Joe McGinniss

Little, Brown, pounds 17.99, 408pp

The Goalkeeper's

History of Britain

by Peter Chapman

Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99, 340pp

THE ASSEMBLY of murderers and wardens who comprise Kingston Prison's football team in Chris Hulme's book is not actually called Manslaughter United, but Kingston Arrows. The players, who are neither manslaughterers (they would prefer to be) nor united, are organised by Nigel, a warden so keen he comes in on his day off to play matches.

Chris Hulme has two main stories to tell: the football one, which charts the emerging hope that the Arrows might win the Portsmouth North End League, and the one which gathers confessionals from the willing members of the team, recounting their crimes and rehabilitation. Neither is easy. There is much suspicion among the inmates about conversation, since talking for them is institutionalised in therapy courses and review boards. As a result, you can always sense the presence of an interlocutor in their confessionals.

When Raph, convicted for his part in a series of armed robberies, arrives at Kingston Prison, he already knows about the football team. He remembers seeing the pitch for the first time and thinking, "All I've seen is barbed wire, concrete and bars, and now you're showing me this..." He trails off and Hulme takes over: "The lush rectangle stretched out before him. Calming, inspiring, quiet with dreams... ".

There is a combination of faithfulness to a script and the liberty of interpretation here which recalls the use of actors in crime reconstructions, and does not always ring true. Bizarrely, you can sometimes hear the voice of Alan Whicker. The team are examined as a species, sometimes with comic effects: "Their clothes never appeared grubby. They shaved at the weekends."

But these alienating effects have purpose. By the end we have grown accustomed to objectifying peoplelanguage so when Nigel says that being a warden "gets under your skin", a familiar image becomes gruesome. The Arrows do not have a bad season, though, and you will quickly find yourself a supporter.

There is much more crime and violence in Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. One characteristic story tells of a referee who gets mobbed and hanged by Celano fans after making some terrible decisions. "Was anyone arrested?" McGinnis asks. "Oh no," comes the reply. "The police, the magistrates in Rome, they all knew that the referee had been at fault."

Welcome to Castel di Sangro, a small mountain village with not more than 5,000 inhabitants in the Abruzzo region. The village's firstfootball team kicked around a ball of socks, before working its way up the divisions to break into Serie B, just one division below Serie A.

McGinniss heard about the "miracle" or "fairytale" and decided to spend a season with the team. He is a prolific author of crime fiction, and will not have found Castel di Sangro wanting, During the season one player is arrested for cocaine smuggling, two ex-players suffer suspicious heart attacks, two die in a car crash and another just manages to recover from mysterious blood poisoning. "Serie B - never a dull moment, except during the 90 minutes of the match", one player puts it.

That's not to mention the match-rigging and McGinniss's belief that Rezza, the club's owner, is a mafia boss. Not an uncommon suspicion in Italian football, though his only evidence is the size of Rezza's cigar and that he communicates in grunts. Enmeshed with these goings-on is the greatest crime of all: manager Jacona's appalling team selections, which incur the harshest of McGinniss's rants against injustice. He could possibly use one of Kingston's Anger Management courses.

The fairy tale slowly transforms into a detective novel. "There is no point in asking questions," the player jailed for drug smuggling warns. "Those who answer do not know and those who know do not tell." But McGinniss persists, and when he discovers that the players have colluded in swinging a match, the fairytale is over. Some miracles don't last.

Peter Chapman would probably agree with McGinniss's admiration for the side's goalkeeper, Spinosa. "Contrary to a common prejudice that it was keepers who, by virtue of their isolation were insane, they showed that it was out there, in the wider, collective world, where madness was to be found," he writes.

His book retells British history from the perspective of the nation's keepers. There are some quirky instances. West Germany's Uwe Seeler's weird back header against England in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final "set events on course to the demise of old industrial Britain". Elsewhere. Mrs Thatcher is said to have the same view of economics as Peter Shilton. The concept sometimes turns out to be neater than the exposition of it. The Thatcher/Shilton comparison boils down to the fact that Shilton always stayed for extra practice while Thatcher ran the country on four hours' sleep.

To arrive at these oddities, Chapman covers much ground, geographically and chronologically. But we should be glad: this might be our training to become better goalkeepers, to grasp and keep hold (for the catch is rightly extolled here above the punch or parry) of all that is hurled towards us at high speed.

The analogies in David Downing's Passovotchka,which tells the story of Moscow Dynamo's pioneering tour of Britain in 1945, are equally tantalising but more fruitful. Downing himself considers the story "a mirror held up to the immediate postwar world". But he ensures that the Russians' football - a fast, fluid passing game which astounded British audiences - never gets lost in all that their four encounters (Chelsea, Arsenal, Cardiff and Rangers) can be seen to represent.

In footballing terms, the tour was a success, but suspicion abounded on each side. The Russians, for example, refused to number their shirts - to foil their opponents? And why did they "callously" slight their training camp's offer of "chicken sandwiches and chocolate meringues that had been specially prepared for them"? "It sounds like a bad spy novel," Downing observes at one point. What he does, so well, is to turn it into a really good one.