The best sport books for Christmas

Edited highlights, on and off the pitch
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The Independent Culture

First, a warning: do not be tempted by any post-World Cup autobiographies. Give them all a red card. All have been squeezed by ghostwriters out of rich young men with nothing to say. True football lovers are better directed to the wider perspective of David Goldblatt's hefty and impressive The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (Viking, £30), which does what it says on the tin, brilliantly. Or to Gianluca Vialli's The Italian Job: A Journey to the Heart of Two Great Footballing Cultures (Bantam, £17.99), which is the most thoughtful book by a footballer I can remember reading.

There's a similar wealth of insight, especially into the corrosive powers of celebrity, in Gordon Burn's double take on two of football's tragic heroes, George Best and Duncan Edwards, in Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion (Faber, £16.99). The football book of the year, though, is a novel, based intimately on fact. In The Damned Utd (Faber, £12.99), David Peace, whose previous inspirations have included the Yorkshire Ripper and the miners' strike, tackles one of the game's great "characters", Brian Clough.

Peace centres his account on Clough's 44-day managership of Leeds United in 1974, which started badly, when he told a team of resentful old pros that they were all rubbish and cheats, then went downhill. He unravels the twisted complexities of a man rampant in a hard, cynical world - a moral universe away from the near-legendary Corinthians, fair-play fundamentalists whose ideals are close to extinction in professional sport. In On the Corinthian Spirit,(Yellow Jersey, £10) the novelist and Orwell biographer DJ Taylor conducts a highly personal investigation with his customary stylishness into how the notion of pursuing high ideals on the field of play died a slow death.

Part of that process involved the spread of the conviction that in any sport, at more or less any level, winning is everything. In The Meaning of Sport (Short Books, £16.99), Simon Barnes of The Times utilises the insights gleaned from 25 years of reporting sport's biggest events to fashion a limpid meditation on what lies at the heart of mankind's impulse to play games - and win them.

Discussions of sporting success eventually turn Down Under, and in Manly Pursuits: Beating the Australians (Yellow Jersey, £11.99), Richard Beard recounts his attempts to penetrate the Oz sporting psyche - and maybe puncture a little of that Oz invincibility - by spending time in the Sydney suburb Manly (geddit?), and taking them on in whatever sport would give him a quick way in. I'm not sure he found what he wanted, but he had plenty of fun not finding it.

The sporting will to power is as much in evidence off the field as on it, and in Pitch Invasion: adidas, Puma and the making of modern sport (Allen Lane, £14.99), Barbara Smit tells of the toxic relationship between the Dassler brothers, Adi and Rudi. German shoemakers who begat adidas and Puma respectively, they never let massive international success get in the way of a good family feud.

Sporting autobiography is a much maligned sub-genre, with good reason. But if one is still on your list, and you've sensibly taken my advice vis-à-vis the England football team, an antidote to their banalities is Amir Khan: A boy from Bolton (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Crisp and clear with his feelings, the young boxer has an amiable manner that sustains an unavoidably brief narrative. There are no shock revelations or sordid confessionals, just an engaging account of life in the sunny uplands of sporting success. No warning required.

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