Books: Reading the match

Take a break from the football with a book - about the football. Harry Ritchie assesses the skills of the soccerati's latest signings
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is strange to recall that, just two World Cups ago, the only books about football were a few club histories and some dull, bland, ghosted autobiographies. A new genre of football writing had begun in the fanzines of the mid-Eighties, but publishers remained completely unaware of this until Pete Davies wrote All Played Out, a lively and enthralling account of Italia '90. Two years later, Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch came out, and, in the time it takes a Brazilian commentator to shout "Goooooal", publishers were signing up all the soccerati they could find.

Well, not quite, but it seems that way, especially now that the Football sections of most Waterstones boast more titles than Rangers and Celtic, and are set to acquire even more, as a new batch of football books tries to capitalise on World Cup fever.

This season's most obviously Hornby-esque addition to the genre is Colin Shindler's Manchester United Ruined My Life (Headline, pounds 14.99). A fanatic of the spectacularly hopeless Manchester City, Shindler announces that the purpose of this book is not only to describe his devotion to City and his loathing of United, but "to understand why a rational man should be reduced to such a level of irrationality by sport".

Hmm. What he actually offers is a fan's autobiography, mingling recollections of City's few ups and many downs with accounts of his schooling, his Jewishness, his passion for cricket, and the death of his mother. The autobiography and the football stuff do merge when Shindler wangles his way into training with the Sky-blues, but elsewhere the two themes jostle awkwardly for space.

To compare this book with Fever Pitch is to appreciate anew the skill and talent of Nick Hornby, who managed to describe how and why his obsessive love of Arsenal dominated and shaped his life, and who cleverly teased out meaning and significance from his experience of matches. Thousands of people have devoured Fever Pitch even though they could well believe that Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn is the name of an advertising agency. But because Shindler offers only a dutiful run-through of his own life side-by-side with straightforward accounts of games past, you'd have to be either a Man City devotee or a friend of the author to enjoy this book.

In one instructively doomed comic paragraph, Shindler tries to conjure up the idea of Man United's marketing men seizing on a time machine to sell replica shirts to the Romans, "Can't you just see Caesar's legions, riding into battle against the woad-covered warriors of Boadicea with their Manchester United Double Double Winners stickers on their chariots?" No, I can't.

Francis Hodgson is also devoted to a lost cause. As he bravely confesses in Only the Goalkeeper to Beat (Macmillan, pounds 12.99), Hodgson considers fandom "absurd". He doesn't support a team; he relishes moments of skill rather than the orgasmic drama of a goal; he has no memory for results, and he scorns the nerdiness of football obsessives who collect programmes or visit every league ground in the land. Fair enough, but what exactly does this leave Hodgson to enjoy?

Goalkeeping. The man is obsessed by it. Playing in goal for his Sunday side, watching professional goalies, reading about goalies, and thinking hard about goalies who, he believes, are ignored or misunderstood by reporters, pundits, fans and most outfield players. His book aims to right this terrible wrong by acclaiming and explaining the art of the number one. He succeeds brilliantly because this is a marvellous, wonderful book, full of insights and information about the sheer difficulty of keeping the ball out of a goal which measures 192 square feet.

It's a measure of Hodgson's originality and thoughtfulness that literature's two goalkeepers, Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov, rate only a passing mention. Indeed, he resists any temptation to waffle about the goalkeeper's lot as a metaphor for alienation and concentrates instead on such matters as the reputation of Gary Sprake, a keeper remembered for one magnificent howler when he threw the ball into his own net. I particularly enjoyed Hodgson's analysis of goalkeeping as a relic of the early, Victorian form of the game when outfield players were permitted to handle the ball. There's another superb section devoted to the vagaries of the ball's flight and bounce.

Goalies are conventionally seen as odd, monomaniacal creatures, so it's only appropriate that Hodgson occasionally repeats himself in his defence of his colleagues as incredibly skilful, overlooked and undervalued; but overall he writes fluently and acutely, draws on terrific knowledge of the sport, comes to sensible, thoughtful conclusions, and truly contributes to our understanding and enjoyment of the game.

My only complaint is that Hodgson didn't mention the greatest goal ever. It wasn't Beckham's 60-yard lob. Neither was it Brazil's fourth in the 1970 World Cup final. No. The greatest goal ever scored was by a Peruvian goalkeeper who received a terrible back-pass, controlled the ball, beat half-a-dozen men, sprinted down the wing, cut inside, blasted an unsaveable shot past his opposite number and continued running, manically waving hands that still sported outsize gloves.

Tragically, the Peruvian goalie's goal isn't mentioned in Chris Taylor's survey of Latin American football, The Beautiful Game (Gollancz, pounds 16.99). Actually, Peru isn't mentioned either, and Chile and Paraguay merit a combined total of five entries in the index. Taylor does include a chapter on Nicaragua, where everyone plays baseball. Its team is ranked 181st in the world, but he used to live there.

Most of the book, though, rightly concentrates on South America's footballing powers. Taylor starts his journey in Uruguay, the first hosts and winners of the World Cup, in 1930, only a couple of decades after the locals had wrested football away from British expatriates. (Thanks to Taylor, I now know that the country's leading side, Penarol, started life as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club.) In Brazil and Mexico, he tries to make sense of the Byzantine complexities of the league "systems", which have led to such farces as one Brazilian match being attended by 55 spectators. In Argentina and Colombia, Taylor finds the game dominated by violence and corruption, citing the assassination of the Colombian left-back Andres Escobar and the links between 16 of the 18 top clubs in Colombia and the cocaine barons. Taylor is not short of material and, aside from the curious omission of those three countries, he has, as they say on Sky Sports, taken his chance, done a professional job and given a hundred per cent.

Like The Beautiful Game, Pitch Invaders (Gollancz, pounds 9.99) by Stella Orakwue is a product of the rapidly expanding football list at Gollancz. Orakwue sets out to prove that contemporary British football, like British society, is apparently well-integrated but still fundamentally racist. She also refers to racist abuse in other sports but, even if she had confined herself to football, she wouldn't have been struggling for evidence - from the former Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades claiming that black players didn't like playing in winter, to the vilification of Les Ferdinand when he acquired several white girlfriends.

But criticism of a black player can be just criticism of a player, so I can't endorse Orakwue's dismay at the assumption that Ian Wright is volatile and Stan Collymore indolent. Also disappointing is her very brief treatment of the most extraordinary fact that, while African Caribbean people constitute a mere 1.6 per cent of this country's population, about 15 per cent of the players in the English leagues are black.

Football and politics and the politics of football receive a far more formal treatment in FIFA and the Contest for World Football (Polity Press, pounds 13.95) by John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson. This is an academic study, but a gripping one because the story they tell is an extraordinary one. Under the highly energetic and controversial presidency of Joao Havelange, FIFA has become a global power, courted by countries and corporations.

No wonder, because football now generates annual turnover of $200bn. Having picked their way through the politics, the lobbying, the gifts to FIFA members, Sugden and Tomlinson show how and why the previous and the next World Cups were granted to the US and Japan, two countries with no real football culture. The authors offer a cautious but astute analysis of Havelange (who has formed his power base by acquiring the eager support of Third World countries and First World multinationals), and end up by pleading for greater openness and accountability within FIFA. They might as well ask Kenny Dalglish to lighten up.

Finally, three books which, for different reasons, I shall mention only briefly. Dave Bowler's Winning Isn't Everything (Gollancz, pounds 16.99) is a thoroughly competent biography of Sir Alf Ramsay, the single-minded and significantly unloved man who guided England to victory in 1966, thereby blighting my life and that of every other German-supporting Scot. The Agony and the Ecstasy, edited by Nicholas Royle (Sceptre, pounds 6.99), is an anthology of 24 stories and essays by writers mostly too young to remember that dreadful day when the Russian linesman failed to see that the ball didn't cross the line. Most of the contributions are very dull, though D J Taylor's story of young media trendies watching Italia '90 and Ben Richards's essay on Chilean football are notable exceptions.

Since I am one of the contributors to the second number of Perfect Pitch (Headline Review, pounds 7.99), I will say only that it is edited by Simon Kuper, is intended to be a footballing version of Granta, contains essays by the likes of Blake Morrison, Lynne Truss and Patrick Barclay, and that its existence would have been unthinkable before Pete Davies and Nick Hornby blazed a trail that has now grown into the publishing equivalent of a six-lane motorway.

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