Football: From Fever Pitch to Uruguayan eclecticism football's an open book

Olivia Blair on how the national game has become a publishing phenomenon
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The Independent Online
WITH 67 days to go, Rio Ferdinand looks to be going to the World Cup. The nearest thing to Bobby Moore since Bobby Moore delivered another cool defensive display against Leeds on Monday and the following day gave an assured performance at the launch of The Official Team England World Cup Squad Book, signing copies like a pro. That he was the one England player chosen to be there suggests he will also be there - or thereabouts - in France.

Ferdinand is not noted for being as lucid off the park as he is fluid on it, but he did manage to plug the book eloquently enough, as one "packed with facts and figures on this year's World Cup which will help any kid enjoy the full 90 minutes but also last well into injury time".

And so it should, at pounds 7.99 for 80, admittedly action-packed, pages. However, like England in the real thing, this FA (and, er, BP) endorsed guide faces stiff competition. There are (at least) 20 such guides in the offing (not counting those that will appear attached to magazines and cereal packets) and a further 10 (at least) World Cup-oriented books, all expected to jump on the same crowded bandwagon to France.

Not a lot really, compared to the 180 publications that are due to flood the French market, but then this World Cup represents an unprecedented opportunity for French publishers to sink their studs into a previously untapped audience.

Football books are small fry in France - a few annuals and Rothmans-type guides are published each season - but biographies are as rare as a David Ginola international appearance. Before Eric Cantona's, you have to go back to 1989 when Michel Platini published his autobiography, Ma Vie Comme Un Ballon to find one worth its salt. Evidently, the likes of Zinedine Zidane have less to say than say, Les Ferdinand. Or perhaps they just let their football do the talking.

The English market is a different kettle of fish (or trawler of sardines, as Cantona might say). Like the game itself, football book publishing in this country has gone from strength to strength during the Nineties, and the bubble shows no sign of bursting.

Last year alone, around 600 football books were published by a variety of publishers ranging from major players such as Headline, HarperCollins and Andre Deutsch (who have exclusive rights on Manchester United publications) to the smaller publishers like Mainstream and Boxtree (who are on Chelsea's books, so to speak).

Of course, Fever Pitch set the ball rolling in 1992, spawning a generation of cult books but inadvertently paving the way for a plethora of glossy commercial spin-offs and over-hyped autobiographies that are seldom as polished as their subjects. If Mark Hughes, for instance, is a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer (as he was once described) then his autobiography, Sparky, is a book about a great footballer rather than a great football book. Likewise, Gary McAllister's Captain's Log is an uninspiring book about an inspirational player.

Of course there are exceptions, like Jack Charlton: The Autobiography, Garry Nelson's Left Foot Forward and The Hand of God, whose subject needs no introduction. But while these books mean big money (Alex Ferguson has signed the biggest football publishing deal in history for his autobiography, worth a reputed pounds 1m) and a captive audience, they tend to be long on cliches, short on revelations. Surely the idea is to write a book, only if you've got a story to tell?

Thankfully, some players do have scruples on such matters; John Wark apparently declined to write his autobiography because he didn't have enough beans to spill. But it is generally the more innovative and original titles that stand out; like Simon Kuper's Football Against The Enemy and Football In Sun And Shadow, an eclectic celebration of football penned by Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano.

Not that the Uruguayans are known for their predilection towards football books. Not one was published to commemorate the first World Cup in that country; ditto 1934 in Italy. The only recognised book on the 1938 World Cup, written in French, recently fetched pounds 350, while the first in English on the World Cup was a paperback potted history published for the 1954 finals, is now worth pounds 130.

Whether a book becomes a collector's item depends on many factors, not least the number of copies printed. Hence the reason copies of the 1993 "classic" on Gillingham, The Home of The Shouting Men - of which only a few thousand copies were printed - now fetches six times its original pounds 25 cover price.

The first edition of Fever Pitch is already worth pounds 35, and the latest edition still features in the sports bestseller lists. According to the specialist bookshop Sportspages - and rather depressingly in the light of last Saturday's events - the current bestsellers include Guv-nors, the story of a Moss Side hooligan gang leader which is banned by every club in the country, and Derby Days by those reformed hooligans, the Brimson brothers.

Their publishers, Mainstream, claim that the brothers make no excuse for their subject matter; as ex-thugs they can, apparently, provide an objective insight into hooliganism. Mainstream's biggest selling football book to date remains Ally McCoist's autobiography Top Man (40,000 copies).

But Mainstream's MD, Bill Campbell, admits that while the business is thriving - enough to justify a new sports paperback imprint which will publish six new paperback titles a month - the business is more precarious than it looks. "We can talk a good game now," he says, "but one dodgy night against Tunisia, and suddenly there's not such a good story to tell." Right now, however, there has never been a better time to read all about it.

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