Football: Facts, fantasy and fun are at the fans' fingertips

SO WHO'LL be No 1 at Christmas and the Millennium? Never mind the pop charts, we're talking sports books here. At the end of a year notable for the number of self-justifying autobiographies published, it was gratifying to find a reference work heading the bestsellers in the Sportspages shop going into December.

The volume in question, the exquisitely designed European Football Yearbook, edited by Mike Hammond (Sports Projects Ltd, pounds 23.95), is an annual treasure. How else could British followers of FC Chemel Blsany (Czech Republic), Genclerbirligi (Turkey), Sumba (Faroe Islands) or Bate Borisov (Belarus) have all the facts at their fingertips?

This edition, the 10th, has 1,120 pages full of statistics on the top- flight clubs in 50 countries. There are similar details for every international side, all the more useful with Euro 2000 and World Cup qualifiers around the corner, plus a commentary on the state of the game in each country.

Another must for anyone who takes more than a passing interest in Serie A or the Primera Liga is the third edition of The Rough Guide to European Football, by Peterjon Cresswell and Simon Evans (Rough Guide, pounds 12.99). The compilers homed in on 70 key cities in 29 countries, complementing details about the match-day practicalities (ticket prices, bars to seek out or avoid, the fan culture and stadiums) with some vigorous writing.

For the more Anglocentric, Dan Goldstein's English Football: A Fans' Handbook (Rough Guide, pounds 12.99), offers a similar format. Goldstein also set himself an ambitious target of getting into "the soul of each club... plotting its agonies and ecstasies, and giving an insight into what the future might hold". Scrutiny of his pieces on the three about whom I know most suggest he has succeeded.

Another treat which belies its trainspotterish title is The Dictionary of Football, by John Ballard and Paul Suff (Boxtree, pounds 19.99). Containing 6,000 entries on every aspect of the global game, from its ancient origins to its modern incarnation as a licence to print money, the authors offer something for afficionados and latecomers alike.

On looking up the entry for a favourite player, Robbie Earle, my eye wandered to "Early doors - informal: the early stages in a match" (which should have been cross-referenced to Atkinson, Big Fat Ron), and on to the East & Central African Championship. Simultaneously amusing and informative.

Another excellent book for those who prefer to dip in, rather than sit down and read, is the second, all-new edition of Scottish Football Quotations by Kenny MacDonald (Mainstream, pounds 7.99). The breadth of his sources is impressive, and his eye for profundity, profanity, pretentiousness and pearls of wisdom as sharp as a Don Hutchison header.

"You're exhilarated and nauseated all in one," said Tommy Burns, perfectly encapsulating the white-knuckle ride that is an Old Firm clash. Above all, it is a very funny collection, as the erudition of Andy Goram proves: "See the boy Rudyard Kipling who said it's the taking part, not the winning that counts? Well that's a load of shite."

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