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BOOK REVIEW: Lost In France By Mark Palmer
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The Independent Online
The World Cup can make or break reputations. For every Pele, there has to be a Ronaldo; for every Des Lynam, a Jimmy Hill; and for every Pete Davies there is a Mark Palmer. When Davies, the author of All Played Out, released his critically acclaimed book about Italia 90, he moved the goalposts for football literature. Palmer, however, appears to have done his best to drag them back again.

When the author decided to take a year off to write Lost in France - the Story of England's 1998 World Cup (Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99), a picaresque book trailing England from the Moldova qualifier in 1997 through to the finals in France, he can never have imagined what rich pickings he would have - culminating in that emotionally draining night in St Etienne. So why Palmer, a former executive editor of a national newspaper, decided to serve up this half-baked turkey in time for Christmas is confusing to say the least.

As a guide to the 1998 World Cup, Lost in France is a reasonably detailed account of the campaign but, unless there is an England fan who bedded down in mid-1997 and stirred again only when the France 98 furore finally died down, this book will enlighten nobody. Sandwiched between his vapid conversations with travelling fans and the England coach Glenn Hoddle's notoriously unrevealing press conferences, there is only one memorable interview with a member of the Hod Squad, and that took place almost a year before the finals.

Worse still, it is hard to believe that many of these dull exchanges could actually have taken place. Did Palmer really ask two of his long- suffering travelling companions: "So what makes football so special?" And did he really then launch into that tired, Freudian explanation about football being a homoerotic experience involving 22 men wanting to penetrate one another's goals? It is inconceivable that the two lads, whose only motive for getting into the car in the first place appears to have been to hear "Three Lions" roaring from the stereo, didn't opt for public transport. Or walk to Marseilles. Across hot coals, if need be.

If there is a single redeeming factor, it is Palmer's description of the inner workings of the "Number Ones" - the country's foremost football writers. The way in which the story about Gazza's omission from the squad trickles slowly down the pecking order, from the Sun's Brian Woolnough at the top until it reaches Capital Gold's Jonathan Pearce, is pure Hollywood farce - Pearce only got to hear about it because he had the hotel room above Harry Harris and happened to be sunning himself on his balcony when the Mirror man was filing his story just below.

Another momentary relief comes from the incisively xenophobic reporter from the Gazzetta dello Sport, Giancarlo Gavarotti. After the qualifier against Italy, he describes the English fans as "vomit on the beautiful face of Rome" and later argues that "it is one of the great myths of the modern world that England is a sophisticated country ... how many drug addicts, wife-beaters and alcoholics are there in any other team?"

The book limps to a suitably vacuous ending when, in the very last sentence, Palmer finally gets a private moment with Hoddle and asks why David Batty was allowed to take that penalty against Argentina. "There are reasons," the England coach said, "and those reasons will remain private." Enough unsaid.

JASON GEE

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