Kicked into touch

Football Memories

Brian Glanville <em>Virgin Publishing, 280pp, £16.99</em>

France and the 19

"British sports journalism," Brian Glanville wrote in a famous Encounter essay of the late 1960s, "is still looking for an idiom; still waiting for its Red Smith, its Damon Runyon, its A J Liebling, let alone its Ring Lardner; still waiting for the columnist who can be read by intellectuals without shame and by working men without labour. Meanwhile it is afflicted by dichotomy: a split between mandarin indulgence and stylised stridency, this in itself a valid reflection of the class structure."

More than 30 years on we are still searching for Glanville's idiom. Today sports writing has, like sport itself, never been more debased, a rancid world where journalists pay millionaires for interviews and sports editors salivate over hurried, quotes-driven copy, seldom redeemed by stylistic grace. Yet is there anything better to write swiftly about to deadline than sport, with its inherent sense of an ending, secular grandeur and mass appeal? On first leaving university, in the early 1990s, I tried my hand at football journalism for a couple of years. What distressed me most about the job was watching middle-aged men gather in febrile packs outside dressing rooms in the hope of entrapping a teenage millionaire player into making a few Hoddle-like gaffes about his manager. There was no dignity in such work.

Of contemporary sports writers perhaps only Hugh MacIlvaney, with his long, baroque sentences, metaphorical reach and belief in the heroic potential of sport (he writes best about boxing and horse racing) would not be out of place in the pages of, say, the New Yorker, where for years Roger Angell has written with exceptional elegance about baseball. Brian Glanville himself, in 1992, had the opportunity to address a popular audience when he took his football column from the Sunday Times, where he had delighted generations of readers with his short, sharp sentences, his polyglot flair and flamboyant internationalism, to the Sunday People. The move was not entirely a success; to read Glanville in the People was a bit like finding Gazza playing for the local pub side: his wit and touch were still there but he was woefiully out of place.

Glanville discusses his move to the People in his entertaining if rambling memoir, Football Memories; but where he might have deepened the arguments of his Encounter essay (it is summarised in a couple of curt sentences) he chooses instead to indulge his contempt for Chris Nawrat, the former sports editor of the Sunday Times, whom Glanville rightly believes forced him to leave the paper. And perhaps we were foolish to expect more from Glanville: he is nothing if not a good hater. One of his endearing stylistic tricks is to attach a pejorative adjective to a name, so that we encounter, for example, Joao Havelange, the "egregious president of Fifa"; and one of his great attributes as a journalist is his polemical fearlessness, his ability to say exactly what he thinks whenever he wants to say it, even when he is quite wrong, as in his irrational criticisms of the former England manager Bobby Robson and the Arsenal captain Tony Adams.

One of the highlights of a slow Tuesday afternoon at Wapping, where Glanville and I worked together on the Times for a period, was Glanville's arrival in the office: a limping, elegantly dishevelled figure, with a fine aquiline nose, shrewd eyes and a smooth actorly voice, he looked as if he had just wandered off the set of Waiting for Godot. His conversation (more a rolling monologue, really) was punctuated with scurrilous anecdotes, abuse for those who, as he saw it, had wronged him over the years, money complaints, impressions, Yiddish folklore and some very good jokes. There was no one quite like him. Football Memories, with its rapid, staccato sentences, non sequiturs and jumpy, anecdote-rich style, captures something of the essence of this restless football intellectual, who has perhaps spent more time watching the game than is wise for any sane man.

Glanville ends his book with a brief discussion of the 1998 World Cup in France, which confirmed the global status of football and its pre-eminence as a spectator sport, transmitted around the world by satellite television. France and the 1998 World Cup is written in the flat, unexcitable style of a sociology textbook, yet it eschews jargon and has a curious readability. It is particularly good on how nationalism finds expression on the sporting field, on how issues of culture and identity spiral as tightly as DNA around sport, on how football can take the form of a kind of surrogate war. Mussolini, as John Marks points out in his essay, recognised the potential for fascist propaganda when Italy staged the 1934 World Cup, identifying the national team as "soldiers in the service of the national cause". And when Margaret Thatcher, in an episode not mentioned here, was guest of honour at a Scottish Cup Final in the 1980s, she was reportedly shocked to see fans of Glasgow Celtic waving the Irish tricolour and to hear the national anthem jeered. Here was a manifestation of the detachment that many Scots felt from the British union, and a portent of the Tory electoral disasters to follow north of the border.

In France during the summer, much was made of the diverse racial mix of the home team. In a country where Jean-Marie Le Pen's populist far-right Front National gained more than 15 per cent of the vote, the multiracialism of the champions was claimed as a metaphor for the emerging ethnic harmony of the modern French nation - a nation hitherto in flight from modernity and anxious about globalisation (for which read Americanisation). Of those who played in the final, Thuram is from the Caribbean, Desailly, Vieira and Karembeu were born in present or former French African colonies, two-goal Zinedine Zidane has Algerian parents, Djorkaeff and Boghossian are ethnic Armenians, Barthez has Spanish grandparents and Lizarazu is Basque. All of which was too much for Le Pen, who complained that several players did not sing the "Marseillaise" or "visibly did not know the words".

Perhaps France 98 will be seen as the last great World Cup of its kind. The coming overlit future of intensified commercialism, pay-per-view television, grotesquely rich players, their earnings swollen by the Bosman ruling on freedom of contract, inflated ticket prices and anodyne, besuited, bourgeois spectators inspires dread. One yearns for the rough dangers and uncertainties of the 1970s, if not for the racism and violence of the terraces. Football is dead, long live the beautiful game.

Jason Cowley is the literary editor of the "New Statesman"