City slickers

The Ingerland Factor: home truths from football

Mark Perryman (editor) <em>Mainstream, 222pp, £9.9

In 1990, the temporary revival in the fortunes of our national team coincided with the birth of a new literary sub-genre. All Played Out, Pete Davies's account of England's progress to the semi-finals of "Italia 90", was a new kind of soccer writing, a literate, engaged book informed by an unashamed enthusiasm for the game. Football - and football writing - was set to enjoy a dramatic renaissance: as it left the hooligan-ravaged years of earlier decades behind, the so-called "soccerati" - Davies himself, Nick Hornby, Giles Smith - restored the game to cultural respectability. At the same time, football was metamorphosing into a multibillion-pound industry, a sleek spectacle co-ordinated for the benefit of television schedules. But the rise of so-called "New Football" hasn't solved all of the game's traditional ills. We are still to discover a permanent cure for the "English disease" of hooliganism, particularly in the lower divisions, and the influx of fast money has left many fearing for the future.

The Ingerland Factor explores "the pride and passion of following England" and its "habit of turning into something nasty". Great Balls of Fire, by contrast, tracks the transformation of football from the "people's game to the plaything and cash cow of big business and multinational capital". The Ingerland Factor is a resolutely fan's-eye view. Great Balls attempts to expose the machinations of the men who will decide the future of football. If the latter is partly a product of the "New Football" culture, then the former is rather more sceptical about recent changes.

The Ingerland Factor attempts to define some of the disparate ways in which national identity is reflected by our national team and the behaviour of its supporters. The editor, Mark Perryman, contributes an optimistic essay which recasts England fans as the standard-bearers of a country at ease with its martial past and cosmopolitan present. Unfortunately, his attempts to unearth a "different iconography of our national past" are not very convincing. Perryman acknowledges that his idea of papier mache Stonehenge headdresses - an adornment that would give "all those plastic Viking helmets and rasta wigs a run for their money in the playful national stereotype stakes" - is unlikely to catch on with England supporters.

"But what the hell," he concludes, "it's worth a go, isn't it?"

One of the problems here is that too many of the contributors write about "Englishness" without ever attempting to define exactly what they mean. As a result, the text is awash with well-intentioned platitudes and sentimental generalisations.

The book is much better when it drops its pseudo-sociological analysis of national decline - and the role football occupies in our post-imperial psyche - and concentrates on other football-related topics. There are lively dispatches on the contrasting careers of David Beckham and Michael Owen, a healthy quota of digs at Manchester United, a piece on the increasing number of female fans, and John Peel offers a musical playlist for travelling supporters. But best of all are the contributions that Perryman has enlisted from representatives of our dearest footballing foes - from Scotland, Argentina and Germany - which cast new light on old rivalries. Marcela Mora y Araujo even reveals that there is an Argentinian football song which begins: "That's not a goalkeeper, that's a whore from a cabaret."

If Perryman's text is broadly optimistic, Great Balls offers little evidence to support Hunter Davies's view that "there is a widespread feeling among fans that on balance things have got better". John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson warn that if the "profit-driven logic of the contemporary game" is left unchecked, football will be "turned into a meaningless global circus". So can the "total commodification" of the game, as the authors inelegantly put it, be avoided? The answer, I think, is a tentative yes. But only if the thriving fan culture so evident in The Ingerland Factor can exert pressure on the "slick-suited chief executives" who have replaced the blazers-and-slacks brigade as the game's real power-brokers.

The author's "Leadville: a biography of the A40" will be published by Picador in June