Tim Parks is an eminent novelist and literary academic but, in embarking on a book about a season in the life of the Italian football club Hellas Verona, he had to surrender something presumably quite precious to him: any idea that he could control his own story. As he himself insists, football is an open-ended narrative: not soap but soul opera. Thrills and spills, triumphs and reversals, are guaranteed, but no one knows how it will all end. So the author finds himself sharing something with both the manager and the fans: his fate is in other people's hands, often far from safe ones. No wonder he is a bundle of jitters as Verona slide into the relegation zone. "You're ruining my book!" he hisses, more than once.
It is understandable, if a little ungrateful. In fact, the fluctuations in the team's fortunes, narrated game by game, provide the book with a vivid and dramatic spine. By giving Parks a nail-biting fight for survival, the Hellas Verona players have handed him one of the best stories in the game. It is non-fiction, but I still feel that I shouldn't spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that at half-time in the final match of the season, a match Hellas Verona need to win to stay in the top division, the lads are 2-0 down. "We've come all this way," writes Parks, "for nothing . . . I try to console myself with the thought that at least this way there will be no crowd trouble at the end."
Parks's book is an attractive proposition: it tracks an exciting sporting contest, with its inevitable highs and lows; it is a travelogue that zigzags across Italy, the author's home for 20 years; it has some up-close moments with celebrated players and directors - the stars of the football industry; it is both inquiring reportage and an essay in the queasy metaphysics of football fanaticism. As a travel book, it falls somewhat short: if you go to watch your team play Lazio, the last thing you see or care about are the wonders of Rome. Instead, the book has, as a continuous bass growl, a preoccupation with the uncompromising fury of the club's diehard fans.
Hellas Verona, it turns out, are the country's most notorious club for violence and racism - they are Italy's Millwall. A pretty odd team, in other words, for an immigrant to choose, and certainly there can't be many Booker- shortlisted authors who hang about with racist mobs. In Parks's case, it has something to do with his own desire for a sense of belonging in his adopted city; and he also admits to a temperamental weakness for the snarling underdog, who seems in some sense to stand firm in the "endless fight against the flood tide of big money".
At any rate, he begins bravely, boarding a bus that will carry Hellas Verona's unruly fans - the Brigate Gialloblu (the yellow-and-blue brigade) - on a 500-mile journey south to Bari. Rather him than me: he is swiftly immersed in the full lexicon of loutish abuse. He winces at the out-and-out racism, which is incessant, but to his (and certainly my) surprise finds he quite enjoys the buffo element in it all, the panto-hatred, what he calls "the theatre of outrage". He sympathises, too, with the brigade for the way it is corralled, herded and hounded by the police, resented by the club it supports (both theatrically and financially) and jeered at by the media.
This is one of football's most heated conundrums: the gulf between the fans and the objects of their hero-worship, the players and officials of the clubs they follow. In one sense, the Gialloblu brigade is the football club, but it's also an embarrassment to the club. These are the people who foot the bills and provide the atmosphere in the stadiums; they are hardly ever injured and never transfer to other, bigger clubs in lucrative deals. And they suffer: not just the all-night bus journeys in revolting, cramped conditions, or the agonies of defeat, but also the persistent drip-drip of scorn from their own official representatives. No wonder they can be provoked into fury by the failings of the pampered millionaires out on the pitch, or up in the posh seats. It is a combustible arrangement, and Parks traces its nuances - its hopes, horrors and rabid streaks - with admirable precision and (some might say) almost too much tolerance. At one point, Hellas go to Sicily at a time when Mount Etna is erupting. The Veronese fans bring banners that say: Forza Etna! I know - we can all pretend that it's a joke. But how funny is it really?
Another conundrum: what is it about football that brings a curse to even the mildest-mannered lip? Most of Parks's comrades-in-arms, having yelled drunken insults until they are hoarse, ring Mum on the mobile. He watches one handsome, polite 17-year-old boy calmly pull down a train window and shout at the police: "Shits! Thugs! Worms! Turds! Communists! Go fuck yourselves!" Football seems to love being trapped in such a virulent vocabulary. I tend to think that the game itself breeds these feelings: it is low-scoring and dependent on referees - perfectly designed to promote frustration and a sense of rank injustice. Parks nods at the notion of football as a forum for the expression of taboo impulses, but is too smart to go along with the idea that it is therefore therapeutic, a necessary enactment of social grievances and alienations. "Football is a hybrid constantly seeking to become something it is not, something pure," he writes. It is, in the end, beyond diagnosis. It is livid, angry and feeds on itself. And mobs are addictive.
Parks has been ambitious: he has combined a description of the high-octane antics on the field with a careful delineation of the mentality of a fan, and has pleated these strands into an astute portrait of modern Italian life. He embraces directors, coaches, players, fans and innocent bystanders (wives and children). He risked falling between two stools: too much literature for footie fans (I mean - Mallarme!), and too much football for literary types. In the end, he balances things adroitly, wrapping illuminating meditations around his ultra-gripping saga. A couple of times, such as in a lengthy discussion of a poem by Giacomo Leopardi, he seems almost too anxious to flash his literary credentials. But everyone has off days.
An odd thing happened when I finished the book. I was idly watching some televised football, when the camera rested briefly on a Leeds Utd fan waving a yellow-and-blue Hellas Verona scarf. I would not have noticed it a week earlier. Suddenly it seemed semi-sinister, a coded emblem of racism at one of England's most racially fraught clubs. Hellas Verona might be the most reviled team in Italy, thanks to their fans (and I, too, inspired by the author's enthusiasm, turned the final pages with shaking hands, praying for a goal). But the international wing seems to be thriving. I suppose we'd all better hope they get relegated, after all.
Robert Winder writes monthly for the books pages