Foul play

Even when badly written, the beautiful game's literary outpourings hold a sleazy fascination

About ten years ago, together with Jonathan Coe and James Wood, I took part in one of those "Whither the novel?" discussions that are a regular feature of the London literary scene. This variant took place at a bookshop in Hampstead and included a moment when the participants were asked to suggest subjects on which the eagerly awaited English literary renaissance might usefully dwell. Well, I gamely proposed, wasn't it about time someone wrote a decent football novel to add to the three or perhaps four in existence? At this, there was a kind of whinnying noise from the back row, and an elderly gentleman, who may even have possessed a beard, was heard to mutter: "Heaven forbid!"

In retrospect, I can see his point, for it was all too prophetic of some of the novels that did get written about football in the next few years. And yet, given the degree of communal interaction that the sport involves, the chicanery that inevi-tably attends its financing, and the age- old stirrings of class and social mobility running beneath its surface, the beautiful game ought to make a prime subject for fiction. Somehow it hasn't happened, and despite the rejuvenating effect of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (1992) and My Favourite Year, the fan's-eye collection that he compiled a year later, football writing still seems prey to the rigid taxonomies that one can observe in any other part of the Waterstone's basement.

To start on the very bottom rung, there are the player autobiographies ("Lee Fredge: my story") in which Master Fredge rapidly slap-bangs his way through the schoolboy sides, meets Mrs Fredge or protemporaneous versions thereof, does his cruciates in, "has words" with "the gaffer" and is coaxed, goaded or otherwise driven by his ghost-writer beyond the 200-page finishing straight. Then there is the increasingly popular sub-genre of tut-tutting analyses of the business, bungs, predatory agents, risk-taking chairmen and all the rest. Then there are those ambitious productions (Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy was a notable prototype) in which individual destinies are caught up in panoramic vistas of a national or international fabric. All these, you will be pleased to note, are still going strong in 2004.

Even player autobiography is not without its sub-genres and variations. Ten years ago, the market wanted pluck, de-termination and kind words. Now it wants revelations, slappers and score- settling. In this context, Paul Gascoigne's Gazza: my story (Headline, £18.99) is one of the scariest football books ever printed, so terrifying in its candour (Tourette's, obsessive compulsive disorders, wife-beating, coke jags) as to make you wonder if its subject knew what he was doing in signing off the proofs. The solitary amusement lies in deciding which flourishes come from his amanuensis, Hunter Davies, and which are culled straight from the tapes. Certainly, Gazza on his sister's matrimonial problems ("I knew from my own experience how emotionally destructive marital strife can be") sounds like Harry Redknapp being asked to comment on the Booker Prize shortlist.

Inevitably, a tide of literature accompanied David Beckham to Spain. Never mind the bread-and-butter professional action: all kinds of weighty symbols - bullfighting, Franco, galacticos - capered out of the Bernabeu, and nearly all of them were on display in Jimmy Burns's When Beckham Went to Spain: power, stardom and Real Madrid (Michael Joseph, £16.99) and John Carlin's White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the new football (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Of these two exhaustive tour-guides, Burns's is the more portentous and Carlin's the more excitable. Carlin has met his subject, while Burns has not. Both are very funny, if sometimes unintentionally so. I laughed out loud when I came to Carlin's paragraph that begins:

Zidane's football is art. Art that people will be admiring 500 years from now. And it has the great merit that it is not art reserved for the initiated, for the art historian, the classical music buff, the reader of Shakespeare and Cervantes. It is the one truly globalised art form, accessible to a more ample span of humanity than it has ever been before. Zidane's magnificent brush strokes have a wonderfully democratic quality.

As for exposes of the backstage graft, David Conn's The Beautiful Game?: searching for the soul of English football (Yellow Jersey Press, £12) offers a useful continuation of Tom Bower's 2003 work Broken Dreams: vanity, greed and the souring of British football. Better informed, too, for Conn is a professional sports journalist, while Bower, muckraking skills notwithstanding, occasionally betrayed a somewhat shaky knowledge of the game. And so here we are again, with Messrs Richmond and Ridsdale cheerfully sacrificing their clubs on a funeral pyre built upon their own egos, and the FA doing very little about anything. No doubt legal worries forestalled a definitive treatment of that classic upper-league phenomenon: the newly appointed manager who starts buying large numbers of foreign players no one has ever heard of, in transactions replete with sky-high agents' fees.

However slackly written the average football book, there is a dreadful sleazy glamour about its subject material that other sports struggle to match. By comparison, Graeme Wright's A Wisden Collection (Bloomsbury, £16.99) seems a quaint despatch from a vanished world, a volume full of sepia-tinted accounts of matches played on ice in the glacial winter of 1878-79. All the same, I was charmed by the section headed "The Book Group", which notes the 18 and 12 recorded by "Mr S Beckett" at a two-innings match between Dublin University and North-amptonshire in 1926, and by the batting average of 22 filed by John Fowles in the 1944 Bedford School side captained by W H Auden's cousin.

D J Taylor's most recent book is Orwell: the life (Vintage, £8.99)

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