On Penalties is not so much a book as an extended essay of the kind that has all but disappeared from English letters. Nowadays, any old reviewer or newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than 1,000 words is called an essayist - which is a shame given that, at its best, the essay, as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt and Orwell, strives for literary permanence and concerns the search for a personal voice.
For Montaigne - who invented the modern form of the essay having been awoken from his slumbers by reading Seneca - the essay was a free form, amorphous, reflectively urbane, digressive and informed by self-revelation. Reading Montaigne and, indeed, Orwell, with his meditations on seaside postcards and boys' comics, you realise that no subject is beneath an essayist's notice.
Which brings us to Andrew Anthony's On Penalties, an amusing study of the English football team's fear of, and repeated failure at, the penalty shoot-out. The tone of the book is a modish one of knowing irony - Anthony writes seriously about England's penalty shoot-out defeats by Germany, in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and then again at Euro '96, but without, you feel, ever quite removing his tongue from his cheek. He is, like a good essayist, unafraid, too, to smooth the world into arch aphorism: "In fairness, fairness plays roughly the same role in sport as love does in sex. It's nice if it's there, but it's not essential for entertainment"; "To be brave is to act brave because the very notion of bravery presupposes the existence of fear."
But Anthony's observations are marred by a kind of metropolitan hauteur. He ridicules, for instance, fans who live in nowhere zones a long way from London, "places like Stevenage and Warrington", where you find "bitter men, cretins, Nazis, sociopaths and the sullen ranks of the silent majority grumbling quietly to themselves". And he trips over the laces of his own cleverness. "Hoddle," he writes, commenting on the former England manager's theories as to why the Germans are better at penalties, "had a valid point and an invalid conclusion." In fact, logically, there is no such thing as a "valid point"; there are only valid or invalid arguments.
Still, Anthony is good on the greed and insularity of the modern player - David Seaman, the Arsenal and England goalkeeper, refuses to let Anthony take penalties against him because he is planning his own little book on the secrets of the trade. Anthony also understands how nationalism spirals as tightly as DNA around football, and how a nation finds a vicarious sense of itself through sporting contest.
For me, the most fascinating encounter of Euro 2000 so far was not England's clumsy 1-0 win over a poor German side, but the 3-3 draw between Slovenia and rump Yugoslavia. This match smouldered with the tensions of the recent Balkan wars, and submerged hatred became manifest when the Serb Sinisa Mihajlovic, a left-footed star of the Italian champions Lazio, was sent off in disgrace, at a time when his team were, incomprehensibly, losing 3-0. He left the field laughing like a maniac, as if unable to accept the national humiliation of defeat by the Catholic Slavs from the north.
On Penalties, then, is the new kind of football book, which is less about what happens on the pitch than off it, which is concerned more with the experiences of fandom than with those of the increasingly cynical players. As such, it is a wonderfully entertaining read.