There is writing, and then there is real writing. The novel long ago ousted poetry as the most admired literary form. But down near the bottom of the literary hierarchy, only one rung above self-help books sold in airports, is sports writing.
Some of the muck and grime of sport is still reckoned to cling to sports books. Sometimes this is fair - Wayne Rooney's five-volume autobiography is no Anna Karenina - but sometimes it isn't. The 10 best sports books ever, as selected by me here, are chosen by a totally objective process. First of all, I left sports fiction out. Some of PG Wodehouse's golf and cricket stories (particularly Mike) are as brilliant as John Updike's golf stories and Ring Lardner's baseball stories, but fiction is simply a different game. Isolated bits of sport in otherwise unrelated novels - like Philip Roth's wonderful riff, "Oh, to be a center fielder" in Portnoy's Complaint - had even less chance.
So I stuck to non-fiction, and then only non-fiction books that were devoted entirely to sport. That meant canning Hunter S Thompson's brief account - in his Fear And Loathing: On the Campaign Trail - of his back-seat limousine journey with Richard Nixon during the American presidential campaign of 1972, in which the leaders of America's counter culture and of its Moral Majority talked about their love of American football. I also excluded all books not written in English, which is hard luck for some worthy candidates. These exclusions produced the list on these pages. A condition of inclusion was that each book be beautifully written. Admittedly all 10 authors are men, but then so are almost all sports writers. Don't blame me; blame the system they represent.
byJohn Carlin Atlantic Books, Dh64 Using the unlikely device of sport, Carlin has produced the perfect, joyous portrait of Mandela, capturing the great man better than his own autobiography did.
When Mandela became South African president in 1994, the country was a motley collection of colours, not a nation. How to make it whole? Through rugby, of course. Mandela, a student of white Afrikaaners, understood what the game meant to Africa's white tribe. During his time in jail, when he needed to win over a morose rugby-loving prison officer, he had spent weeks mugging up on rugby news before discussing it with the officer in Afrikaans.
Mandela's serial seduction of the Afrikaaners climaxed at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995. The moment when he walked onto the field in a green Springbok jersey to give his team the trophy is probably the closest South Africa has ever come to being a united nation. This book is a joint effort between Carlin and Mandela. Both men knew that sport is never just sport.
by Pete Davies Mandarin, Dh45 It's often said that Nick Hornby kicked off the new football writing with Fever Pitch. He didn't. Davies did. When I was going around London publishers in 1991 trying to sell them my first football book, it was only thanks to Davies that "football book" was no longer considered an oxymoron. My copy of All Played Out is the one a publisher gave me back then, trying to explain what he hoped I would do.
Davies was a little-known novelist when Bobby Robson, England's then football manager, weirdly invited him to spend the World Cup of 1990 as a sort of writer-in residence to the England team. Davies shared a hotel with the players, got them to trust him, wrote about them as if they were sentient human beings, and on his days out met fans, hooligans, agents, tabloid journalists and everyone else besides. The book contains dozens of marvellous character portraits, an account of the hysterical football industry as it was then, and still is today, and something of the tension of the Italian World Cup.
by Eamon Dunphy with Peter Ball Viking Press, Dh30 Usually athletes are just the raw material for sports books. The odd cricketer can write, but no footballers could until a working-class boy from Ireland, who played for the thuggish south London side Millwall, produced one of the 10 best sports books ever. I re-read Only A Game? endlessly as a child long after my copy had fallen apart. It answers the greatest question: what's it really like to be a professional footballer? The answer: not much fun. Only a Game? has the perfect narrative structure: Dunphy takes us from absurd pre-season hopes, through quarrels within the team, to him being dropped and finally leaving Millwall after eight years.
by Frederick Exley Yellow Jersey Press, Dh28 Exley's life alternated between spells in the rural mental hospitals that were American landmarks in the 1950s, and equally unhappy periods spent in the bosom of his family.
The Exley he depicts in this black comedy of a "fictional memoir" is an alcoholic loner who spends months at a time lying in bed. For a while his only friend is his dog, Christie III, whom he dresses in a mini blue sweatshirt like his own, and teaches to stand up like a man. Only one thing can fill the holes in his life: his beloved New York Giants American football team. After losing his umpteenth job, Exley discovers "that it [football] was the only thing that gave me comfort." At some point or other in life, we have all known how that feels.
by Gordon Forbes Heinemann, Dh56 The title comes from a few lines that Forbes, a tennis player in the days before tennis players made proper money, jotted in his diary in 1968. Forbes's handful of summers came on the tennis tour of the 1950s and 1960s. The boy from an isolated farm in South Africa found himself travelling "a world which was two hundred times the size I had first thought it was". He visited places he had spent his childhood dreaming about, Rome and New York and Corfu, making friends and meeting beautiful women.
by Nick Hornby Indigo, Dh29 This completely original book was the first to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a soccer fan. It became the most influential football book ever written, launching an entire genre. Hornby treats his fandom as something suspect, not an innocent joy.
"I have measured out my life in football matches," he says, describing how he used Arsenal to escape from his parents' divorce, problems with women, the question of what to do with his life, and so on. His honesty set him apart from the previous notion of fandom as a hobby, and from his imitators who wrote cutesy accounts of watching bad football in the rain without delving truthfully into their lives. It helps that Fever Pitch offers a hilarious but true social history of Britain from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Its sole flaw is its formlessness: it's a book to dip in rather than to read through.
by CLR James Yellow Jersey Press, Dh37 James was an anti-imperialist cricket nut from Trinidad who asked, in a paraphrase of the imperialist Rudyard Kipling: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"
There must have been other writers before James who used sport as a window onto the world, but not many. Nor can anyone have done it half as well, which is partly because nobody came at it from such a surprising angle: a black man raised in a Trinidadian village at the end of the Victorian era, who grew up "playing cricket, reading cricket, idolizing Thackeray, Burke and Shelley." And there was probably never another Marxist who wrote such beautiful prose.
by Michael Lewis WW Norton, Dh38 Though Moneyball is about baseball, much of it applies to almost any male team sport. In all these games, things tend to be done the way they always have been done. Moneyball shows how wrong much of this conventional wisdom is. The book's hero is Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's, who turned one of the poorest teams in baseball into one of the best by the simple method of rejecting what everyone in the sport had always 'known' to be true.
Moneyball is a version of the "Triumph of the Nerds" story. For years a tribe of baseball statisticians, known as sabermetricians, had pointed out all the holes in the game's conventional wisdom. They showed that ancient baseball rituals like sacrifice bunts, and stealing bases, were useless strategies. They discovered that the key measure of a batter's quality was the rarely mentioned "on-base percentage". But the tobacco-chewing ex-athletes who ran baseball ignored the "little nerds" and their findings, until finally Beane listened.
by George Plimpton Lyons & Burford, Dh55 I only ever saw Plimpton once, the month before he died. It was a wet evening in August 2003, and he was performing on stage in New York's Central Park, reading an article he had written about a man who travelled around the US catching in his mouth grapes thrown off skyscrapers.
When the grape-catcher "played" Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue, Plimpton dropped the grapes for him. It took 400 throws before the man finally caught one. Plimpton said the grape-catcher fascinated him "because it seemed he had an extraordinary passion at which he was not very good". Like Paper Lion, the grapes article showed up everyone else's journalism. Whereas any other writer would have just watched the guy catch grapes, Plimpton participated. This man of no particular athletic talent contrived to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions, pitch to Willie Mays, play golf with Sam Snead etc. Plimpton lived out the fan's fantasy of passing his hot dog to his neighbour, climbing the fence and joining in the game. He was as comfortable among football players as among poets or presidents.
by David Winner Bloomsbury, Dh32 I knew Winner in Amsterdam while he was writing Brilliant Orange, and I felt sorry for him. I was also spending the long rainy winter in the city writing my own, much less successful book about Dutch football. Whenever we met for dinner, I had come away feeling he was wasting his time. I had grown up in the Netherlands. Winner hadn't, and he barely spoke Dutch. How could he say anything about Dutch football that I didn't already know?
When I finally read his manuscript on a plane to Finland, I wanted to break out into applause right there. It turned out that this little man was the three-in-one: a wonderful reporter, a writer of fresh prose, and an original thinker. They say the best literary criticism sends you back to the texts. This book makes you want to see all the matches again. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org