The world is about to go football crazy, but publishers have been at fever pitch for months. It's no contest, though. When it comes to fact versus fiction, the game is embarrassingly one-sided, writes Graham Hart
Injury Time. By Alan Gibbons. Orion Dolphin pound;3.50
The Price of Football. By Michael Hardcastle. Mammoth pound;3.99
Football Crazy. By Leon Rosselson. Hodder pound;3.99
Gary Lineker's Favourite Football Stories. Macmillan pound;4.99
Leggs United Series Fair Play or Foul? The Phantom Footballer. By Alan Durant. Macmillan pound;2.99 (some at 99p)
The Big Clash. By Rob Childs. Young Corgi pound;3.50
They Think It's All Over: even more football poems. Chosen by David Orme. Macmillan pound;2.99
FOOTBALL FACT BOOKS
World Cup '98. By Chris Oxlad. Hodder pound;2.99
Football: a fill-in book. Macmillan pound;2.99
Fantastic Football Fact Attack. By Ian Locke. Macmillan pound;1.99
Fantastic Football Phenomena. By Tim Barnett. Arrow pound;3.99
Eng-Land Eng-Land. We've Won The Cup. World Cup Wonders. Match Mini-Book Series. Reed Children's Books 99p each
Football is a game of two faces. There is what we see and hear about all too often: money, hooliganism, corruption. Then there is the sport: a simple, athletic and often exciting contest. The beautiful game. While the former is fertile ground for fiction writing, the latter has limitations. When you've read about one last-minute winner, you've read about them all - or so you would think.
In this let's-get-some-mileage-out-of-the-World-Cup crop of titles, it's the books that find an extra dimension that are going to live longer in the memory. Three titles, all for older children, stand out. Probably the pick of the bunch is Injury Time, Alan Gibbons's fourth book about the Rough Diamonds, a Liverpool youth team from the wrong side of the tracks (they support Everton). This is a thoughtful tale concerning bullying, sickness and loyalty. A reviewer should never give away the ending, but let's just say a last-minute winner in a cup final is central to the plot.
Equally thoughtful is Michael Hardcastle's The Price of Football, one of a string of football stories by this author that have recently been reprinted. Hardcastle has been writing for a young audience for more than 25 years, but this tale still has a modern feel. The price of football is the toll it takes on the body, and this subject is dealt with sensibly and realistically. No last-minute winner here, nor in Leon Rosselson's Football Crazy. This story has a much lighter side to it, but the matches are still played with great intensity. West Side Wanderers, a team of mixed ability, interests and gender, struggles through to an exciting junior final. Not many scoreless draws en route either.
When Gary Lineker wants to tell his children about exciting games and great goals, he only has to get the family albums out. Or he could give them dad's own Favourite Football Stories: 15 shorts about junior soccer from well-known authors such as Hardcastle, Robert Westall and George Layton. These are ideal for the 12-plus readers, with a good mixture of styles and contexts. "Football Friends" by Colin Harrison is as predictable as it is heartwarming; "Simon Comes Home" by Redvers Branding is just great.
At the junior end of the market there is, perhaps, more excuse for including unlikely victories and scorelines. The improbable factor in Alan Durant's new series, Leggs United, is the team's coach - a ghost called Archie. This, inevitably, leads to a series of humorous moments and, because Archie the ghoul was quite a player in his time, some remarkable victories too. But the tongue-in-cheek humour remains throughout, so you can't get too upset if you happen to support Muddington Colts or Weldon Wanderers, whipping boys for our heroes.
Also for the junior end of the age span, but dealing believably with a story about parental separation and fatherson relationships, is Rob Childs's The Big Clash. The result in this book is off the pitch; football, for once, provides a good backdrop rather than a dominant theme. Young readers, both male and female (and many of the books in this batch include mixed teams), will empathise with the characters.
And, finally, there is poetry about football in David Orme's fourth collection. It's great fun. Many of the poems are moving (in a footbally sort of way) as they hover around that blurred interface between football and life.
When you hear about tickets for the World Cup match between Brazil and Scotland being sold for pound;600, or your team being relegated from the Premiership (mine has just gone into division three), remember what football is all about and enjoy Celia Warren's brilliant poem "Ten-nil", in which she (again) beats her garage door 10-0. No last-minute winner needed.
Facts and football is a match made in marketing heaven; there are simply millions of facts and almost as many books. Of course, the World Cup means a golden opportunity to produce more, for all ages. This crop is aimed at nine to 14-year-olds.
World Cup '98 is a simple pocket book that tells you plenty about the tournament (but not how to get tickets). The book describes itself as an "essential guide", but it takes the reader little further than the basics of who qualified, who is playing whom in France, and the top players to look out for. Readers might prefer a little more interaction: tables to complete, scores to record, and so on.
There's activity enough in Football: a fill-in book, but it lacks substance and originality. Sadly, it looks as if it's been put together in the office, not written by a fan with any passion for, or understanding of, the game.
Fantastic Football Fact Attack and Fantastic Football Phenomena have similar names and similar intentions. And neither is as good as it could be. By focusing on the fantastic and remarkable they trivialise the game, missing out on the essential reasons why people love the sport. Fun is all part of the game - indeed, it is a great antidote to the "football is big business" school of thought - but "a ball burst during a game in Malawi in 1995" and "Newcastle took the FA Cup with them when they played in South Africa in 1952" hardly merit the description "fantastic". These quotes come from the title offered by Macmillan, a publisher that seems as poor at football fact books as it is strong on football fiction (see page opposite). Tim Barnett's book for Arrow is a little better. It's more meaty and mixes the fantastic with the prosaic. There are some questions and exercises worth tackling too.
The books in the Match Mini Books series are only 99p each, and the price seems to be the only factor that the publisher has considered. The language level is all over the place, and the information is patchy at best.
With the biggest sporting event of all time in the greatest game in the world just around the corner, children are being offered some mediocre books. With notable exceptions, too many people are trying to cash in. Come on lads, let's do it for the fans. Let's have no more stocking fillers in June.
WORLD CUP TEACHING TIPS
Football is slowly taking over the world, so it may as well become the core of the national curriculum
Maths Have fun with a dice football league, say eight teams playing each other twice. Do a league table. Work out league positions depending on :
* Points (three then two for a win )
* Most goals scored
* Goal difference
* Goal average. What was the most common score, the average goals per match, an "average" score?
Think about metaphor and how we use it to add colour and excitement to descriptive writing. Try a poem about your life and hopes with football as the metaphor. Give a few clues: scoring goals; until the final whistle; top of the league. Try looking at "They Think It's All Over: even more football poems" (see page opposite).
Design Technology Design a strip for your team, but remember that design doesn't mean working in isolation. There are key constraints:
* The club's traditional colours
* The sponsor's image
* Football shirts as fashion items
* Visibility on television.
* Think about fabrics: are they washable, comfortable (when sweating) and protective (warm when it's cold; cool when it's hot)?
Geography Using an atlas:
* Find the countries that are competing in this summer's World Cup in France
* How many continents are represented in the competition?
* Which team will have to travel furthest to reach France?
PSE Arsenal won two FA Cup finals this year - the men's and the women's. Which result received more attention? There is a possibility of hooliganism at the World Cup. Why? Alan Shearer, captain of England, is paid around pound;30,000 a week. Is this justifiable?