What is it about sport that has inspired great writing? You could say it's about the inherent drama, but that misses the point. Because, really, there is nothing inherent about drama in sport. There would be no drama if it weren't for the storytellers who bring their sports to life.

Sport, after all, is itself a fiction. In order to enjoy watching it you have to forget it's just a human invention and suspend disbelief, just as you do to enjoy a great novel. Otherwise, you would think it very silly for 22 people to chase a leather ball around a field; or for two of them to hammer a furry one back and forth over a net. Sport without stories is like a limerick that doesn't rhyme: confusing and meaningless.

So we fluff it up with imagined allegiances, rivalries, underdogs, fallen heroes, giant-killings and other metaphors for life until we care enough about its made-up rules to spend small fortunes on tickets, TV subscriptions and foam fingers, or fight each other in bars.

That is exactly why sport is so kick-you-in-the-guts fantastic, and why it has inspired so many of the greatest writers in history. The sportswriter's challenge is to find profundity in simplicity and make the unimportant feel absolutely urgent.

That, when done well, can change the way we feel not just about sport, but about life. That in mind, here is a selection of some of the world's greatest writers who have done their bit to make sport matter.

Federer, Both Flesh And Not by David Foster Wallace (2006)

Anyone who loves tennis, contends Foster-Wallace in this magical essay on the ingredients of greatness, has had a ‘Federer Moment’: ‘times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.’

Reading Federer Both Flesh and Not – as per most of Foster-Wallace's writing – has a very similar effect. He has a supreme ability to impart the most complex and original ideas with such natural and unpretentious flair, you almost forget what he's saying has never been said before. Foster Wallace paints a picture of a sporting GOAT that's more vivid than a photograph could ever capture – a magician of words and ideas describing a magician of racquets and balls.

Part of a wider collection of the American thinkers’ essays, it is bursting with insights about how maths and metaphysics make tennis the most beautiful game there is. 

The Fight by Norman Mailer (1975)

No sport has inspired a richer abundance of great writing than two men punching each other in the head until one falls over. Perhaps that's to do with the inherent irony in the long and passionate relationship between writing and boxing: one is concerned with refining our consciousness, the other with trying to clobber the consciousness out of someone. To the writer, the challenge is to find profundity in simplicity.

The Fight is arguably the best boxing book ever written, about the best fight ever fought. It follows Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and almost everyone else involved, as they prepare for, then fight, the Rumble In The Jungle in 1974. Written at a time when the whole world would stop to watch a boxing match, The Fight has all the makings of an incredible tale: a fallen hero, a rising star, over-the-top sidekicks, adoring fans with a catchy war cry (Ali, Bomaye!).

Mailer may have been a flawed personality with questionable world views, but as a writer of descriptive non-fiction, he was an undisputed heavyweight. This is his title belt.

The Loser by Gay Talese (1964)

They say that you find the best stories in the loser’s dressing room, though getting athletes to speak honestly about how it feels to lose – especially in today's age of media-trained charisma-vacuums and the-important-thing-is-that-we-got-three-points bromide – can be harder than getting the US Women's football team to actually lose. But when Gay Talese tracked down the two-time heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, in 1964, he opened him up like a cut above the eye.

The Loser - one story in Talese's seminal Frank Sinatra Has A Cold collection - is about more than just boxing, more than sport. It blows wide open, excruciatingly and beautifully, what happens to the mind of a certain type of sporting great after the lights go down and the paycheques dry up - when all they have left of their once-great careers are the bruising regrets of what could have been. And this profile remains one of the most viscerally honest accounts of what defeat does to a champion athlete – a sporting profile for the ages.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)

Fever Pitch is more a bittersweet anatomy of obsession than an it-was-all-worth-it-in-the-end autobiography. And it is utterly thrilling from start to finish. This razor-sharp, self-knowing and hilarious memoir recounts a writer's life measured not in years or birthdays, but in seasons and cup runs.

When Hornby's parents split up, the morose teenager is left with a fading sense of what it is to feel at home. Then his dad takes him to watch Arsenal at Highbury. He grows into a man, but the boy inside never leaves him. And they make Arsenal their home. What follows is a story about masculinity and growing up, and merging with the mob to forget yourself in a roaring crowd.

There is no better account of what it is to be a diehard football fan –the kind who's in it purely for the love of the game, and the eternal belief that, no matter what happens today, next Saturday might be better.

All Played Out by Pete Davies (1990)

If Fever Pitch is the best book ever written about being a football fan, this is the best book ever written about football. It is, in fact, the book Hornby himself said: ‘helped me get Fever Pitch published’.

It proved books about football don't need to be just stat compendiums or ghost-written memoirs of ex-pros. They can dig deep into the psychology of the game, its personalities, and the sights, sounds and aromas that permeate a country when it hosts a World Cup. It is also the reason why no journalist or writer since has been granted such close access to a team as Davies was to Bobby Robson's England in Italy in 1990. He reports conversations with players, the manager and peripheral figures of which a modern journalist would dream.

Written with the insight of a reporter, the creative instinct of a writer, and the emotion of a fan, it is a window into a time before football succumbed to the rule of cash and corporate interests; it's a chronicle of the night Gazza cried, England lost and football changed forever.

Friday Night Lights by H. G. 'Buzz' Bissinger (1990)

You may think you don't care about tiny towns in Texas. You may care even less about hulks in helmets belly bumping and ‘hut-hutting’ and running around after a misshapen leather balloon in lycra. But read Friday Night Lights and you will.

In 1988, Bizzinger moved to Odessa, Texas, to chronicle the vicissitudes of a high-school American Football team across a season. Riven by racial and social inequality, Odessa is not a town big on hope, but its Permian Panthers high-school team keeps its dreams alive, and its identity strong. There, every Friday night, 19,000 people fill the school's stadium to watch a bunch of 17-year-old boys battle for the glory of their school.

The story is both inspiring and tragic, as we learn how such single-minded devotion to a high-school team can at once cement a community and near cripple a school that spends more on supplies for its sports programme than on its English department. As for the players, these are the best days of their lives, but what happens when the reality of growing up bleeds into their childhood dreams?

Beyond a Boundary by C. L. R. James (1963)

No, quiet down, cricket is not a metaphor for life. Cricket is far too important for that. Life, in fact, is a metaphor for cricket: you're born and then you die, and your best bet for the years in between is to smash as many balls into the crowd as possible. That's sort of the message in C. L. R James' Beyond a Boundary, once described by novelist V. S. Naipaul as ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies’.

This beautiful, warm and witty tour de force smashes the barriers of race, class and empire into the sky. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and Marxist revolutionary, there aren't many modern writers with the intellectual clout and cultural sensitivity of James. 

Part memoir of a West Indian youth, part celebration of the game he loved and the players he knew, and part searing indictment of the evils of colonialism, he asks the immortal question: 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?'

The Sporting Spirit by George Orwell (1945)

Every sports reading list needs an anti-hero. And few fit that role better than sportswriting's curmudgeon-in-chief himself, George Orwell. The Sporting Spirit is a passionate, articulate and bitterly unsympathetic evisceration, not of one sport, but of them all. Orwell didn't like sports. He didn't understand sports. And he certainly didn't play sports. So, to make up for it, he wrote The Sporting Spirit.

Taken from his luscious Shooting an Elephant collection, The Sporting Spirit argues that nationalism sucked all the fun out of sport until it became ‘war minus the shooting’. Fans, and nations, he harrumphs, ‘work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.’

And so he goes on, with all the style and verve you would expect from England's greatest 20th-century social commentator in a rollicking read that may even change the way you think about your relationship with sport.  

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