A YOUNG man detaches from his team and walks from the halfway line to the penalty spot. His nation’s fans hold their scarves to their mouths; their hopes swoop and soar around him. He passes his opposite number as makes the lonely walk back to his team-mates, shoulders hunched, and suppresses his sympathy. He knows what’s at stake.

It’s late. The air has cooled. In an hour it will be a new day. A thousand journalists hover their hands over their keyboards ready to cast this young man as a hero or a villain for the rest of his life.

The player places the ball on a spot 11 metres in front of the two-metre goalkeeper who smacks the crossbar with his fists causing condensation to rain down on the goal-line like tears. 

A hush settles in the stadium. Camera lenses click like crickets. Who knew 60,000 people could become so quiet? Three paces back from the ball, the young man only notices the stillness inside. He’s fine. After all, he’s lived do-or-die moments hundreds of times before – as Mr Fox, as Katniss, as Huck Finn. 

He smiles and begins his run up... 

As you are reading this, 831 footballers are living out their boyhood dreams in Qatar at the biggest sporting event on the planet. As murky, odd and appalling as this edition of the World Cup is, across their shoulders lie the hopes and dreams of 32 nations. 

From a young age, coaches will have worked hard with these footballers on their technique and fitness. But I wonder how many of them were encouraged to read books as part of their training regime. 

Even though the modern football managers take a more holistic approach to coaching than their growling forebears – Chelsea manager Graham Potter, for example, has a master’s degree in leadership and emotional intelligence – it would still come as a shock to hear that reading for pleasure is encouraged at the team hotel. 

It’s a shame. Research suggests that reading could aid athletic performance in key areas.

HeraldScotland:

So much of football training focuses on the heart and lungs, but mental fitness is as important. Reading is fitness work for the brain. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and reading is proven to actively increase its power. There’s no downside.

If young players want to truly give themselves the best chance of playing at the top level, they must pay attention to all parts of their body, mind included. Brain fitness is a must. As the late, great Johann Cruyff said: “You play football with your head, and your legs are just there to help you.”

Reading for pleasure is proven to train your brain to think faster, harder, and smarter. It could help players process information and spot patterns where others see chaos. 

It’s not just footballers for whom concentration is key. Track and field athletes work hard to develop the ability to block everything else out and focus on the ball in front of them.

Many of them work with sports psychologists to make this possible. 

But football is a team sport and as any international coach will tell you, they choose their squads for summer tournaments based on personality as well as ability. Players who bring harmony and humour to their team would have been among the first on the plane to the World Cup – the glue guys. 

Lauded and rich from a young age, some professional footballers can lack the ability “to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it” as To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch suggests we do. What Finch is describing is empathy, and there is no better way to enhance your ability to empathise with others (and to become a better team-mate as a result) than vividly experiencing the world through other people’s eyes in books.

And with increased concentration, empathy and brain power comes confidence. An undersold trait of professional footballers is often their incredible self-belief, and a lesser-known benefit of reading is that it improves this very trait. 

Tragically, poverty can knock it. The glitz of the World Cup will play out against the bleakest of domestic backdrops. This Christmas, more families than ever across Scotland will be reliant on food banks to feed their children. But people who are struggling deserve more than a full stomach – in a country as rich as ours that should be a given.

That’s why Scottish Book Trust’s Christmas appeal seeks to give books to families in need, though food banks, this festive season. 

To a football-mad child experiencing a harsh winter at home, playing at a World Cup may seem a long way off. With an imagination fired by books, however, they might just be able to plot their way there, chapter by chapter. 

Danny Scott is the author of Scotland Stars F.C., a series of six football-filled chapter books aimed at young readers aged six to eight. Find out more about the books at: discoverkelpies.co.uk. Follow Danny on Twitter @ASimpleDan.