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Book Review - The Ball Is Round

A book review of "The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer" by David Goldblatt. Rating: 4.5/5

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The ball is round. The future of the sport?
The ball is round. The future of the sport?

It didn't take me my entire hiatus to finish The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt but it very well could have. Along with The New Penguin History of the World, it is one of the two most daunting books on my bookshelf - and both are alike in many respects. With similarly close font sizes and hefty page counts (nearly 1000 and 1200 respectively) both books attempt to shrink a large, global period of historical time into something that the reader can synthesize. The Ball Is Round is not exactly what it advertises on its front cover via its subtitle, "A Global History of Soccer". It's not a history of soccer, exactly; it's a history of the world seen through the lens of the sport itself.

Goldblatt successfully navigates through the origins of the sports without dwelling on the subject for too long, looking at ancient games that could have led to the development of the current game. The ultimate conclusion is that while some of those sports were very similar in nature to what we know today: no, the sport as we know it found its origins in England. He then traces the dissemination of the sport throughout the world through England's colonialist/expansionist influence, including analysis of various club names that derive from the English language and also such quotes of bemusement from Brazilian journalists as:
"A group of Englishmen [...] kick around something that looks like a bull's bladder. It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts." (p 126) If that isn't a fantastic description of the sport, I'm not sure what is.

As a sidebar, one of the most interesting pieces of information that I learned from the book is that while FIFA originated in France (hence the full name), the English influence in the game was so prominent that those involved in the sport in France looked to England as the expert on the game. The French asked the English to start a governing agency for the sport, but after receiving a refusal, took up the initiative to start one of their own - and England missed out on a chance to have an even larger hand in the history of the sport.

From there on, every single page is full of information. Names, dates, scorelines, economical analysis, and historical information. One could read the book entirely through five times in a row and not manage to retain half of the information inside. It's not too overwhelming, though, since the overall flow of the book is very broad and coherent. The book goes through the timeline of modern history, starting in the early 1900s and up into the early 2000s, highlighting how different societal and global events affected the sport in different nations. One specific example is the book's deep look into soccer's relationship with WWI. Various games raised money for war charities in England, stadiums became drill spaces and storage facilities, and clubs acted as areas of recruitment. Not only does Goldblatt analyze the effect the war had on various European rivalries in terms of the sport, but he takes it one step further and examines how South America had a golden period for the sport since the countries there were hardly affected by the war. That is the basis of the analysis in this book: one step further. The analysis of every other major - or even minor! - historical event is equally as extensive and coherent.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book was that even though much of it entails names, dates, and factual information, etc, which necessitated a more scholarly style of writing, every 20-30 pages or so, there would be an in-depth look at a match. Page 672 puts the reader into the middle of the 1980 Cup of Nations match between Nigeria and Algeria. Assumptions are made about audience reactions and other environmental factors that day, and thus the style changes to a much more descriptive, colorful style of writing.
"The crowd generates a simmering, skin-pinching aural fuzz." "Suddenly, he has turned to face the goal, arched his back and taken it on his chest. The ball, stunned, drops plumb-line straight to his feet, but there is no way that he could find room to swing such fantastically long legs and strike it cleanly." I can see it clearly in my mind. These 5-6 paragraph long looks into specific games really cement what must have been the mood at the game and bring in a personal touch to all of the historical information.

The only downside of the book - which isn't really a downside at all - is that it is much too long. I wouldn't recommend attempting to read it in a single week, since the amount of information it entails only leads to burnout. The Ball is Round is a book to be enjoyed and savored over a much longer period of time. Overall, I highly enjoyed the book and particularly recommend it for those soccer fans who are history buffs as well!

All quotes and references from The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt, 2008, Riverhead Trade.