Weekly Read: The Ball Is Round and The Age of Football

Does anyone really need to read more than 1500 pages about soccer? Or, in my case, listen to more than 63 hours of it? Probably not, but if you’re at all interested in the beautiful game beyond watching games, you could do worse. These two volumes – both written by journalist David Goldblatt – explore why the game developed as it has as well as the challenges facing it in the 21st century.

I should say, right at the top, that I’m going to call the game “soccer” throughout. As the history in these books points out, soccer is a derivation of “Association Football,” the actual name of the sport, and is a British phenomenon (in several quoted period sources the game is called “soccer”). It’s not just a heathen American thing – it’s a it’s-called-different-things-around-the-world thing.

The Ball Is Round is the more essential (and longer) of the two because it covers the history of the game, rather than the state of its current form (it was written about the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany). And it starts with the beginning – surveying the games of ancient cultures to try, without real success, to find the ancestor to soccer.

As an aside, let me say that one thing both of these books have going for them is their scope. They deal with the game on a global level and while Europe (and South America, to a lesser extent) command the most attention, Africa, Asia, and the unholy alliance known as CONCACAF (North and Central American and the Caribbean) are examined pretty closely.

Getting back to the history of the game, more interesting than the nitty gritty origins of the sport and the codification of its rules (sorry, “laws” – soccer is serious business) is how the game spread around the globe. Given its origins in the UK and its spread while the British Empire was at its height, you’d think it was a simple question of imperial imposition, but it really wasn’t. Indeed, large countries with close ties to the British Empire have largely rejected soccer in favor of other pastimes, including the United States, Canada, India, and Australia. What really did it was the soft power of British industry and financing, the tendrils of which reached well beyond the formal boundaries of the Empire.

Thus, in lots of places, the game arrived with expat British workers and grew from there. It’s why so many big named clubs around the world actually have British origins, including Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs. Ever wonder why AC Milan’s big rivals are Inter? It’s because Internazionale was formed in response to the closed up Britishness of AC Milan!

Another interesting part of the development of the game is how tied it was to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of more affluent working and middle classes (there’s an interesting intersection with the nascent labor movement, which was providing folks with more free time). This helps partially explain why Brazil, for example, has robust state championships based around big cities, in addition to a national league, as the big clubs grew up in cities, without a lot of development in the hinterlands.

Things get less compelling after the Second World War and the book focuses on what Goldblatt calls “industrial football.” That is, the rise of big money in the game, particularly with the increased profile of international competitions like the European Cup (now Champions League), the Copa Libertadores in South America, and, of course, the World Cup. The history is interesting, but Goldblatt slips into a style that is more a string of anecdotes than a compelling central thesis with supporting evidence. The result, as he checks in all over the globe, is a little numbing and overwhelming.

It also highlights some flaws in the book, such as some of the chapters that end with “you are there!” style descriptions of particular matches. Listening to the audiobook it was unclear whether these were taken from actual reports of the game, but it appears that they were Goldblatt’s creation. They’re fine, so far as they go, but it seems to me that writing about a soccer game is a little bit like Frank Zappa’s turn of phrase that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it just doesn’t capture the essence of what you’re writing about.

Speaking of the audiobook – the narrator of The Ball Is Round has some odd blind spots when it comes to pronunciation. My heart died a little bit every time he referred to Juventus as “Jewv” (as opposed to “Juve” – aka “you vey”). He gets some other Latin names wrong, too, just often enough for it to be an issue. Thankfully, Goldblatt himself narrates the sequel and it doesn’t have the same problem.

As for The Age of Football, it basically picks up where The Ball Is Round leaves off in terms of chronology – starting with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and ending with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rather than just updating the history, however, this book focuses more on how soccer is intertwined with other aspects of politics and economics around the world. As such, it suffers from the same checking of boxes as we go all around the world seeing the same pathologies play out over and over.

In that sense, The Age of Football is pretty depressing. It shows how the game is used by regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, for legitimacy and national unity. It shows how money had become the primary driver of the global game, with little regard for what that means in places that are left behind.

Goldblatt notes how, for example, interest in local African leagues has plummeted since the advent of satellite TV and smart phones, which allow people all over the continent to watch top leagues in Europe instead. What’s funny is that the same is true, somewhat, in the United States, where diehard fans of English or German teams don’t give Major League Soccer the time of day.

Amidst the gloomy underbelly of the modern game, there is the damned near universal nature of its allure. All those places I mentioned above where soccer didn’t take root initially are starting to come along. China, where the game’s never had much of an impact, is ramping things up. The World Cup is one of the few moments of unity the world gets, which is worth celebrating. And the game is, as they say, the beautiful one, whether it’s played in a gleaming stadium in front of a worldwide audience of billions or in a bare field in the middle of nowhere.

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