Books | A majestic history built around games (w/ podcast)

Review of David Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, with a new foreword (New York: Riverhead, 2008). Pp. xviii + 974, bibliography, notes, index, illustrations. $24.00 (paper). ISBN 978-1-59448-296-0.

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer appears at booksellers in North America this week, and we wonder how many will read the title’s four words as a direct challenge to the myth of American centrality in all things.

In a European context, the phrase “the ball is round” conjures almost immediate associations with German manager Sepp Herberger, who contributed this tautological statement, along with other curiosities, to the game’s lexicon. The book’s author, David Goldblatt, sees Herberger’s mastery of the post-match non sequitur as one of the coach’s offerings to the many layers of football culture and language.

Worth the wait and worth its weight, The Ball Is Round adds 2lb, 1oz to the payload of North American bookshelves—an easier burden compared to the original 3lb, 9oz hardback.

The phrase further suggests, in a global frame, the all-encompassing quality of football and that a writer of Goldblatt’s caliber, by poring over the historical record and a fragmented prehistory, might conceive a 907-page narrative of human experience by taking the association football game and its variants as his guide. Goldblatt and Herberger challenge Americans by saying that the ball is indeed round and not the prolate spheroid used in the dominant sport of the 50 states.


In a podcast interview Dec 20, Goldblatt says that during the seven years of research and writing he became more fully aware of the unconventional nature of his work, in that the United States features as but a bit player on the world stage. “Normally you’d write a world history—certainly of the 20th century—and the United States would be at the center of it, and rightly so. But in The Ball Is Round it’s almost a transatlantic curiosity.” Goldblatt cites British historian Eric Hobsbawm as already having made this observation.

As a corrective, Goldblatt writes within the foreword to the American edition, he took six months off from watching football and concentrated on American games, especially baseball and baseball literature. Whilst slumming in these insular sporting cultures—increasingly available in Europe through the North American Sports Network and on Sky—Goldblatt gained perspective on what the United States could reap from its growing exposure to world football. A nation accustomed to shaping international institutions in its own image, to its own advantage, sees in Goldblatt’s narrative a world from a marginalized position—the Predator boot now on the other foot.

You will excuse me, I hope, if I express a preference for a multilateral world in which the United States is on occasion bound by collective agreements and meanings that are not entirely of its own making and that is an America that plays and understands soccer. Soccer’s mission in the United States is not, I think to supplement or challenge American football, baseball, or basketball, but to offer a conduit to the rest of the world; a sporting antidote to the excesses of isolationism, a prism for understanding the world that the United States may currently shape but will increasingly be shaped by. (xii)

As another jolt to American exceptionalism in sport, Goldblatt places as the volume epigraph the decade-old observation of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, the chronicler of Latin American history “from below” who in Soccer in Sun and Shadow comments on “an astonishing void: official history ignores soccer. Contemporary history texts fail to mention it, even in passing, in countries where it has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity” (rev. ed. [Verso, 2003], 209).

For many months, after first obtaining the Penguin UK hardback edition of The Ball Is Round, it sat on our bookshelf atop the similarly monumental 500-year survey of Western cultural life by Jacques Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence (see 20 Nov 07). When we perused the index of Barzun’s work, having accepted that we were unlikely to navigate the 800 pages in full, Galeano’s statement showed its relevance. Sport (golf, ice skating, tennis, the Olympics) merits eight mentions, football once, in passing. In discussion about a modern-day decline in sportsmanship, Barzun writes, “When contests pitted together two national teams, one crowd of fans mobbed the other; riots, wounds, and deaths were the sportsmanship of the day” (794). So soccer does enter the picture, but in the broad-brush negative.

Goldblatt explains the context for the Nazi salutes rendered by England team members in Berlin on 14 May 1938. Given a football culture “colonized by the politics of appeasement,” the British FA, acceding to wishes from the Foreign Office, directed the players to salute the crowd. England won 6–3, but Germany gained a propaganda victory.

Barzun offers little space for games, but, in truth, Goldblatt does the same. This is perhaps the most appealing aspect of The Ball Is Round. The games themselves—a cavalcade of ritualized 90-minute encounters on which the sun never sets in the satellite-connected world—enter the argument literally as excursions from the main text. They are set off from Goldblatt’s exposition of football in political and social life, much as a matchday might seem set apart from the workaday repetition of bread-winning. Goldblatt periodically reimagines matches as fulcrums that give impetus to humanity’s changing relationship to the game. The excurses begin on 8 Sept 1888, the first day of the Football League in England (Bolton 2, Derby County 6), and culminate in the chillingly cynical scoreline of Stade Olympique de l’Emyrne 0, AS Adema 149 from 31 Oct 2002. (Stade Olympique of Madagascar protested a perceived refereeing slight in the previous match by unleashing a torrent of own goals. “Reports make no mention of injury time,” Goldblatt writes. “I think we can assume they didn’t play any.”)

A personal favorite among the match accounts must be the staged heavenly encounter between Hungary manager Gusztáv Sebes and Ferenc Puskás, who have eternity to ruminate on the crushing 2–3 loss to Germany in the 1954 World Cup final (see 17 Nov 06). Sebes wonders, making the direct connection between football results and political existence, “If Hungary had won there would have been no counter-revolution but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.” To this, Puskás, offering a more quotidian player’s perspective, “snorts and slurps down a small beer.”

For this reconstruction and for manifold other fragments and testimonies, Goldblatt has benefited from the relatively recent flowering of ethnographic and journalistic interest in football’s place in daily life. As a partial guide for his work, Goldblatt could look, in English, to two previous histories, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer by Bill Murray (University of Illinois Press, 1998) and The People’s Game: History of Football Revisited James Walvin (new ed. [Mainstream, 2000]). (Since the publication of The Ball Is Round, another social history has appeared, Parish to Planet: How Football Came to Rule the World by Eric Midwinter.)

But many specificities have come from fieldwork in the past 20 years, enough published material to convince Goldblatt “there’s enough out there to put this thing together” and to compensate for an absence of officially produced written records that the political or military historian takes as given. Goldblatt imbibed these sources, categorized, reinterpreted, synthesized them, and then combined his own travel and research to produce an original accounting that builds on Galeano’s intuitive sense that the game has been undersold in academic histories.

The Ball Is Round begins by asking if any cultural practice can match football for universality. Foodways, music, religious ritual and rites of passage exceed the sport in omnipresence, but they lack the codified rules and performative specificity of association football. The cultural provenance of football reaches to the civilizations of the Orient, Mesoamerica and Rome. But rather than trying to draw sporting lineage between the modern game and such precursors as cuju (China), kemari (Japan), Tchatali (Aztec), Pasukkquakkohowog (Native American), Harpastum (Rome) and so on, Goldblatt in a compelling 15-page prehistory, “Chasing Shadows,” makes clear that the true connections rest in the enduring human drive for collective experience and for struggle in the proxy form of ball games.

Again and again in Goldblatt’s work, one must marvel at the sport’s sustainability and its repeated adoption worldwide, across eras and cultures seemingly divided by the clash of civilizations. Succeeding generations encounter the game with novelty, sometimes with skepticism or outright resistance. Trolling sources outside the mainstream, Goldblatt finds Russian writer Yuri Olesha explaining the sport to his father in the early 1900s. The man replies, “With their feet? How can that be?” In Kashmir, a British headmaster must overcome Brahmin children’s resistance to coming in contact with a leather ball seen as unclean. In the Ottoman Empire, religious authorities feared that the game would keep students from the Qur’an; the wearing of shorts also correlated with salacious activity.

As part of his comprehensive treatment, Goldblatt does not neglect how the game came to be sustained through language and media. Early experiments with mediated football—now assumed to be the game’s default form—take on freshness in the words of Bloomsbury-era novelist Winifred Holtby, who writes in Feb 1930 of the sensation on hearing her first football commentary: “No one could listen with cold blood or sluggish pulses to the quickening crescendo of the roar preceding the final shout of ‘goal.’ I wanted more goals. I didn’t care who shot them.”

Founded in 1919 in Buenos Aires, El Gráfico collected “soccer’s organic intellectuals” on its staff. By 1930, circulation had reached 100,000 in the capital alone. The Jan 08 cover promotes Inter Milan and Argentina striker Hernán Crespo‘s answer—“Football saved my life”—to one of 100 questions, making one wonder if he also uses this answer 100 times.

Goldblatt accounts for the rise of a sporting, primarily football-oriented, press, with examples such as El Gráfico (Argentina), Kicker (Germany), La Gazzetta dello Sport (Italy), L’Équipe (France) and others. He also considers the reception and transmission of footballing terms in various places—the culturally specific ways in which societies communicate identical concepts. Latin America and Russia, for example, retained many English terms while Germany, as an expression of disdain for English influence, deliberately sought German-language equivalents for such terms as “captain” (Fährer), “free kick” (Frei-Tritt) and “goal” (Tor).

Goldblatt enlisted linguistic help on his travels in order to interpret supporters’ idioms and singing: “Everywhere I went … I would ask them, ‘What do you say for this?’ ‘How do you say that?’ ‘What’s your version of this cliché?’ ” We imagine the scene of Goldblatt approaching a klatch of supporters, querying, “What is the precise Bengali phrase for ‘It’s all gone horribly wrong?’ ”

Also constitutive of the rise of football cultures worldwide—Goldblatt believes that “football culture” as a concept could first be applied to England as early as the 1870s—is the existence and accessibility of playing space. In modern Western life, one accepts the supply and maintenance of such space as a school or civic function. But in less regulated times, certain areas, such as the unclaimed tracts alongside high-density industrial housing in Vienna in the early 1900s (Vorstädte), lent themselves to the street game and to the development of marauding, muscular players such as Josep Uridil. “Viennese football boomed,” Goldblatt writes, “in innumerable kickabouts and neighbourhood contests made all the more important by the use of the same spaces for carousing, drinking and socializing away from the authority of the state and one’s parents” (195). The Vorstädte produced so-called wild teams, although the coffee-house society of interwar Vienna would help contribute to a genesis of another aspect of football’s cultural imprinting: the idea of football as art, “cultured, intellectual, even cerebral, athletic but balletic at the same time,” in the person of playmaker Matthias Sindelar. Aesthetic criteria would gain in importance in Latin America, made manifest in discourses and debate on fútbol rioplatense in Argentina and futebol arte in Brazil.

The concentration of textile workers along with “rolling open fields and moors and mountains” influenced the lure of football in Lancashire. “That’s what makes a football culture,” says Goldblatt. “Before there’s money, before there’s organization, before there’s anyone keeping it down, what makes a football culture is kids going out to play.” As a negative example in the UK, the FA’s 50-year restriction, beginning in 1921, on women’s access to FA-registered facilities restricted the burgeoning attraction of women’s football to “a peripheral and rather odd-looking subculture” (see 22 Sept 07)

Before the 2006 World Cup finals, a German consortium, in a twist on earlier language practice, tried to encourage English visitors to learn native football terms. In this example, diagrammed at right, the goalkeeper throws the ball out (Abwurf), which is run onto by a player pushing forward (Alleingang), who plays a one-two (Doppelpass). Ashley Cole chips (Heber) the ball over the keeper to score (Tor). (© Brighten the Corners)

Such attitudes helped keep the sport a male domain, and Goldblatt acknowledges that writing a cultural history of world football necessitates a privileging of male perspectives. He has written, in the language of gender critique, “a history of many masculinities.” While the women’s game has gained in popularity, authorities in football worldwide remain men, in particular at FIFA, for which Goldblatt reserves special criticism for ethically rudderless management and arrogance. The world body has persisted, he says, in upholding the “politics of the gentleman’s club” and operating as a private organization while wielding enormous influence as stewards of a much valued cultural resource.

Tension within football has remained almost constant between the polarities of play and sport, with the histories of European fascism and communism, Latin American populism and dictatorship, African postcolonialism and Asian economic opportunism intertwining with a game that has taken on status beyond whatever the word “game” implies. The conflict, with consumer capitalism the most recent usurper of the latent joy in football’s soul, to more melancholy critics such as Galeano can be expressed in terms of clear regression. The arc of football in human experience—in Galeano’s phrase, from the Uruguayan’s worldview—describes a “sad voyage from beauty to duty.”

Goldblatt says he is “broadly sympathetic” to the perspective (“at the moment it’s capitalism 1, football 0”) but adds that “the fight’s not over yet.” Certainly, he is not rhapsodic about the game or its future. His descriptions of football’s innumerable moments of pathos and of its perversities count among the most compelling blends of primary material. For instance, Goldblatt lingers on the tragic FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 Apr 1989 to convey the immediate horror, as experienced moment by moment on television, as well as the animus that had accumulated between fans and authorities who feared them. The match took place at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday:

Advertising hoardings were ripped down as impromptu stretchers; survivors wept, wandered, screamed, lay down and passed out. Now, live on TV, the country watched the dead bodies lined up on the ground before being moved to the morgue established in Sheffield Wednesday’s gymnasium. It took a long political and judicial struggle to establish what was common knowledge on the day: that what had killed ninety-six people was not the responsibility of the violent and drunken dregs of the working classes but directly stemmed from the grotesque assumptions and beliefs of the police, and from the neglect and disdain of the football and political elites who had come to view football supporters as pack animals and rabid dogs. (600–601)

In the book’s conclusion, Goldblatt reflects on football’s earthly reach and the fanciful connection to the realms of religion. Can, at some level, the collective experience of football be seen as part of the ineffable “idea of the holy” (Rudolf Otto)? “Shorn of metaphysics the roar of the football crowd is no song of praise for deities,” answers Goldblatt, affirming that “players are not divine … pundits are not priests” and that “the gods of football are just a linguistic sleight of hand for the statistical randomness of risk, chance and uncertainty.”

Sociologists of religion and the phenomenologists of numinous experience no doubt will find parallels among the football crowd, the game’s capacity to engender fellow feeling and shared frames of reference, and imagined human communities of solidarity. But whether or not we say that football and faith occupy similar planes, Goldblatt has shown that, whatever one’s beliefs or allegiances, we inhabit a planet on which the ball has meaning.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (6)

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  1. A masterful review, John. My wife bought me the UK paperback edition a few months ago, but so far it has sat heavily and intimidatingly on my shelf. You’ve accelerated my desire to pick it up now. Bravo!

  2. Wonderful review. I imagine that the book is just as eloquent and erudite. Having said that though and agreeing with you about the power of the round ball, I still ask why? Why this power? For someone who has tried to leave this game many a time—not unlike the author who had his fill—I can’t explain. To borrow a few words from the great English football writer James Lawton the power of the game remains “an unrelenting mystery.” …

  3. [...] football traditions. David Goldblatt in The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (see Jan 5) writes of the city’s “peculiar social and geographical ecology” that allowed [...]

  4. [...] excellent review of the book as well as accompanying interview with Mr Goldblatt over at The Global Game and figured it’d be of interest to some of you lot. In other footie news…there’s [...]

  5. Anonymous says:

    Nice review, but you don’t say Fährer and Freitritt in German. It’s Spielführer and Freistoß.

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