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)

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