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

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.”

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