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

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.”

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