Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
After this year's World Cup had ended in July, I found myself still ravenous for soccer and started looking for books to read on the subject. When I came across David Goldblatt's The Ball Is Round, its 900+ page count was initially off-putting, not to mention its purported goal of providing an entire world history of the sport from humans' earliest attempts at kicking around stones to the current merchandising empire that is the English Premier League and everything in between.
Luckily, Goldblatt is anything but a dry writer, and his love of the game is on full display from foreword to conclusion. The chapters are sequenced chronologically and divided up by geographical area. This allows for an in-depth look at how the sport developed in every country that still plays today (and since soccer truly is "the world's game," perhaps you understand why the page count is so high).
One of the most interesting trends that Goldblatt describes is the progression from amateurism to professional sporting. Soccer obviously didn't start out as a professional sport, but I found it fascinating that almost all countries were actively against professionalism for much of the early decades of the organized sport, claiming it went against the spirit of the game. Most early athletes in organized leagues made no money for playing (at least, not officially), and were on their own if they sustained injuries over the course of a season. It took a long time for the game to reach the current level of commercialism it sits at now, with some players' transfer fees alone reaching into the tens of millions of dollars.
The chapters of the book that I found most compelling were those dealing with Africa. Goldblatt effectively conveys Africa's potential greatness on the soccer field, the many world-renowned athletes that countries such as Ghana and Cameroon have produced, and the hold that the game has on the entire continent. Of course, this information only serves to make the current state of affairs in African soccer all the more disheartening. Goldblatt goes into great detail about all of the obstacles preventing success in what should be some of the best countries in the world on the soccer field. A lack of real infrastructure makes setting up national leagues extremely difficult, as it's hard to play away games when there aren't enough serviceable roads. What's more, almost all of Africa's best athletes gravitate towards European leagues where they can actually make money correspondent to their talent. This in turn lowers the overall competition level in national and international games played in Africa, which has resulted in constant underperformance at World Cup and Olympic competitions -- to say nothing of the immense pressure to succeed exerted on these national teams by countless dictators over the past few decades. Goldblatt elucidates this gloomy situation extremely well, and I appreciated his evident respect for each nation's soccer traditions in spite of the overwhelming odds.
And Africa makes up only a few chapters in this enthralling history of a sport loved by billions of people. Anyone with residual World Cup fever would do well to read The Ball Is Round and learn a bit more (okay, a lot more) about all those teams you saw competing in South Africa this past summer. Goldblatt sprinkles in ecstatic descriptions of famous individual games throughout soccer's history as well, which helps keep the book from devolving into a simple recitations of facts -- evidence that he, too, understands the inherent dichotomies at the heart of the game: individual and team, club and nation, style and fundamentals, money and beauty. In the end, soccer is big enough to encompass all of these facets, and it's great to have a book that's big enough to do the same for its history.
Books mentioned in this post