The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness, and Meaning of Soccer by John Doyle (New York: Rodale, 2010. 352 pp)
Born in Ireland, John Doyle currently works as the television critic for Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. Holding a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Anglo-English Studies from University College, Dublin, Doyle moved to Canada in order to pursue a Ph.D. at York University. Doyle writes about soccer for many publications and has worked on location at multiple World Cups and European Championships. In addition to The World Is a Ball, Doyle published A Great Feast of Light in 2005. Doyle has won two internal Globe and Mail awards for his writing.
I've always thought it would be fun to attend a world event like the Olympic Games or a World Cup. The idea of a myriad of cultures converging on one city fascinates me. The sheer numbers, though, terrify me. I’m not a huge fan of large crowds.
Perhaps, for me, the World Cup provides the most intriguing spectacle. With soccer – the sport adored by the majority of the world, the world championship matters.
In The World Is a Ball, John Doyle explores this worldwide phenomenon. With a decade of soccer coverage for North American publications, Doyle provides a first-hand account of these tournaments and the convergence of cultures.
Watching Those Watching the Game
Interestingly, while one would think that Doyle would focus predominately on the tactics and analysis of the players on the pitch, he seems more interested in the fans. As the world watches the game, Doyle watches the supporters.
For ages, the media focus on hooliganism. With fear dispensed in small to medium doses, many foreigners avoid soccer matches for panic of fan-to-fan violence. Yet Doyle perceives these sporting events as moments of celebration no matter the end result.
On the field, Brazil plays with flair and beauty; in the stands, Brazilian fans act the same. On the field, Italy plays a slow, methodical game; in the stands, the fans are lazy and confident. On this principle, Doyle expands,
“That’s part of the complicated meaning of the World Cup. There is an elaborate synergy between the traveling fans and their country’s team. A nation projects itself, all its hopes and dreams and tangled histories, onto the team. And the team somehow embodies all the complex characteristics of the nation” (18).
Moreover, views of nationalistic hooliganism fail in the face of globalized soccer. Where nationalism in the past existed with players remaining inside its countries borders, the new strategy for most national teams is to seek players and coaches from all over the world. Doyle writes,
“At the end, just before the Estádio da Luz erupts in colorful, spectacular fireworks displays, the TV commentator reminds viewers that the Greek coach, Otto Rehhagel, is German and Portugal’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, is Brazilian. The point is to tell us that, even at this intensely competitive, nationalistic level, soccer transcends borders and nationality” (132).
However, The World Is a Ball flows poorly. As the book details international soccer matches over the last decade, the stories become repetitive and resemble field notes for the stories Doyle obviously filed for his paid gig.
Additionally, Doyle romanticizes the notion of fan and team unity. While international matches of yesteryear exhibited teams with a national style and identity, modern soccer has found tactics to become increasingly crowd-sourced. Successful national teams blend the possession-style total football of the Netherlands with the defensive tenacity of Italy and the aggressive set play style of Germany. In other words, the way teams play soccer today is becoming tactically similar.
Finally, Doyle writes with basic assumptions about soccer. For those interested in becoming acquainted with the sport, Doyle’s writing will leave you dazed and confused. While no one suggests that a soccer writer must begin a book with a basic explanation of soccer, Doyle uses soccer-specific terms without defining them for a broader audience. Although I understood him, I don’t think his lexicon of terms allows inclusion of non-soccer fans.
A Tragic View of the Universe
Despite my reservations, Doyle contemplates some of the deeper meanings behind the joys of soccer. With low scoring games, spotty refereeing, and theatrical flopping, soccer is not an Americanized sport. Yet, these very issues point to core artistic values. Doyle pens,
“Soccer is a sport perfectly designed to reinforce a tragic view of the universe, because basically it is a long series of frustrations leading up to near certain heartbreak” (311).
This sentiments ring true with the observance of one game. A team can play the perfect game and lose. While a pitcher in baseball gains muscle memory with practice in order to throw the same pitch in the same location whenever he desires it, a soccer player relies on luck. The best for which he or she can hope is to create enough chances to get a positive result.
On the topic of poor refereeing – an experience that United States Men’s National Team fans know full-well with the disallowed goal on a phantom foul against Slovenia in the last World Cup – Doyle writes,
“Injustice happens, but time passes, the world turns just as the ball does during the game. The whole point of the game is that the ball turns, moves forward, much like we do” (315).
Although The World Is a Ball plods somewhat without much stylistic difference and mischaracterizes the connections between the styling of fans and national teams, I enjoyed the first-hand account of the World Cup. With a convergence of culture in one country, we see something bigger than a sporting event; we see a global culture. If you can get past the difficulties and understand the basic terms in soccer, The World Is a Ball is an entertaining read. Nevertheless, I suggest starting somewhere else in soccer literature.