The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer BY David Goldblatt. Riverhead Trade. Paperback, 992 pages. $24.

The cover of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer

Soccer’s global appeal has few analogues. The “world” in World Cup is a much larger place than, say, the one in World Series: Some seven hundred million people are reported to have watched the tournament’s final game in 2006, and the roster of fifa’s member nations is a virtual facsimile of the UN’s. In The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, David Goldblatt argues that the sport has become “our collective metaphor,” one that “expresses the Faustian bargain that all modern societies have made with the forces of money and power.” His book provides a scrupulous account of this bargain, charting the sport’s history from its infancy on the playing fields of elite nineteenth-century English public schools to its hegemony everywhere today.

What a strange bargain we’ve struck. And what an even stranger metaphor: twenty-two people kicking and heading a ball in an attempt to place it in the opposition’s goal. On the one hand, there are the Faustian promises. According to soccer’s institutional power brokers, not to mention its many corporate sponsors (“the forces of money and power” indeed), soccer has not only conquered the globe, it has also occasionally bettered it. In 2007, the Iraqi national side won the Asian Cup in Jakarta, sparking mass celebrations in the streets of Baghdad, where there has been, of late, very little to celebrate. Similarly, those who followed the 2006 World Cup were often treated to the story of how Côte d’Ivoire’s qualification for the tournament produced a temporary cease-fire in that nation’s civil conflict. There is a familiar ring to these stories’ warm, sentimental tones, of course: One of soccer’s most enduring scenes finds German and British soldiers laying down their arms for spontaneous games along the trenches of France during the “Christmas truce” of 1914. These are stories of soccer as peacemaker, wherein the sport provides a humanist reprieve from the brutalities of the modern world. The ball game stops the war game. Play replaces politics. (In 1988, fifa president João Havelange—whose corrupt, imperious career Goldblatt dissects in one of the book’s best chapters—was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the nomination was a calculated political move by the Swiss soccer federation in its bid to host the 1998 World Cup, “the standing ovation which followed the announcement,” Goldblatt reports, “would have shamed Khrushchev.”)

Also chief among the sport’s Faustian rewards: A world where the joy of play is readily available and inequalities disappear. In the polity of soccer, universal suffrage reigns. Anybody can play. All you need is a flat surface and a round object. The barefoot Brazilian boy kicking his rag ball in a favela and his African counterpart playing on the dusty fields of a dilapidated township—these are its cherished icons. Soccer makes little distinction between rich and poor, colonizer and colonized, rural and industrial, first world and third world, and each World Cup or domestic derby seems to offer further evidence of the sport’s profound neutrality, providing opportunities for one to confront the other on a literally level playing field. It is difficult to think of any other arena in modern life where Angola or Trinidad and Tobago can compete on equal terms against their former colonial masters as they did at the 2006 World Cup. (Both suffered narrow losses.) Little wonder, then, that soccer flourishes among those for whom the verb flourish rarely applies—the world’s young urban poor—for the sport regularly offers the possibility of bending, however temporarily, the seemingly unbendable global order. Soccer deals in a utopian dream of difference without inequality, where the rules are the same for everybody, where nationalism, sectarianism, and class conflict are defanged even as they are emphasized. The world may measure power by political, economic, and military resources, but soccer simply measures it by the number and the quality of goals.

Cambodian monks watch a soccer match, 1999.
Cambodian monks watch a soccer match, 1999.

If soccer is a metaphor that expresses our bargain with “the forces of money and power”—and if the above are some of its well-rehearsed promises—then The Ball Is Round offers a meticulous portrait of the devil we’ve been dealing with all this time. Unsurprisingly, he has taken many different shapes, in many different places, at many different times. (We are dealing with the devil, after all.) Goldblatt’s book, a “global history” of the game, undertakes the Promethean project of depicting him in all his soccer-related guises, as he has appeared all over the world: from the colonial missionaries and administrators responsible for the game’s initial spread, to the Fascist regimes of 1930s Europe, to the military dictatorships of 1970s Latin America, to the secretive bureaucrats at fifa, to the apostles of twentieth-century corporate capitalism, among countless others. Any one of these might have provided enough material for its own volume—the book’s copious bibliography lists many of them—but what Goldblatt achieves is a remarkable work of archival synthesis that conjures a broad, vivid portrait of soccer’s ability to concentrate not only the energies of its fans but also those of the market and the state. In other words, what emerges in The Ball Is Round is a rich account of the sport that eschews the anecdotal in favor of the institutional. It is not so much a history of the sport’s athletes and teams—a chronological litany of personal triumphs and defeats—as it is of the social forces that have sustained and, at times, threatened to destroy the game. As Goldblatt writes in the book’s introduction:

Much of the sporting press would prefer us not to bring the big bad world into the game at all. Football has its history, its traditions, its turning points, but they are the work of great players, charismatic managers, unrepeatable performances, unquenchable team spirits and the serendipity of interlocking personal histories. History, yes, in the guise of heritage and urban myth, but economics, politics, never. . . . No history of football can begin to disclose its meaning or describe its course without shadowing the economic, political, and social histories of modern societies.

The book’s insistence on wedding soccer to its social and economic contexts stands as a much-needed corrective to those who deem the sport’s history to be nothing more than one of apolitical theater, of “heritage and urban myth.” On the whole, The Ball Is Round succeeds at forging relationships between the histories it chooses to shadow and the development of the sport. It makes a convincing case for Fordism’s influence on the game’s early tactical innovations, for example. During the 1920s, at Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal FC in London, “every device used by the industrialist to speed up the production of goods”—according to one football player’s biography—“could be used equally well to speed up the production of goals.” (Thus the birth of fixed and specialized positions in the sport: center backs and center forwards, fullbacks and wingers, midfielders and inside forwards.) Similarly, the book provides ample evidence for the centrality of industrialization and the standardization of the working week as precursors to the emergence of any football culture. And while soccer may offer a utopian fantasy of peaceful difference and radical equality, Goldblatt explores again and again its tendency to become a ritualistic dystopia of racial, national, and religious violence and hatred, particularly in the hands of the modern state. It is the only sport with a significant body count. (Given the scope of the book, the virtues of Goldblatt’s method can be its vice at times. In the midst of large chapters that chronicle the sport’s institutional development continent by continent, country by country, domestic league by domestic league, it can be difficult to discern the forest, so to speak, through the dense detail of its archival trees.)

But even as Goldblatt insists on accurately identifying the devil of “money and power” in his book, he also populates it with rich narratives about players and matches that remind us of why people entered—and continue to enter—into the Faustian bargain in the first place. Though he discounts it as an historical method, Goldblatt nevertheless acknowledges the enduring power of “heritage and urban myth” in the sport’s imaginative life. “Match reports” of significant encounters pepper the book, some constructed as fictional dialogues between its principal players, others as postmortem analyses of iconic victories or upsets (Ferenc Puskás, the Hungarian midfielder, literally speaks from heaven about Hungary’s shocking 42 loss to West Germany), and others as terse, lyric vignettes that have less to do with the match itself than with the way it captured a social or political climate. Thus readers encounter the likes of Matthias Sindelar, member of Austria’s celebrated Wunderteam of the 1920s, who was nicknamed Der Papierene (“the Man of Paper” or “the Wafer”) for “his ability to slip unnoticed through the tightest defences.” Coaxed out of retirement for a game against Germany three weeks before the Austrian Anschluss in March 1938—a match that German authorities insisted should “finish in a well-mannered draw”Sindelar nevertheless scored a goal and, according to legend, once the match ended in a 2–0 victory for his side, “wheel[ed] away to dance before the Nazi functionaries and their Austrian satraps in the VIP box.” It is only a game, after all. Anyone can win. And “despite the active collusion of the football elite with the institutions of money and power,” Goldblatt writes, soccer may just possess an “ingrained resistance to their logics.” Even if the devil doesn’t always keep his promises—even if he never had any intention of doing so—the game may reward us anyway.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap is the author of Sightseeing (Grove Press, 2005), a collection of short stories.