The Ball Is Round

David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round is much more than a history of soccer. Rather, it is an epic depiction of how soccer developed within the political and social history of different countries and societies around the world for the last 150 years. Goldblatt’s broad historical scope is deliberately opposed to a narrow focus on sports alone, such as that exemplified by the 361 notebooks of legendary German national team coach Josef “Sepp” Herberger that never mention anything but soccer, even though they cover the momentous years of World War II. Ironically, it is Herberger’s famous quip about the basic fact of soccer that Goldblatt chose as title for his sweeping historical work.

Since The Ball Is Round was published first in the United Kingdom in 2006, Goldblatt added a foreword to his American edition of 2008. Here, the author alerts his readers that, except for the subtitle and this foreword, he did not substitute the term soccer for a game known outside the United States as football. For the next nine hundred pages, American readers must remind themselves that football in Goldblatt’s book does not mean the American version of the game. The American edition is virtually identical to the first English one, ending just prior to the 2006 World Cup in Germany without an update.

Throughout The Ball Is Round, Goldblatt’s central thesis is that there is a strong correlation between a nation’s social and political conditions and its sports, particularly its soccer games. For this reason, Goldblatt places the birth of soccer in the modern period in Great Britain, when social and economic forces favored team sports and discipline. While briefly describing other forms of people playing with balls, such as China’s cuju or kickball popular from about 200 b.c.e. to its extinction in 1644, Goldblatt dismisses as “utterly vacuous” the claim that football is as old as human history. This claim was made by Sepp Blatter, president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) since 1998, whom at the end of the book Goldblatt charges with gross mismanagement.

Instead, Goldblatt convincingly shows that modern football developed in the early to middle 1800’s when the game became popular in English public schools. Eventually, schools wrote down their rules, and when graduates from different schools wanted to play against each other, they had to agree on shared rules. In November, 1863, the Football Association (FA) was founded in London and published rules that would lay the foundation for the development of association football, called soccer in the United States and known as football everywhere else. Goldblatt maps out the ensuing development of the referee system, the play for the first FA Cup won by the Wanderers 1-0 in 1871, and the formation of an English league in 1888.

Tantalizing the reader, Goldblatt mentions the first international soccer match, England versus Scotland in 1872, but does not give its score. Maybe this demonstrates that The Ball Is Round is more interested in soccer’s connection to society rather than mere scores and statistics. Throughout, Goldblatt inserts whimsical descriptions of some historical matches but gives no tables or lists.

Always, Goldblatt strongly ties his narrative to the development of the societies in which soccer is played. As to the nature of this relationship, Goldblatt writes that in the late 1800’s, “industrialization underpinned the emergence of British working-class football in a number of direct and material ways.” He thus chooses the term “industrial football” to characterize the game in England and Scotland before World War I. “Early-twentieth-century industrialization would spawn the same connections in much of Europe and Latin America,” to where the focus of the book shifts.

Here, Goldblatt shows the apparent irony that soccer failed to catch on in the countries of the British Empire and its former colony, the United States. Instead, the game made great progress wherever contact with England was more casual. In Europe, soccer became the sport of the liberal Anglophile elite before encompassing the working classes. In Latin America, contact with British sailors and expatriates popularized the game. In 1867, the FA rules were published in Buenos Aires, and a Spanish translation appeared there in 1903 as the sport spread to the working class and the recent European immigrants.

Contemplating the early success of soccer in Europe and Latin America, Goldblatt adds to the sociological explanations a deeply felt emotional one, stating that “people...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)