As I've burnt out (somewhat) on what was my full-blown youthful sports nutdom, trying to put a little distance between myself and the 24-7 coverage of the endless American sports calendar, international soccer has seemed to me like a breath of fresh air, a secret transmission that, until cable and the internet brought the Premiership and Serie A into immediate electronic reach, you could only access via 2 am viewings at English pubs and imported magazines. The irony, of course, is that for the rest of the world soccer, or rather football, _is_ the ever-hyped, multi-zillion-dollar story, and these secret heroes who would only surface on our screens every four years at World Cup time, the Ballacks and Henrys and Kluiverts and Batistutas, were household names to billions. But even now, with Beckham playing (or least being paid) in L.A. and the Fox Soccer Channel piped into my very own home, reading about soccer still feels like samizdat, like underground knowledge.
Which is why I immediately grabbed David Goldblatt's The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, and carved out enough time to read it, 992 pages and all. What I was hoping for was the vast backstory that I, steeped in no soccer culture beyond seeing Pele and the New York Cosmos play the Washington "Dips" in 1975 and playing years of youth soccer like every other suburban kid, had never gotten. But I got that and much more from The Ball Is Round, which is a global history as much as a soccer history, giving as much attention to the politics and culture surrounding the game as to the matches on the pitch (without ignoring those either), and teaching me, I'm embarrassed to admit, more about South American politics in the 20th century than I've ever picked up from any other source. With its style, its vastly informed ambition, and its balance between the political and the poetic, it's every bit the equivalent of Alex Ross's recent brainiac survey of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise. And like The Rest Is Noise, it sent me to the 'net for examples of the artists that its pages evoked so well (for example, Brazil's tragic star from the 50s, Garrincha, or this half-field shot from Pele I couldn't believe until I had seen it for myself--at 0:24, but try not to watch the next 8 minutes too, especially the glorious last goal, at 6:50). I asked David Goldblatt, its well-traveled author, a few questions about his book (which was, of course, subtitled A Global History of Football in its original UK version):
Amazon.com: There's a sentence in the middle of The Ball Is Round that to me
sums up a great deal of the culture of football. After noting that Pelé
had scored nearly a goal a game in over 1,300 professional matches--the
sort of stat that would be on every page in a history of one of the
major American sports but that is very rare in this one--you write,
"This of course tells us nothing about all the goals he made." What
stories do football fans tell about their sport and their stars?
Goldblatt: Well, in America not only would you be banging on about Pele's goal to
game ratio but you would have been collecting statistics in a rational
organized manner about his assists--a concept that had only entered
soccer statistics in the last few years. The state of Brazilian
football statistics during Pelé's career would not pass muster in
Cooperstown in can tell you. Bill James would have a nervous breakdown
with hopeless state of the data base. Soccer fans tell a lot the same
stories that Americans tell themselves, sagas, epics, heroic tasks,
near misses, dramatic comebacks, tales of curious individualists and
unshakeable teams, but they are told in a the idioms, genres,
vocabulary, and head space of hundreds of different cultures.
Amazon.com: I have to ask the inevitable question: why hasn't football--rather,
soccer--ever taken hold in the United States (despite generations now
who grow up playing it)? (And does the rest of the world care if it
ever does?) I was fascinated by your comment in the American foreword
that you recovered from finishing the book by ignoring soccer for half
a year and only watching American sports. What did you notice?
Goldblatt: Contrary to the received wisdom I would say that soccer has taken
hold in the US, if we look at participation figures amongst women and
the young, and while MLS isn't about to challenge the premiership or
Serie A for money or glamour it looks like it is now established on a
firm footing. If the game can just tap into the rising Latino
communities of America it could be pushing hockey for fourth sport.
That said it would still be just number 4. Baseball, football, and
basketball have now had over a century's head start on soccer and
between them created a wider sports culture--of expectations, tastes,
and pleasures--that I think sometimes finds soccer incomprehensible (
what's with the draws?) or distasteful (all that diving). Soccer had
its chance in the USA in the 1920s and 30s when East Coast professional
leagues were drawing big crowds but a combination of bureaucratic
infighting, the Wall Street crash, and the lingering ethnic
associations of the game killed it for two generations.