Monday, July 26, 2010

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: The World Is A Ball by John Doyle

The Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport book review series is back! Leave your own thoughts on the book in the comments below, or get in touch with me at if you have suggestions for other books for me to review!

The World Cup is over, but soccer rolls on. North American soccer is in full swing, and things are looking good for Canadian teams at the moment, with Toronto FC finding success in MLS and Vancouver and Montreal both having solid USSF Division II campaigns. There have been plenty of interesting international friendlies, including the Kansas City Wizards' surprising win over Manchester United [The Telegraph] yesterday, and the English Premier League's set to kick off in just a few short weeks.

With soccer, and particularly with major international competitions, it's important to remember that it's about much more than just the results. Sure, we'll remember Spain's victory down the road, but we'll also remember individual moments such as Bastian Schweinsteiger's run through the Argentina team, Luis Suarez's memorable handball against Ghana, Robert Green's "Hand Of Clod" moment in England's opener against the U.S., the French team's mutiny falling out with Raymond Domenech. and Maicon's incredible goal from an impossible angle against North Korea:

Soccer's story goes beyond the field of play as well, though, and that's much of the focus of John Doyle's superlative book, The World Is A Ball. Doyle is an arts columnist for The Globe and Mail, focusing on television, but he's also written about soccer for them for much of the last decade. The book is primarily a chronicle of Doyle's adventures covering the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the 2004 and 2008 European Championships, but it's a particularly good read because Doyle doesn't limit himself to the on-pitch action. He discusses the atmosphere in each host country, the various fans he encountered and the struggles he ran into with hotels and transportation. The differences between countries and how they embrace the tournament are particularly notable, especially in Doyle's account of the jointly-hosted 2002
World Cup, where the South Koreans got wrapped up in the tournament's excitement while the Japanese quietly waited for it to go away. Dutch, English, Italian and Brazilian fans all are featured prominently, and Doyle's writing gives us a great sense of how the beautiful game is seen so differently by each culture.

Doyle's tales of the various games also remain highly interesting even years after the fact, and I'd imagine part of that is because of scarcity. The scarcity of goals in soccer as compared to other sports tends to make many of the goals memorable, even those that lack aesthetic quality on their own. For me at least, it's far easier
to remember the notable moment of a 1-0 soccer game years after the fact than the crucial goal in a 5-4 hockey game, the most important play in a 28-21 football game or the key shot in a 102-100 basketball game. Those sports have their transcendent and memorable moments too, but not as many.

Scarcity also comes into play on the tournament level. Doyle's book covers almost a decade of soccer, but only four major tournaments (and the leadup to a fifth, this year's World Cup). With big tournaments only rolling around every two years, and the largest in the World Cup only coming every four years, each tournament becomes a massive experience in and of itself. Reading Doyle's book, I vividly remembered where I was for each tournament and for most of the individual games and goals as well. That's not the case for the NHL, MLB, NBA or NFL playoffs; each interest me while they're on, but only a few specific plays, games and even championships really stand out looking back. I think FIFA's been wise to keep their big tournaments so staggered; the qualification process is always intense and thorough, and there's always club soccer, so it's not like the sport stagnates in between big events, but around major tournaments, the interest rises to a fever pitch no other sport can match. That's a large part of what makes this book so compelling; it's not just a bland retelling of what happened, but rather a grand narrative looking at momentous events through prisms of culture, fandom and nationality.

Two sections of the book really stood out for me. The first is right near the beginning, where Doyle gets into the Mick McCarthy - Roy Keane feud that was such a big story at the 2002 World Cup. Doyle's Irish heritage and his journalistic background gives him a unique perspective on the issue, as he approaches it both from the standpoint of an Irish fan and from the position of a journalist who can see both sides. The second comes close to the end, where Doyle goes to Argentina to watch the team attempt to qualify under Diego Maradona. The stories he tells there are fascinating, and provide a lot of insight into Maradona's actions at this year's World Cup.

One minor quibble I have with Doyle's book is his tendency to complain about England. He's quite right that they're often overrated by many fans, commentators and pundits, but I think he goes too far the other way and passes them off as just another run-of-the-mill side. England had some tremendous players this decade, and they made the quarterfinals in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and Euro 2004.That's not great considering their talent, but it's certainly not bad either.

Apart from that, though, The World Is A Ball is a fascinating read. Reliving the tournaments and games is a lot of fun, but what really makes the book stand out is its accounts of visiting fans and the differing local cultures in each country. Doyle goes beyond the typical stereotypes to present detailed pictures such as the non-hooligan English supporters, the distinctions between former West German and East German cities, and how Switzerland and Austria handled Euro 2008 very differently. It's these vignettes that give the book its power and help it truly describe how a round world revolves around a simple game.


  1. Nice review!

    Have you given Soccernomics a spin yet? I'm not a huge soccer fan, but I liked the book.

  2. No, but I've heard good things! I'll have to check it out.