The Ball Is Round

At the writing, there are 208 member nations in FIFA.  The United Nations, by comparison, have only 192.  That is how prolific football has become after roughly 120 years as an organised sport.  Almost ten percent of societies on Moreover, it has played a significant role in the rise and fall of many governments, the decline of the British Empire and even, for a brief moment, seduced the notoriously insular sporting consciousness of the American public.  For one man, then, to attempt to compile a comprehensive history of the beautiful game is a daunting challenge.  In ‘The Ball Is Round’, David Goldblatt has answered that challenge admirably.

After providing a foreword that eloquently separates the British version of football from the many similar games in far older cultures, establishing it as the origin of the modern game, Goldblatt asks how the game has become such an intrinsic part of society virtually the world over.  The pages which follow detail the methods, if not the reason, uncovering the game’s ties to the economic, political, cultural and religious sensibilities of people in all corners of the globe.

Yet Goldblatt’s account of the game is rarely celebratory.  For the most part, it’s a cautionary tale, riddled with negligent and corrupt officials, opportunistic politicians and violent, often racist fans.  It’s a challenge to make it through the 900+ pages and still maintain one’s belief that the game is worthy of its place at the centre of the world’s sporting consciousness.

To be fair, Goldblatt does try to present a balanced view.  He does wax poetic with regard to some of the magical moments on the pitch and recalls many of the writers and publications which first brought the game to the masses, before the spread of the electronic media and after.  One of the rare nuggets that I most enjoyed, having many times over heard the goal call of Andres Cantor, was the tale of Rebelo Junior, the broadcaster who first let loose with the elongated, lung-emptying call of Goooooaaaaaaaaalllllll! which has become the standard in all Latin countries.  Sadly, however, for every nostalgic memory that Goldblatt relates, there is at least one example each of fraud, propaganda, embezzlement, greed and plain old stupidity.

From its inauspicious beginnings, when it took English boarding schools over a decade to agree on a uniform code for the game – in the end, the best they could manage was a set of rules for association football and two for rugby – football was in trouble.  The British Empire would spread the game to the rest of the world but what little cultural interaction derived from that invariably ceased when the conquered began to get the better of their conquerors.  Closer to home, the FA would distance itself from FIFA during its formation and in the inter-war years.  As a result, England would not be involved in a World Cup until 1950, where their debut was defined by a 0-1 defeat to the US.

Despite their insularity having set the evolution of their game well behind Europe and South America, England would continue to ostracise innovative coaches and believe that their own legacy as founders afforded the Home nations privilege and consideration that others were earning through competition.  When the UK at last embraced FIFA fully, the antediluvian policies of Sir Stanley Rous only served to widen the gap and, worse, set João Havelange loose upon the world.

David Goldblatt, his coif befitting the author of the often dreadful history of the game.

The best thing that can be said about Havelange is that he was the ultimate proof that the British were not alone in shaping the game to best serve their interests.  It’s true that he shaped much of the game as we now know it, assigning youth competitions to nations incapable of hosting the World Cup, developing the television market and bringing the big tournament Mexico and the US.  Unfortunately, all of those things were done to consolidate his political power and line his pockets.  It must also be remembered that his last gift to football fans was to leave the game in the hands of Joseph S. Blatter.

The parade of incompetence and graft wasn’t limited to FIFA, however.  It has existed on every level, on every continent, and in every government, be it monarchy, theocracy, democracy, socialist state or dictatorship.  In virtually every society, the supporters have proven to be deserving of whatever they get, as well.  Hooligans have far outnumbered the carnies and violence and racism are still prevalent within the game.

In the three or four months I spent reading The Ball Is Round (reserving it for the waiting room at my physio), Serbians rioted against their own players in Italy, forcing a halt to the Euro qualifier, Neapolitan fans stabbed Liverpool fans in the Europa League, Birmingham and Aston Villa fans clashed at St. Andrews and, most recently, Corinthians fans attacked their clubs practice facilities, spraying graffiti on the outer walls and vandalising players’ cars, most notably the two legends at the club,  after their side was upset in the qualifying rounds of the Copa Libertadores.

The fallout of the last was that one of my favourite players, Ronaldo, called it a career, too gracious to reveal the hurt caused by the betrayal of supporters he had given his all for, citing instead the physical pain from balky knees and a bad back as his reasons for packing it in.  His long-time teammate with the national team, reunited at the Paulista club, Roberto Carlos, preferred honesty to courtesy.  Having quickly secured a move to Anzhi, in Russia, he blamed the fans behaviour for both departures.  Ironically, Roberto Carlos had not even played in the defeat, ruled out through injury.  For my part, I only wish he hadn’t gone so far to find another club.  I would have loved the opportunity to see him play in MLS.

Still, Roberto Carlos’ free kick against France in 1997, that viciously bending howitzer from thirty-five metres that Fabian Barthez could only watch carom in off the post, reminds me why I continue to love the beautiful game.  It is because the beauty does not come from the administrators, the exploiters or the rabid fans blindly confusing hatred and ill will for passion and loyalty.

I have come to realise that football is not so much a game as an art, which is why so many managers and pundits talk about players expressing themselves.  The pitch is the canvas, the ball the brush and their movements, sometimes individually and sometimes in unison, the paint.  The beauty in football comes from the artists who practice it; from the Roberto Carlos and David Beckhams, who can turn and twist the ball past defenders and keepers, to the Messis and Maradonas who can weave their way through a phalanx of opponents and leave the keeper flailing, to the Ronaldhinos who can juggle the ball and balance it on any part of their body, to the Beckenbauers, Valderramas and Zidanes, who can see into the immediate future on the pitch and make the perfect pass to unlock a defence.

Like any artists, they would not be able to work without patrons.   Whether they be administrators, chairman or agents, they are all necessary evils in bringing the artist and the audience together.  Should you take the game away, you would not be rid of them; they’d just find something else to exploit.  They do need to be kept in check, however, as much as that is possible.  If, then, The Ball Is Round provides the reader with a better insight into the characteristics, motives and language of the exploiters, enabling one to better see through the lies, as it does, then, discouraging or not, it is worth the read.

The Ball Is Round

David Goldblatt, 2006

From £10.70 @Amazon.co.uk

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