I have no idea what kind of distribution The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer is going to get outside of Canada and Ireland, where the author, John Doyle, has some kind of following. But if you’re in Canada, I suspect it’s going to be hard to go into a bookshop for the next two months without seeing this book prominently on display. Being football fans, you’re going to be tempted to buy it. So let me get the important part of this review of the way: if you do buy it, you will almost certainly be disappointed.
Who is John Doyle? He’s a likeable enough television columnist with the Globe and Mail. About a decade ago, when football was starting to gain some momentum as a spectator sport in Canada, he was tapped to do a little bit of football writing and given the altogether dreamy assignment of covering the first round of the Korea/Japan World Cup. It’s not entirely clear why he was given the job; as he himself says, he’s no sports reporter. One suspects that it’s because on a paper which was then largely clueless about the game, his Irishness seemed to give him some kind of insight into the game which the rest of Leaf Nation of Front St. lacked.
And so began Doyle’s Travels – come every major tournament since 2002, he’s been there for at least the first round, and usually through to the quarters (at which point a real sportswriter comes and replaces him). And he hasn’t been bad; he has a decent nose for the semi-operatic back-stories of major tournaments and unlike most North American writers he sees right through the England team’s hype to reveal it for the sad sack of crap it usually is.
But the question is: do you really want to read 375 pages of Doyle’s notebooks?
Because that’s what this book is. It’s a re-telling – by someone who begins the damn book by admitting he’s not a sportswriter – of every international game he’s been to since 2002. That’s about 35 games, though my eyes glazed over well before the end and I may have missed a few. A few of these were great, but most were tedious and not worth re-living. And even those that were memorable…well, the most distant of them was only eight years ago. The only thing I found even vaguely surprising in here was that Emmanuel Petit was in the France 2002 squad.
It doesn’t even work as a history of major tournaments because he keeps being sent home before the finals. Thus, in all the words about Germany 2006, we never hear about the magnificent Germany-Italy semi-final because he wasn’t there. This isn’t a history of two World Cups and two Euros; it’s a history of John Doyle’s two World Cups and two Euros. it’s a narcissist’s eye-view of the Tournaments
And oh, how we hear about his tournaments. Every plane, train and taxi ride. Every surly hotelkeeper and charming bar maid. Every half-drunken conversation with every Dutch, Swedish or Yemeni football fan across three continents. David Winner covered this territory of football-as-tourism in his Around the World in 90 Minutes, as did Giles Goodhead in Us vs. Them. There’s nothing about Doyle’s story that adds to this dubious genre.
The alleged payoff for all this is that Doyle can tell us about the “magic” of such events and how this shows the deeper meaning and wonderfulness of football. Occasionally, he is genuinely insightful – most notably when discussing the Irish fans and their rendition of The Fields of Athenry. But there’s a fair bit of dreck here, too. He invests the travelling “armies” of fans with greater cultural meaning than they probably deserve and he can’t help but indulge in some stereotypes when it comes to certain countries. Descriptions of Brazil never seem complete until he’s described their “glamorous” female TV correspondents or their “busty” female fans.
What he does a decent job of conveying is the way in which big football tournaments are a blast. People from many nations get together, drink, have fun and play and watch the best football on the planet. This is, indeed, insanely great, and he has lots of good stories and anecdotes to back this up (though, to be honest, if you’re enough of a football fan to buy this book, do you really need to be told this?). However, when he begins to describe tournaments as events in which “the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies of human nature are united”, you wonder if he hasn’t passed the line from being a profound sage to being a wanker. Later, when he compares himself to Eduardo Galeano or muses about James Joyce’s likely response to the modern phenomenon of the “Esperanto of soccer language”, and the odds start to shift heavily in favour of the latter.
But what grates most about this book is the smugness. Clearly, Doyle has a lovely time being at all these tournaments on the Globe’s dime. So good that “there is no possible way to explain and describe…these long, mad nights when there’s music in the moonlight, or those dreamy, delightful days that bracket the game” He “cannot chronicle this mad, magnificent world (he) inhabit(s), this vaudeville, this place that the gods of pleasure and play have blessed”. Or, more concisely, as he says to another Canadian sports hack, “this is the life”.
When you get to the promised land, it’s unseemly to flaunt it. Doyle, instead of having the grace to realize this, went out and got himself a publisher instead.