Monday, 4 December 2006

The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football

The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football
By David Goldblatt

THIS BOOK IS A monster: a 978-page, gloriously fat, thorough-going account of the history of association football, the world game. Beginning with the deep prehistory of football, David Goldblatt takes us on his 320,000-word journey through the developmental stages of the game as its tentacles spread relentlessly around the globe.

Football, in this account, is a product of industrialisation, global commerce and professionalism. It is the game of modernity. As regions and nations around the globe enter periods of modernisation, football seems most often to be the game that comes knocking, usually without competition from other sports.

For Goldblatt, the game's many imperial successes result from a potent brew. Its origins lie in the "rationalising thrust of Victorian society" that intensifies the desire of the English and Scottish middle classes to create a codified form of football out of a rowdy and disruptive pre-modern form of folk culture.

The game spreads outward via patterns of "industrial globalisation" that take the game to parts of the world that adopt football with ease and make it their own. Once transported, football is able to generate such immediate and near universal interest because of its simple adaptability and its inclusive emphasis on grace and fluidity over exclusive brawn and brutality.

The final key to the game's success is that no other "game embraces both the chaos and uncertainty and the spontaneity and reactivity of play like football". Goldblatt adds grimly, "at no moment in our history has humanity faced a world so threatened by the former and been so in need of the latter". Football, the beautiful and joyous game of risk, injustice and tragedy, is the game of and for our epoch.

These many histories of football are presented by Goldblatt with the aid of a sociological mirror. The waning of English and Scottish influence in Latin American football reflects the decline of the "de facto" British economic empire. The history of Spanish football is utterly embedded in Spanish politics; or is it the other way around? When France wins the World Cup in 1998 it's also a victory for French multiculturalism; its miserable run in the early 2000s parallels the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the racist right. It is never quite clear whether Goldblatt sees political, social and economic change as harbinger or product of events in the football world. He probably sees the relationships as dialectical, given his subtle but not infrequent Marxist reference points.

He shows that for all the economic hype around the game it's still a relatively small player in the global economy. Economic decisions in football are never really earth-shattering. Where football leads and directs history is at the levels of collective emotion and spirit, though Goldblatt might baulk at these terms.

Goldblatt's narrative is one that in hindsight seems so inevitable. He tracks the conquests as one might observe falling dominoes. Rather tantalising, then, is the suggestion that football's hegemony in Britain was determined by its better handling of the pressures of encroaching professionalism than rugby (which split into amateur and professional codes, thereby losing its unity and influence). Had rugby taken the same path as football the domino tracks of global sport today would make a very different pattern. Of course, some of the dominoes failed to fall, especially in the English-speaking world - though history has not had its final word on this.

The reasons association football fails to take hold fully in Ireland, the United States, Australia and New Zealand revolve around such matters as: the formation of colonial national identity as a rejection of the imperial centre and its cultural practices; association football's unavailability in codified form when the need or desire for regulated sporting competition is emerging in the colonies; and sheer serendipity.

For example, the All Blacks' 1905 successes against British rugby teams were vital in bolstering that code's already rising fortunes in New Zealand. By comparison, the New Zealand and Australian association football teams had to wait until the mid-1920s before they had the honour of being pummelled by a visiting English team. For all the much-vaunted Aussie and Kiwi fighting spirit we nonetheless turn our backs on our failures as readily as anyone else. It's a matter of record that association football has struggled to gain a strong foothold in Australia until very recently. Yet I write this review after having recently been a part of a crowd of 50,000 at Telstra Dome watching a domestic Australian match and having spent a year boggling at the unprecedented feats of the Socceroos.

For anyone trying to understand this phenomenon, The Ball is Round is an ideal place to start, even though it is wafer thin on Australian football history. As a global history it is ultimately a collection of stories about locality. Through his grand temporal and geographic sweep, Goldblatt builds story upon story, mapping patterns of growth, decay and regrowth that pulse to the beat of the history of modernity, adding local variations to the rhythm as he finds them. It's a framework that invites and accommodates further local comparisons.

The key to Australia's recent football history lies in Goldblatt's notion that the game enters a new era as the globalised economy heats up. Post-industrial football, with its global television deals, mega-rich players, corporate branding, architecturally sculptured all-seater stadiums and cashed-up "theatregoing" audiences, has fundamentally rewritten the guidelines for success.

The old modern industrial football was always a joint enterprise between the working-class masses who supported the game and the businessmen who obtained power, influence and cachet (but rarely capital) by owning and running football clubs. The loyalties of the majority of the Australian working class, having been captured by Australian rules or rugby league, were largely lost to association football in this country.

However, post-industrial football doesn't need the working-class masses, it needs customers. It doesn't need grassroots, it needs cable connections (apologies to Ken Wark) and the apparatuses of the post-industrial corporation. One beauty of The Ball is Round is that it gives the reader models for understanding the reasons association football can suddenly seem to bloom in Australia without ever broaching the topic directly.

Goldblatt also enables us to understand what football fans in Australia might be losing even as our game slides into the mainstream because he feels deeply the ebbs and flows of the global game.

But this is a book with many attractions. In the end it is simply magnificent; an exhaustive and exhausting, well-written and beautifully packaged story of the most popular game in the world, written by a man whose knowledge and research is encyclopedic if not maniacally obsessive. It is an absolute must for fan and aficionado alike.

Reviewed by Ian Syson

This review first appeared in the Age

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