by Roger Burns

In the United States sports occupy a prominent place in our culture. From Little League baseball to college basketball to the NFL, we spend a lot of time playing games, watching them, and talking about them. We are not the only nation that invests a great deal of time, emotion, and money into sports. What sets us apart from the majority of the planet is which sports we tend to prioritize. In America, football is king, followed by basketball, baseball and hockey. A distant fifth is the game that dominates the sports landscape around the globe—soccer.  

Helping Americans understand how soccer became the global game of choice is the motivation behind David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round. This is not a fan account of soccer, though Goldblatt’s love of the game is on display throughout the book. Rather, it is a complicated picture of the way that soccer has influenced and been influenced by class, race, power, politics, colonialism, and money over the last two hundred years. Some of these trends will be familiar to an American reader, as they parallel forces that have shaped our own sporting culture. Others are unique to the locations where soccer developed deep and lasting roots.

Goldblatt traces the origins of modern soccer to Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Various games involving round balls had existed for over a hundred years, but by the early 1800s they begin to be ignored by the aristocracy and banned by those who saw them as unnecessary distractions for the lower classes. Yet, some form of the game managed to survive. It would be reinvented in elite public schools before eventually being transformed when taken up by middle and working class players. It took several decades but a common set of rules for soccer began to emerge in the latter part of the 19th century.  

Soccer’s transmission around the world came through the feet of British diplomats and sailors, Scottish laborers, missionaries and teachers, as well as international students who had studied in England and returned to their homelands. Goldblatt focuses on the countries where the game took root (the nations of Europe, South America, and Africa) and traces the ways in which global politics facilitated its growth. Some nations took to the game quickly out of admiration for British culture. Others, like Germany, initially rejected soccer precisely because it came from England and promoted sports that were more closely linked with Germanic culture, only to eventually adopt and excel at the game.

Colonization paved the way for the game in Latin America and Africa, but why it was accepted and the importance placed on soccer varied.  Like their European counterparts, some societies embraced soccer because of the great significance attached anything British. Many more adopted soccer because they saw success in this game as a way to make a statement about colonialism. To beat the English at their own game became a powerful way to announce to the world that these would-be nations were capable of controlling their own affairs.

Goldblatt explores why the game was not accepted in every part of the world. In India, the game was rejected by Brahmins because they refused to touch a leather ball. Australia’s nationalistic pride led to the creation of and preference for Australian Rules Football. The former British colonies in North America also went their own way with ice hockey in Canada and baseball and football in the United States. Caribbean nations with close ties to America preferred baseball. Some of these countries would eventually elevate the importance of soccer in their sports culture, but almost all remain secondary soccer powers on the world stage.

The global game became truly global in the 20th century with the advent of television. It is here that Goldblatt’s love for the game itself, and his disappointment in what it has become, shines through. Soccer has become another commodity. Clubs are brands, players media stars, and corporate sponsors spend lavish sums to control when and how matches are played. In the process, the game has lost something of its soul. Ironically, at the very moment it dominates the sporting landscape in most of the world, the soccer universe has shrunk. A handful of European leagues and teams get most of the media attention and money, and they are able to siphon off the best players from around the world.  

The Ball is Round is not without its shortcomings, including far too few pages devoted to women in soccer. It is, however, an exceptional attempt to translate for Americans the importance of a game that matters a great deal in most of the world.