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The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer

by John Doyle

The literature of soccer is extensive. From the lyrical whimsy of Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow to the thorough social history of David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round to the ardent fanaticism of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the beautiful game has been covered from every angle. In The World Is a Ball, Globe and Mail television (and sometimes soccer) columnist John Doyle steps into the long shadow of those earlier books to offer up his take on the world’s most popular sport and the culture that surrounds it.

The World Is a Ball loosely follows the model of Fever Pitch. It begins with Doyle’s boyhood discovery of soccer in Ireland and continues, after his move to Canada, with his rabid fandom and his travels to cover the world’s biggest tournaments over the last decade. Because Doyle’s main gig is not sports writing – a distinction that he insists on making several times in this book – his reports focus less on the game itself than on the culture of travelling supporters, the efficiency of stadium security, and the nature of big-event media.

Unfortunately for dedicated soccer fans, there isn’t much new in The World Is a Ball. Stipulating that the English are overrated, Dutch fans are legion, the Italian style is boring to watch, and African teams are thrilling underdogs doesn’t break any new ground. However, general readers will enjoy Doyle’s gonzo travelogue. The catalogue of the author’s sleepless nights, language difficulties, and trials as a foreign correspondent makes for compelling reading.

Although Doyle duly reports the match results and heralds the star players at each tournament he attends, by the time the final rounds are played, the match descriptions have been reduced to brief asides, as if the results are less important than the journey that leads to them.

For general readers, this is a good thing. For hardcore fans, however, the game’s drift to the sidelines is a disappointment.