Capturing the essence of soccer through one man’s perspective

This is the last of the three new blog entries, and this post is my most recent work.

I’m a major soccer enthusiast and Toronto FC fan (I’ve been pondering having some TFC-related content on this blog actually), and I find books about soccer really interesting. So when I needed to do a book report for Writer’s Craft, I immediately thought of The World Is a Ball by Globe and Mail writer John Doyle. I know from personal experience that he’s a pretty polarizing figure in his TV columns (I know some people who love him and some who hate him) but I thought this book was really impressive. I highly recommend it, as I say in the review.

Anyway, here’s the book review itself, with a totally 100% factual biography of myself at the end. Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to comment on my blog posts. I look forward to any and all feedback!

“[The ball] represents Mother Earth, and when the players stroke, caress and kick it, they are like gods, tossing the earth around.”

This line from the introduction of The World Is a Ball sets the tone for the rest of the book, a compelling personal take on international soccer written by John Doyle. Throughout this 300-page-plus memoir, Doyle documents his experience travelling around the world to cover soccer games, making comparisons between the sport and life, as well as interacting with fans watching the game alongside him.

Doyle is a TV journalist by trade and has been the Globe and Mail’s regular television columnist since 2000. After publishing a column about watching the Republic of Ireland national soccer team play on a pub’s TV, Doyle was invited by the Globe to help them in their coverage of the 2002 World Cup. Though television remains his niche to this day, he has continued covering soccer all over the world.

The author constantly reminds us throughout the book’s introduction that he is not a sports journalist. He explains that he is “pathologically incapable of writing the traditional report on the game” and instead concentrates on the atmosphere of the stadium, the buzz of the fans, and the parties in the host country’s streets during major international tournaments. He talks about everything from his travels between cities and stadiums to his experience in World Cup media to his interactions with locals, supporters, and even fellow journalists. This makes for a much more lively and entertaining read.

The World Is a Ball is divided into three parts, with an appendix at the end.

In the first, Doyle explains how he first got into soccer and how his vision of the sport was shaped. As a boy growing up in Ireland in the late sixties and seventies, he often spent his time travelling to see local semi-professional games around Dublin and began admiring this level of play. This explains why he seems to see the game in such a pure, almost innocent way, a view which frequently comes across during the many match descriptions which appear throughout the book.

In the second part, which accounts for around half of the book, Doyle chronicles his experience documenting two World Cups and two European Championships, from 2002 to 2008. The games themselves, however, do not take centre stage. This is where Doyle documents his personal experience visiting international soccer competitions as a spectator, a tourist, and a journalist. This is where Doyle concentrates on the fans and showcases international tournaments as gathering places for the nations and cultures of the world. This is what The World Is a Ball is centered around.

In the third part, Doyle travels around the world to cover qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup. The writing style and structure stays the same here, with Doyle still bringing out the atmosphere of international soccer games, and concluding, in a brilliant last few paragraphs of prose, that the game, like life, “brings joy, [then] breaks your heart.”

Unfortunately, the newest edition follows that with the appendix, a short recap from Doyle of the 2010 World Cup, which turns out to be the weakest part of the book. It was written from Toronto instead of on location in South Africa, which makes it lose the charm present in the other tournaments. More importantly, Doyle doesn’t have much time to muse about the games and talk about the fans; instead, he can only write short reports for the games, something he doesn’t do in the rest of the book. Because Doyle is not writing in his preferred style, this chapter is nowhere near the quality of the rest of the book.

However, The World is a Ball is still an excellent piece of sports writing. Doyle’s informal, humorous writing style makes for a light, thoroughly enjoyable read and his willingness to argue and prove his point always keeps things interesting.

There are lots of funny passages (many of which are unpublishable here) which keep things from getting tedious. Some are provided by Doyle, and others provided by the memorable characters he meets, such as a cranky German hotel manager and a female soccer player who works as a bartender.

An important aspect of the book, as part of the sports writing genre, is Doyle’s ability to connect soccer to broader subjects. He draws links between the game and the fans, between the tournament and the countries’ respective situations, between soccer and life in general. For example, the comparison between the soccer ball and the globe, which gives the book its title, is a common motif throughout and it reinforces Doyle’s view of soccer as a highly symbolic game. Although some of the comparisons seem forced, such as Senegal’s win against France being perceived by Doyle as a victory for the former colony against the former colonists, many are very true, and at times even quite powerful.

Since The World Is a Ball is more about the atmosphere than the games, it is recommendable to anyone thanks to how easy it is to follow. However, soccer enthusiasts will also enjoy this book as they get to re-live past tournaments, games and memories. Doyle gives the sport a truly beautiful, poetic feel, a style which will appeal to all readers, and his presentation of international competitions as celebrations is admirable. The World Is a Ball is a captivating and vastly entertaining read.

David Milroy has been covering Toronto FC and international soccer for the Globe and Mail since 2011. He has also written the best-selling travel book The Complete Guide to Miami International Airport, which the New York Times called “definitely one of the 50 best books about airports ever written.”

NOTE: In case you’re still wondering, my little biography at the end IS NOT actually real. The Complete Guide to Miami Int’l Airport doesn’t exist…yet.

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About davidamilroy

I am a current Toronto high school student with writing and journalism aspirations. This blog is where I will be posting some of my work!

Posted on April 24, 2012, in Writer's Craft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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