John Doyle’s book The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness, and the Meaning of Soccer is an account of one man’s travels around the world following soccer. The journey begins in 2002 and takes readers through European qualifying and World Cup matches. Doyle not only gives a recap of the contests, but he also puts the reader in the stadium to experience the emotion and pageantry that goes along with international soccer. In this interview, Doyle, who also writes for The Globe and Mail, discusses the book, his travels around the world, and soccer.
Matt Hackenmiller (MH): First off, how did you come up with the idea to write a book like this?
John Doyle (JD): Well, I wanted to be interviewed and talked about on EPL Talk, for a start. Seriously now, my first book, A Great Feast of Light, was very well received in Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. (It is less well known in the U.S. because the U.S. publisher was bought out by another company a few weeks after publication, and the book kind of got lost in the takeover.) When it came time to think of a second book, writing a book about soccer was the obvious decision – I’d been writing about the game for years. I’d covered two World Cups and one Euro tournament then and I’d become addicted and even more passionate, I guess. I wanted to explore it further, travel more to see more games in more countries. I also wanted to write a book about soccer both for the fans and for the non-addict, for people who are curious about the tournaments and what they mean.
MH: In your book, The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness, and the Meaning of Soccer, you do a wonderful job of putting the reader in the stadiums you visited. What is your most memorable moment amongst your soccer travels?
JD: Thanks for the compliment, Matt. I worked long and hard to try for the you-are-there descriptions. It’s impossible to pick a single moment, there are so many remarkable sights and astonishing games described in the book, I hope. A major and unforgettable highlight, though, was being in Korea during the 2002 World Cup, when South Korea had an astonishing and well-deserved run to the semi-finals. The whole country – every man, woman and child – was living, breathing soccer every hour of every day. In the book I describe Korean fans weeping after a game. Korea had won, so it wasn’t weeping in anguish. They were just so exhausted, traumatized by the tension, exhilarated by the win that they were weeping with joy, their bodies shaking. It was a sort of mass lunacy, and it was fabulous. A game I will never forget is Portugal defeating England at Euro 2004 in Lisbon. It was a tense dramatic game and Portugal won on penalties when the keeper Ricardo saved from Darius Vassell and then scored the winner himself. Fairytale stuff. It was one of those times when the game was terrific but the atmosphere afterwards was utterly amazing. In Portugal there had been great unease about the massive English army of supporters. Nothing bad happened but there was this great relief that England and the fans were going home. In the book I describe seeing an elderly Portuguese lady on a balcony, banging a cooking pot with her hand and shouting at the English fans, “Goodbye, goodbye. See you next time.” Soon, Lisbon just went crazy – the host country was fully expecting to win the tournament after beating England. That didn’t happen and me, I was sorry to see England leave.
MH: Was there a particular instance when you found yourself saying to yourself, “I can’t believe I am getting paid to do this?”
JD: Watching Spain play at Euro 2008 was like that. All tournaments are a lot of work and the pressure to write constantly and keep moving from game to game is exhausting. But seeing Spain play at that tournament was pure pleasure, it was watching a truly magnificent soccer team reaching the highest level of skill, and then do it with panache. There was a breathtaking beauty to it and every time they took the field it felt like an honor to be present.
MH: You describe in the book that children in Brazil are taught that the soccer ball represents the earth. Can you explain that philosophy in a little more detail?
JD: There are many so myths and legends about the approach to the game in Brazil. Perhaps what I’ve been told is another myth. I only know that a writer from Brazil gave me a long lecture one night in Berlin, during World Cup 2006. He said that young players in Brazil are told that the ball is the world – it is mother earth spinning around in the cosmos. Because the ball represents humanity’s home and life itself, it should be treated with respect. It should be loved, caressed and adored. This, he said, is why Brazilians play the ball with love. They don’t kick it, they celebrate it. That’s what was explained to me. And there is a kind intuitive logic to this, obviously. The way Brazil plays is a sort of magic realism of the soccer world and, even if the story isn’t true, it is very beautiful.
MH: You write about your upbringing in Ireland, when soccer wasn’t all that popular. How difficult was it to follow the game as a child and how did you remain interested in it?
JD: That’s a part of the book that astonishes some people. And it makes The World is a Ball a kind of love story, according to some of the reviews. When I was a child in Ireland in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, soccer was English and foreign. It had a big following in some areas and was despised in a lot of rural areas. The Gaelic games mattered more than soccer. In some towns it was heresy to play or support soccer. The priests and the schoolteachers would denounce you. But the fact that it was forbidden made it delicious. I loved the game and because it was it almost a subversive act to play it, the passion for it became even more intense. It wasn’t difficult to follow it – I was a boy on a mission.
MH: Do you feel that you look at the game of soccer differently now than before, covering so many live events?
JD: The only difference is that I understand more fully that some games have to be experienced live in order to be fully understood. TV doesn’t show you everything. There are games that are incomprehensible if you only see them on TV. In the stadium the rhythm is different, the strengths and failings are naked in front of you. In the book I write about the second-round World Cup game between Portugal and the Netherlands in Germany in 2006. It was a game that looked chaotic and disgraceful on TV. The referee essentially lost control. There were numerous yellow cards and four reds. In the stadium, it was absolutely riveting to see these players’ discipline disintegrate in their loathing for each other and their contempt for the referee. The hooligans were on the field and the bemused observers were in the stands. On TV it just looked crazy. It the stadium it was brilliant theatre.
MH: In one of my favorite lines in the book you write, “The soccer field is a liminal space and the ninety minutes of the game form a twilight time in which limits can be transcended.” At what point did you make this realization?
JD: Well, “liminal” might seem an obscure word to describe a game, but I think it’s accurate. It comes from anthropology and essentially means that strange, hazy state of being in-between. Like when a child is on the cusp of being an adolescent but isn’t quite yet. Or a country is on the brink of throwing out the government and transforming itself. At the opening game of World Cup 2002 in Seoul, South Korea, Senegal beat France 1-0. I was there and it was both shocking and glorious. France was World Cup and Euro champions. Senegal was a team from Africa that nobody knew much about. I had this feeling that Senegal became a truly independent country that night. It grew up. Something transformed those players and the field, the venue and the twilight enabled them to seize the moment and dominate France with ease. That, in a nutshell, is when I made that realization. You could call it a dark night of the Seoul for France and the arrival of Senegal as a soccer power.
MH: You include in the book several comical travel experiences, from adventurous cab rides to unhelpful hotel staff. Are there instances that stand out to you or make you think twice about traveling again?
JD: No Matt, I’m not giving up. I will travel again. For all the difficulties, international tournaments are unique. Mind you, there is one Best Western hotel in Berlin I’m going back to…details are in the book.
MH: In the last paragraph of the book, you write about what you consider the meaning of soccer to be: “The game brings joy, breaks your heart, brings joy, breaks your heart…” I agree and if this is true, why do fans continue to love this game?
JD: Fans continue to follow the game because it is still a sport in which a big player can be outclassed by a small player. And a small county can beat a bigger, more powerful country. The game offers hope. It is simultaneously a ruthless game and a game that inspires endless optimism. Things can turn around, just as the ball spins and turns in the air.
MH: In the book you also cover the 2010 World Cup. In the book, you describe that even with any problems or controversies that might have occurred during the tournament that “It matters more that the world outside North America was again completely transfixed by the World Cup.” Do you see this as the biggest difference between international football versus club football?
JD: Well, I decided to stay at home in 2010 and cover the World Cup in Toronto, the most multi-cultural city in the world. After years of travel, it made sense to me to go back to watching every game on TV and writing about the reaction of fans who were not in South Africa. The World Cup unfolded when the whole G20 summit was in Toronto. There were riots on the streets and a huge police presence. That proved to be a perfect background to write about why soccer mattered – acting as a unifying force in a crazy, angry world. About the difference between club and international football–the way that fans of competing clubs come together to support a national team fascinates me. The big tournaments mean people get nationalistic, but there is also a shared appreciation of skills that doesn’t happen in club soccer.
MH: Is there a match you consider to be the best you ever witnessed?
JD: The game between Croatia and Turkey in the second, knock-out round of Euro 2008. In the book I say, “It was a game to shred the nerves.” And it was. Played at a fierce pace inside an incredibly intense, noisy atmosphere at the stadium in Vienna, it was unforgettable. It was tied 0-0 at the end if regular time. It was tied 1-1 after extra time, with the two goals coming in the last minutes. Turkey won on penalties. Everyone in that stadium was as exhausted as the players at the end. And the Turkish population of Vienna danced in the streets after. Absolutely magical.
MH: Also, you write about the city of Toronto and the support for soccer that is there. Do you feel that popularity of the MLS and in particular Toronto FC has grown?
JD: Toronto FC is doing very well, off the field mainly. The FC arrived here at the perfect time – the children of immigrants from soccer countries were hungry to see live soccer. Right now I think the popularity of TFC has stalled, because the team is rebuilding. But the popularity of soccer, always strong, has exploded.
MH: Recently, one of your countrymen, Robbie Keane, has joined MLS and created a small buzz in Los Angeles. Do you foresee more European stars coming to play in the MLS?
JD: Robbie Keane has brought me joy and broke my heart. I do think LA is a good fit for him – as long as he gets support on the field and the system allows balls to get to him. Personally I’d rather see younger European players come to MLS. Not those at the end of their careers. I hope it happens but it will take a few more years. There is a snobbery in Europe about MLS.
MH: Are you planning on covering Euro 2012? What are your expectations for that tournament?
JD: Yes. I hope to be at Euro 2012. The Euro is often a better tournament than the World Cup. It’s shorter, more intense and there are fewer no-hope countries playing. With Spain and Germany looking superb, it could be a brilliant tournament.
MH: Finally, do you still believe that “this sports-reporting racket is exhausting”?
JD: Yes, but the best kind of exhaustion. When I was first asked to write about soccer for the Globe and Mail, and to go off to cover World Cup 2002 in Korea and Japan, my bosses told me to write about soccer, “as a writer.” I was told not to do traditional sports reporting– that is, do game reports and just summarize the results. I was asked to write about everything – the fans, the travel, the atmosphere. To try to explain to non-addicts why the Word Cup is the biggest, best event in the world. I’ve always tried to do that. It means not following one team, but going from place to place, from game to game, to capture everything. In The World is a Ball, I talk about the lack of sleep, the late trains and early planes. But often in a funny way, I hope. Because yes it’s exhausting, but the exhaustion comes from pleasure.
The World Is A Ball is available in paperback.