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.