The Ball is Round

From Gomez.

It is estimated that today nearly one billion people will watch the FIFA World Cup final. One billion. When have one billion people spread across the globe ever done anything simultaneously? On this, football’s most holy day, I thought I would attempt the beginnings of an explanation for football’s near universal appeal.

In his superb history of the game David Goldblatt asks the following question:

Is there any cultural practice more global than football? Rites of birth, death and marriage are universal, but infinite in their diversity. Football is played by the same rules everywhere. No single world religion can match its geographical scope. Even Christianity, borne on the back of European expansion, is a relatively minor player across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The use of English and the vocabularies of science and mathematics must run football close for universality, but they remain the lingua francas of the world’s elites, not of its masses. McDonald’s, MTV? Only the most anodyne products of America’s cultural industries can claim a reach as wide as football’s and then only for a fleeting moment in those parts of the world that can afford them.[1]

Football’s preeminence as the most popular global sport is a consequence of both historical forces beyond the game, and the intrinsic qualities of its own structure, rhythms and appearance. First, football emerged and spread outwards around the globe through both the formal British Empire and the immense informal connections garnered by Britain’s influence on global economics and culture. Second, before the advent of television few other sports allowed for so many people to watch a game at the same time. You just cannot build a stadium to hold 100,000 spectators around a basketball or tennis court. Third, as a participation team sport it is arguably without rival. The rules are simple, the equipment is cheap, and the game is flexible in terms of playing numbers and space needed; it is easy to learn and accommodates a wide variety of physiques; its insistence on the use of feet and head over hands is infectious and intriguing; and the constant ebb and flow punctuated only by the pure exhilaration of a goal is compelling. And so for millions of kids from the barrios and slums, the ghettos and council estates, football is the way they can escape their poverty, even just for a few moments, and express themselves

Myself, I have a complicated relationship with football. Football has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up football slowly weaved itself into my developing psyche, becoming as familiar to me as family and school and girls. It is for me as it was for Arthur Hopcraft: football is not a phenomenon; it is an every day matter. Furthermore, coming, as I do, from a tribe of men who have trouble vocalizing their feelings, football is the crucible where familial bonds were forged. On terraces and touchlines or on the edge of well-worn family furniture, in unspoken ways I became and I am still becoming a grandson, a son, a brother and most recently a father. I remember watching England vs. Argentina in 1986. I would have been 9 at the time and I suppose at that age I still thought my Dad could make any situation right. I can still so vividly remember how I felt when the Hand of God rose up from the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City and tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that sometimes I would find even my Dad was powerless to make wrong things right. That kind of moment leaves a permanent emotional mark that transcends the game. In 1990, with England preparing to begin their tortured relationship with penalty shoot outs, it’s almost as if Gary Lineker sensed what was coming. And so he looked into the television camera and pointed to his eye and told my Dad to have a word with his 13 year old son, who in a few moments was about to lose control of his emotions. That kind of investment means that football takes on new meaning. It’s almost as if family is at stake. As the great Bill Shankly said, ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’

But as important as football has been to me my relationship with the game is complicated by the fact that football may well be rotten. In England, the short sighted custodians of the game have sold its soul over and over again to the highest bidder, even if that bidder is an international pariah wanted for human rights’ abuses. Players are so far removed from reality and the average fan that they expect public sympathy when their clubs are only offering them £60k a week. Owners, managers and players alike cheat constantly. Officials are inept and are hindered by an unwillingness to allow them to use technology. In the 21st century. But should we be surprised when the whole thing is presided over by an incompetent such as Sepp Blatter, who has rigged the system so that he will remain elected as president until he chooses to go.

But for 90 minutes this evening, or morning or afternoon, none of that will matter. For 90 minutes advertisers and investors, power brokers and agents, even Sepp Blatter will largely be confined to blending in with the noise of the vuvuzela. 22 players will pull on shirts that don’t look like advertising hoardings but are instead soaked in footballing history. They are shirts that they haven’t chosen to wear for money or prestige; the shirts chose them for a reason as random as the place they were born (or perhaps the place where their parents were born). And one of them, maybe more, will write themselves into the collective memory and emotions of a billion people. Good luck to them all.


1. See the Introduction to The Ball Is Round by David Goldblatt


  1. Gomez,

    You’ve captured perfectly our love-hate relationship with football. My life has also been punctuated (punctured?) by England failures.

    Hoping for a good game tonight.

  2. StephanieQ says:

    Becoming a footy fan changed my paradigm. Like most Americans, I was very ego-centric culturally. I couldn’t imagine that there were things that mattered outside the U.S. that the U.S. didn’t much care about. When I started to watch soccer I realized that this was bigger than anything I had ever imagined. It was quite humbling to realize that America was behind the curve in recognizing the grandeur of the game. Since when is the U.S. behind in anything?

    Footy taught me that I’m not as cool as I think I am. And that’s a good thing.

  3. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a game as lucrative as football would have at its head, corrupt men who cannot let go of the power and wealth they get from the game.

    Today’s game should be a pretty good game. Go Netherlands!

  4. “Football is played by the same rules everywhere.”

    As one who has come to appreciate the many different versions of football that exist, I have difficulty accepting this statement. After all, whether others want to acknowledge it or not, Association, Rugby Union, Rugby League, American, and Aussie Rules are all versions of football, all with different rules. Perhaps what he meant is that Association Football is played by the same rules everywhere.

    But even this I find difficult to accept. Watching the World Cup this year, I have been struck by the very things mentioned in the above section explaining why football is rotten. I think that football at the amateur level is fairly consistent. Look at how the game is played in public schools and in universities. I think the way the game is played at this level is on par with how it is played in the lowliest of barrios. I don’t think that the game is played the same way everywhere when it comes to the professional World Cup levels, where the officials can make ham-fisted calls and nobody can stop it.

    That being said, I love football, in all of its many forms (although I prefer Rugby Union the most). I shall definitely try to catch the game this afternoon. Go Netherlands!

  5. Joy of joys, that blasted church block program, combined with calling responsibilities and a lack of DVR, means I will miss the final.

    O wretched man than I am.

  6. Don’t get on the Internet if you want to watch the contest. I’m still debating while at church whether to sneak a peek at the game or wait until we get back home to watch the game unbeknownst to the score.

  7. Most Americans agree with Stephen Colbert’s view of football.
    “Soccer: a sport for fourth graders that foreigners take seriously.”

    Which is really too bad. I have loved watching the World Cup this time around (nearly every match!) and I’m going to have serious withdrawals when it’s over. The athleticism of the players is unbelievable, and I find it much more accessible as a viewer than, say, American football, where there are more breaks than actual playing time. There’s been more media attention than I remember in the US this year, so maybe that’s a good sign that we’re finally getting with the program.

  8. What the heck??? I can’t watch live online? Seriously???

  9. I just wanted to say that I caught the Sepp Herberger reference (but only because I’m a big fan of Lola Rennt, not because I know anything about football).

  10. Scott and Dan, you owe me.

  11. I kept up on the game while at church by reading ESPN’s running commentary and photos. It was hilarious! I had to stop myself from laughing out loud a few times. Really great comments from those guys.

  12. Thanks Ronan. The strange thing is I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed watching England play. They are always emotionally overwrought occasions that usually end with disappointment. I don’t know why I do it to myself.

  13. Yes football is a beautiful game. But can’t stop thinking that the UK is the only country in the world that invents sports and then looses spectacularly at them… Football, Cricket, Rugby, Golf… Better do as the Americans, invent a sport and DON’T LET ANYONE ELSE PLAY IT!! (World Series… really?) Maybe in Rio 2014 we’ll have a better team that doesn’t leave us blaming the referees and THAT goal, slippery gloves instead of focusing on the actual England squad

  14. Aaron R. says:

    Gomez, your sentiments regarding England are on point. I thought this time around that I would not care as much. I have not had the time to follow my ‘local’ club as much as I would like the last few years and I now play volleyball or squash more than football. Yet, from somewhere that pain re-emerges.

  15. Alex, look no further than snooker or darts.

    Aaron, I remember 2 years ago during the European Championships actually enjoying the football because England weren’t there and so there was little emotional investment. As I remembered that I thought this time around I would be more mature and dispassionate about England’s performances. Then Gerard scored after 2 mins and suddenly I was involuntarily hooked again. Once they had me they felt free to chew me up and spit me out as they always do.

    One thing that would help would be to outlaw press coverage of the England team. Perhaps more annoying than England’s performances themselves is the massively overblown media reaction, for good or ill, to England.

  16. Stephanie and Chelsea, I’m glad you’ve been turned on to the game. I hope you have a more grown up relationship with it than I do.

%d bloggers like this: