Doyle’s soccer treatise a Ball

I sit watching the beginning of IIHF world junior championships final between Canada and Russia and am amazed by the huge crowd of Canadian fans who have flocked across the border to overtake Buffalo New York. The stands are full of red jerseys and presumably almost entirely Canadian fans.

As the game starts, the Canadians are exuberant and arrogant chanting, “We want gold!” and I wonder to myself what John Doyle would say about this strange sight. He’s the type of writer who cares more about the people watching, national cultures and the bigger picture than scores and statistics. The crowd would fascinate Doyle, especially how they respond to the third period meltdown.

Part memoir, part ode, part travelogue, The World is a Ball is as much about Doyle’s career, travels and life as it is about international men’s soccer. However, if you are not already a soccer fan, Doyle’s second book will not convince you that soccer is a fantastic sport. It is for those who have already been converted. Readers who don’t like soccer and don’t like sports will find Doyle’s passionate narrative lost on them.

Throughout The World is a Ball, Doyle claims that he is not a sportswriter. It is unclear to what extent this is true; he has traveled to write about two World Cups, a European championship and numerous world cup qualifiers. His style of writing about sports is definitely distinctive. He spends very little time discussing the tiny details that make up so much of sports-writing like scores and statistics and instead focuses on people and atmosphere. He talks about soccer in the greater context of rivalries, reputations and history — the very things that make matches interesting.

Doyle’s knowledge of the game and his observations about technical details and teams are generally spot on. Doyle’s description of fandom for the England national team as “a complicated mixture of arrogance and farce” perfectly captures the team’s place in the game.

Doyle’s ability to charmingly detail his own experiences, from losing his luggage (and subsequently being chased down by South Korean officials) to catching trains packed with English fans to seeing a town overrun by an army of Dutch fans is rich and detailed.

“I miss my flight and spend two hours at the airport watching the busloads of China supporters arrive, smoke, shop and then disappear onto their plane,” writes Doyle.

His description of fans before and after games make up the core of the book. Soccer means many different things to many different people and Doyle has the magical ability to understand the many different mechanisms that drive fans.

“There is a simmering sense that South Korea can beat any team, go far in this tournament and let the world know that this is a dynamic country, dauntless and self-assured,” he recounts. “Just beneath the surface, there is delirium.”

The charm of Doyle’s writing lies in his superb narrative and people watching skills. A talented story-teller, it is hard not to follow his words with immense joy and satisfaction. Perhaps, as Doyle claims, he is not a sportswriter at all, but instead a traveler and observer that happens to know the sport of soccer like the back of his hand.

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