- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

A New Year’s resolution: Try and be kind to those who draw a blank when you say you are a soccer fan.

To help, grab a copy of the American edition of David Goldblatt’s “The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer” (Riverhead Books, 2008, 974 pages, $24).

In the forward, Goldblatt examines, with unique clarity, the puzzling question of why so many Americans view soccer as a curiosity at best.

In this well-researched book that covers the history of soccer, including its relationship to politics and sociology, the London-born Goldblatt zeroes in on America’s disinterest of the world’s most popular sport.

While the 20th century was indeed the American century, the superpower had little impact on the “world’s game.” This “exceptionalism” and “glorious self-isolationism,” Goldblatt gently argues, may be a detriment in a world in which the forces of globalization are bringing us closer together.

It appears soccer’s timing was bad for America from the start. The sport developed at the same time America was creating it’s own unique games: American football, baseball and basketball.

Unlike soccer, American sports have “enjoyed only limited global embrace,” which Goldblatt believes has “entrenched their American rather than universal qualities.”

He examines the glaring problems Americans have with the game:

The “mysterious time keeping of the referee in soccer” compared with the “demonic clock” in American sports and the tie that Americans consider “nonsense.”

The lack of scoring in soccer is probably the biggest stumbling block for Americans notes Goldblatt “because it allocates such a large role to chance determining the outcome of a the game.”

Then there’s “the diving, faking gamesmanship and chicanery of soccer,” which also doesn’t help. Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 World Cup final was certainly not the best advertisement for the game.

Perhaps most fundamental of all, Goldblatt says, “soccer offers models of storytelling and narrative structures that the American sporting public finds unsatisfactory.”

Soccer fans would strongly disagree.

“However,” Goldblatt says, “on a day-to-day basis, the level of narrative quality control,” in soccer is “lower.”

“Although soccer can do fantastical last-minute comebacks,” he says, “collapses, turnovers, winners, and equalizers, there are less than in American sports. For all the compelling 0-0 draws there are an awful lot of excruciating ones. … Ultimately, the entire logic of American sports culture chaffs at soccer’s draws and low scores.”

Goldblatt’s observations do not come lightly. For the last year, he says he has immersed himself in the study of American sports culture.

Maybe a little more patience is needed to understand the nuances of soccer — “the simple game” — suggests the writer, but it’s well worth it.

Goldblatt sees soccer’s mission in America not as a challenge to America’s big sports, but to offer a “conduit to the rest of the world; a sporting antidote to the excesses of isolationism, a prism for understanding the world that the United States may currently shape but will increasingly be shaped by.”

Goldblatt says his study of American sports opened his eyes and heart “to America’s genius and to its tragedies.”

He hopes that if more Americans come to understand soccer and its universal influence, it will ultimately help Americans understand the “genius and tragedies of the rest of us.”

His comments on American soccer are just a blip in this stunning and expansive work, which not only tells us the story of soccer but also gives us a history lesson of the modern world.

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