the ball is round

Right now I’m reading The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football, by David Goldblatt. (The American edition replaces “Football” with “Soccer.”) It’s an astonishing achievement, and I’m using that adjective with care. Goldblatt has written an incredibly ambitious (and nearly one-thousand-page) social history of the most popular game in the world, which means that he has to deal with English class conflicts that shaped the early history of the game; its spread through the mechanisms of (declining) British colonialism; the relative indifference to football among some countries of the former Empire, always for complex socio-political reasons; the ways that ever-changing political conditions and ethnic relations in Brazil and Argentina have led to very different futbol cultures in those countries; the uses to which Communist governments have put their football teams — when they allowed them to exist at all; the difficulties the English have had adjusting to their loss of dominance in the game they invented; the transformation of European football into a phenomenally lucrative global business. This is a very incomplete list of topics.

Goldblatt does not neglect the game itself, and among the great delights of the book are the accounts of pivotal matches in the game’s history. Individual figures emerge with clarity as well: the elegant Austrian Matthias Sindelar, who scored twice to lead his country to victory against Nazi Germany’s team, on a day they had been warned to play for at best a draw; the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly; and look at this description of the two greatest heroes of Brazilian futbol, Pelé and Garrincha:

The different arcs of Pelé and Garrincha’s lives were illuminated by the manner of their return from Sweden [after Brazil had won the 1958 World Cup]. Pelé was met by a civic gathering and given a small three-wheeled car then manufactured in São Paulo. Unable to drive the car, and unwilling to break the law by taking the wheel, Pelé barely touched it and went training. Garrincha silently slipped away from Rio and returned unnoticed to Pau Grande where he spent the days running up and settling a town-sized bar bill and playing kickabout with his old friends. Over the next decade Pelé lived a model professional life; Garrincha ate and drank like the most dissolute factory worker. While Pelé, even through his teenage shyness, was a talker there is barely an interview of any substance with Garrincha. Pelé, ambitious, knew the value of his talent and though he lost what he had on a number of occasions to unscrupulous business partners, he managed to extract and keep some of the value. Garrincha had a pathological lack of ambition, he neither knew nor cared how much he had made or where it might be going. Pelé planned for the future. Garrincha lived for the moment. Pelé trained. Garrincha slept. In their later years both players acquired another nickname — an essential suffix. Pelé was O Rei — ‘the King’, honoured, but ultimately distant, of another world. Garrincha was O alegria de povo — ‘the joy of the people’, of this imperfect world, disabled, drunk, fragile and untimately broken. The King was and is revered but Garrincha was loved.

Beautiful stuff. Everyone knows Pelé, but if you want to get a look at the now-nearly-forgotten Garrincha, here you go. But enough: Spain v. Russia is about to begin.