Soccer as Esperanto: An interview with author John Doyle

Soccer ball in front of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Photo by Don Bayley.

From June 11th to July 11th, the entire world will be watching soccer.

St. John’s is slowly, slowly becoming more of an international city. Yes, people are moving here. Yes, you might hear someone speaking another language as they walk by. Yes, there are black people (OMG!) More and more people are coming and giving it a go here in St. John’s, as Newfoundlanders.

But what about integration? What about points of contact between ‘new’ Newfoundlanders and ‘old’ Newfoundlanders? For such a small city, they seem far and few between.

Could the World Cup provide some of those points of contact? Absolutely. Over the next month, soccer fans and non-soccer fans alike will be swept up in World Cup fever, to be a part of this truly international event.

The World is a Ball is the new book from Globe and Mail columnist John Boyle. Part travelogue, part social history, the book is not just about the sport. I got a chance to sit down with him recently to talk about the book and a few of these ideas.

Multicultural snapshot

In the introduction to your book you talk about your experience watching Iran versus…
Oh, the Ireland/Iran game. Watching that on TV…

Yeah. The experience of watching them on television in a public place, it seemed like a really interesting multicultural event…
In international soccer it can be like that. I wrote about that particular game and those few hours in an Irish bar in downtown Toronto, early on a Saturday morning because it was a vignette. It was a snapshot of multi-cultural Toronto. It was just a – it underlined so much about the complexity of big multi-cultural cities like Toronto.

What happened was that television brought these two very different groups of people together.

…To an Irish bar.
To an Irish bar at an unholy hour of a Saturday morning, and everybody intermingled and got along. Everybody was there because of the game. There was this acknowledgement that the other side is entitled to support their team as well, but we’re all here together because of the game. That’s okay. It was very peaceable.

So it was okay to be rooting against the other country’s team.
Yes. That’s all right, because really it’s only a game. That tends to be emphatic in international soccer tournaments these days. There’s often someone with a giant banner in the stadium that says “It’s only a game.”

That’s a reminder of what it is. It matters enormously, but there’s that truth.

The experience of watching it in a stadium versus watching it on television — what’s the difference?
From the first time I went to a World Cup, I began to see that as much a part of the theater and drama of a tournament as the two sets of players on the field. I find it fascinating the way the whole culture that surrounds the game, the traveling army of fans, how they behave and what they sing. As much of the drama takes place, the interesting drama, takes place outside of the stadium as on the field. On the train to the stadium and in the city afterwards where you have tens of thousands of people.

There are places in every city and every country in the world where the World Cup is celebrated even if soccer is not the number one sport in that country. People are drawn together by the occasion of the World Cup to go and celebrate their country, their community and to join with others in doing that.

John Doyle. Photo by Taffi Rosen.

The first African World Cup

How will this World Cup be different, do you think?
Interviewee: I think the fact that it is being held on the African continent is monumental in a symbolic way. It’s important that it happen and it had to happen. I think that will make it a very interesting World Cup and perhaps a great World Cup. If we were to go use the example of the first World Cup held in Asia which was so distant from the normal base of soccer powers in Europe and South America – that distance from home did tend to create this sort of psychological disconnect for some of the teams. It was sort of alienating to be in a place where they weren’t used to being and where they thought of soccer as being a secondary game.

You were there when the Cup was in Japan and Korea – could you feel that psychological disconnect?
Yes. Yes, you could. Certainly there was – I remember anyone who played South Korea during that World Cup I think was astonished by the level of support by the atmosphere in the stadiums.

European teams would be used to fanatical support at home. That took the fanaticism to a new level. It was astonishing to see and feel. It wasn’t just a visual or the sound of the fans. It was the fervor of it – how much it mattered. That can be intimidating to a team from another country and from another culture. It’s true that in Asia France, Portugal and Italy did not do as well as expected. South Korea and Turkey did very well. That was unexpected. There were many upsets. USA did well. My suspicion is that this World Cup could be like that. Some of the African countries will do well. The consensus was when the draw was made that they had very tough draws, which they did. But it’s one of the things I write about in the book is that sort of unearthly power, that other world thing that can take over in a key game, that motivates a team and a group of players to play above their level. They are underdogs but there’s a different narrative that’s being written that they can intuit and they can intuit victory when logically they should know they’re playing a vastly superior team.

I suspect Africa and South Africa could have those kinds of results. Smaller countries, African countries, will do well at this I think.

Soccer: An alternative to war?

You mentioned soccer can even serve as an alternative to war…? But do you really believe that?
Well, it’s stretching a bit to take that seriously, but it’s still fair to say. I think somebody has said we don’t have world wars anymore. We have the World Cup.

The fascinating thing about international soccer for me is that there are so many layers of meaning to it all. On the one hand you can say that soccer is an extension of the tribal impulse to compete. Soccer, international soccer, is sort of war by proxy.

Simultaneously, it’s something that unites because the game is the same all over the world. The rules are the same and it’s the sort of game…

You call it an Esperanto.
Yes. It is. Yeah, an Esperanto, a lingua franca. Whatever phrase you want to use. But there are very few things in the world these days that actually link so many countries and so many cultures. We live in a time when it used to a Cold War, not it’s really the West and Islam especially fundamentalist Islam; the two sides in this world of tension.

Iran and Iraq, they play soccer by the same rules as they play in England or France or in the U.S. or Canada. So there are very few things in the world today that you can say has linked a Jewish person in North America, a Christian in Europe to someone in a Muslim country. Soccer is it. Everybody knows the rules are the same. Everybody knows the best players in the world. Everybody has seen the best teams in the world. I think that’s something for which soccer should be acknowledged and celebrated in that there’s so few. Hollywood entertainment doesn’t do that – it just alienates in some countries. Soccer manages to achieve that.

The ref as fallible God

In your book you talk about soccer being a place where dreams are possible, and where you can overcome insurmountable obstacles. You also talk about dreams being shattered in the game as well. That happens in other sports, but why in particular does it make soccer so appealing to you?
It’s a great part of the pleasure because it means that there’s a rawness to the drama of international soccer which is unlike other professional sports. For a start, outside of a handful of Olympic sports, there are very few occasions where a vast number of countries play each other. I think that one of the reasons why we’re probably not going to see video replay technology, goal-line technology and all of that in international soccer is that the purity of the game is in the upsets that happen. It’s in the raw, brutal reality of it. International soccer as drama is much truer to life than most professional sporting events are because as in life, cheaters can prosper. The underdog, the valiant underdog doesn’t always win. It’s not like in movies.

So the ref makes mistakes?
Oh, absolutely. But that referee makes the decision. That means that if you’re watching the game on television, the referee makes a decision and the cameras can replay what just happened and you can see the referee was wrong. But that’s the way it is. It’s closer to the brutality of life. It’s also kind of symbolic in a way because the referee is a God on the field.

But he’s a fallible God. To the players he’s infallible. What he says he saw is what happened, not what actually happened. That’s part of the attraction of it. That you know that there is an uncertainty involved in it. Someone can fall over, the referee can see that it was a penalty and a lot of people can see it and say that it wasn’t. The referee makes that decision, that’s the way it goes. That’s part of the attraction to it, but it’s a dangerous kind of attraction. There’s no objective truth in soccer.

Why is it like that?
There was a qualifying game for a playoff qualifying game for this World Cup between Egypt and Nigeria. Bitter rivals. Very bitter rivals. The two games were played, both in front of 75,000-80,000 people who were on tenterhooks. If a goal had been scored, the referee was unsure and in hockey it goes upstairs to someone who looks at the video replay. You’re stopping the game for 2-3 minutes and then you decide “No, actually Nigeria didn’t score.” You would have 60,000 people whose passions would simply overflow — it would be unacceptable.

So that tends to inform and improve the extraordinary drama of international soccer.

That’s a lot of trust in a ref, for sure.
Interviewee: There are people who have legitimate complaints about bad refereeing decisions and so on. The only way it can improve is to have better referees who are better trained and the second thing that has happened is FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, it will get rid of a referee who has a poor game. He’s gone from the World Cup. He’s not going to be handling another game. That sort of thing does happen.


Looking for a place to watch the FIFA World Cup here in town? Check our handy guide-y guide.

The World is a Ball, by John Doyle, is published by Doubleday Canada.