Irish emigrant life and the trials and tribulations of supporting the national team

 

KEITH DUGGANreviews The World is a BallBy John Doyle Transworld Ireland, 358pp, £12.99

THE REVERED American sportswriter Jim Murray summed up the inability of his nation to “get” football when he complained that the game amounted to a pageant where “21 guys stand around and one guy does a tap dance with the ball. It’s about as exciting as Tristan and Isolde”.

John Doyle is careful to make the distinction between football’s place in America and its cultural significance in his home city of Toronto, Canada, the centre point of this travelogue on world football. Doyle is a Dubliner who spent his boyhood in 1960s Leitrim and whose football awakening was provided by a happenstance visit to see Longford Town versus Sligo Rovers. The match made a profound impression on him: it is doubtful that any League of Ireland game has ever before been compared to “the shock and pleasure of the first glancing kiss from a first love”.

It was either some match or some kiss.

Flash forward to a bar in Toronto, where Doyle, now a journalist with the Globe and Mail is watching Ireland play Iran in the world cup play-off match in 2001. He will write a television column on this match, an assignment which leads (sounds like a terrific newspaper to work for) to a suggestion that he go and cover the world cup in Japan and Korea. So begins an escapade which endures for most of the decade.

This book is peculiarly structured and the rambling nature suits the overall story. There is a brief, nostalgic opening chapter which introduces the author, a long middle section which covers his hectic travels at the last two world cups and European championships and lastly a series of short, incisive accounts of several of the keynote qualifying games for this world cup – including a wonderful roaming through Bari when Ireland went to play Italy.

Doyle’s dual nationality gives the book its heart. He remains privately fixated with the fortunes of the Irish team but is utterly loyal to Canada and the looks and comments he gets when he announces himself as a Maple Leaf resident – a Slovakian taxi man just bursts out laughing and tries to overcharge Doyle – are great gas. As it turns out, football thrives in an underground kind of way in Toronto and so provides a perfect study for Doyle as he gets to grips with his own fascination with the game. One of the most memorable passages in the book is where Doyle stands watching a group of youngsters kick ball on an evening in November, with winter pressing in.

He stresses that he is not a sportswriter but he shares the fraternal obsession with living quarters: there is probably a few too many descriptions of forgettable hotel rooms. He is a waspish observer of human foibles and isn’t afraid to put the boot in. Japan freaks him out in 2002, he gets fed up with “puffed-up, pompous, pipe smoking German reporters” in 2006 and gets eyeballed by Maradona in Buenos Aires – and not in a good way.

The book ends on a perfect note, with Doyle in McVeigh’s bar in Toronto to watch both games of the 2009 play-off between Ireland and France. The sense of injustice was general and Doyle was like many a lost Irishman that night. I’m not sure the book offers the definitive “meaning of football”. Then, what book could? But it is an honest declaration of what the game means to Doyle. Whether he intended it or not, The World Is A Ball is an exploration of the emigrant experience, in which the whereabouts and fortunes of the international team acquires an inestimable importance. Finally, it is a hymn to Toronto. He tells us that former Preston North End striker Danny Dicheo is the most popular player to ever sign for Toronto. Like Longford, then, it is a proper football town.


Keith Duggan is an Irish Times journalist. He will be covering the World Cup in South Africa for the newspaper