Soccer’s sociologist: David Goldblatt’s unique view of the world – and the United 2026 World Cup bid

The preeminent scholar of world soccer history talks with Graham Parker about Nigerian fan clubs, Liverpool food banks and a certain 2026 World Cup bid…

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If you’re serious about your knowledge of the global game, chances are you have a well-thumbed copy of David Goldblatt’s “The Ball is Round” on your bookshelf. It’s perhaps the definitive history of world soccer, and certainly the first to truly chronicle not just how the game came to be, but what it came to mean everywhere it was played.

For his latest project, Goldblatt is producing podcasts with Al Jazeera’s Jetty platform on the global culture of the game, from the starting point of Eduardo Galeano’s maxim, “Show me how you play and I will show you how you are.”

The show features sit-down interviews with the likes of Werner Herzog and John Foot — the latter being the author of the book on Italian football, “Calcio”, who, along with Goldblatt, unpicks the current state of an Italian system that somehow failed to send a team to the World Cup.

But “Game of Our Lives” podcast also features field reports that make a point of going one step further at each stage of the journey. Goldblatt is particularly fond of the second episode in the series — ostensibly a report on the phenomenon of Nigerian Premier League fan clubs, but which also ended up digging into the Pentecostal roots of many Nigerian fans to enrich the story:

“Arsenal Nigeria has, what…10,000 members? I spent a week watching more Premier League football than I’d ever watch in England and I explored Nigeria’s complete obsession with the Premier League. And I know that the flipside of that is the hollowing out of Nigerian domestic football, because people are watching the Premier League instead.

“But it turns out there is a little success story amid this, because there’s a tiny team from Agege, a working-class suburb in Northern Lagos, who came up from amateurs-ville nothing to the top of the league, in about six years. And they’re called MFMFC, and it’s the best name in football — it stands for Mountain of Fire and Miracles. They came from nowhere and I think they came third and managed to hold their position. It’s like Forest Green Rovers reaching the group stages of the Champions League…”

There’s much more to the story — Goldblatt’s diverting footnotes take in everything from the politics of Pentecostalism, to a bizarre hour-long appearance he made on state TV discussing the “Wenger In/Out” controversy. What it ends up having in common with the other stories Goldblatt is covering, is his academic’s need to never accept the surface of things at face value.

Thus a story on Goldblatt experiencing his first Premier League catering package at a Liverpool-Tottenham game becomes a chance to explore the extraordinary efforts of fans in Liverpool in contributing to the city’s food banks. Matchday food drives can account for one quarter of the total food in North Liverpool’s food banks, and Goldblatt spends time with one of those food banks on a Sunday game day, when it represents one of the only open sources of food for the homeless in the entire city.

In moments like that, you’re reminded of Goldblatt’s original training as a sociologist, though in his enthusiasm for “an electric game — Tottenham and Liverpool were both brilliant that day”, you’re never far from Goldblatt the fan.

America itself is at least five or six nations all stuck together in this strange federal compromise that’s lasted the last couple of hundred years. [Its soccer culture is] huge, diverse, interesting and growing. But complicated and fragmented at the same time.

And that’s always been the way for him. Growing up in the London suburbs in the 1970s he’d obsessively chart the progress of his beloved Tottenham on graph paper taped across his bedroom wall (“I’m that kind of person”), and later, when his proposal to run a university course on football at the Open University (a British distance learning institute) was rejected by his bosses, he’d turn the rejection into “a 750-page, infographic, full-color atlas of world football with a sociological twist. And I made that World Football Yearbook for three or four years. And it was at that sweet point in the internet where you could get all the information … but then it killed the encyclopedia!”

Many of the same sources of information would later become a road map for the three-year process of writing “The Ball is Round.” When it was released in 2006, the book pulled together multiple strands of football geography and history, when they were still just about possible to capture in something like their entirety.

“There was just enough material available online and elsewhere to write the book, and not enough to be completely overwhelming. I wonder if I tried to write it today, I’d never actually get to the end. I’m writing a sequel to ‘The Ball is Round,’ which pretty much picks up the story from the year 2000. And just looking at that little segment is proving pretty overwhelming, as I sit here looking at my six and a half foot box files!”

A wider view of soccer in the United States

ISI Photos-Mike Lawrence

ISI Photos-Mike Lawrence

It’s no accident, though, that the form of Goldblatt’s work has often been shaped by the footballing and political times he’s found himself living through. He talks with enthusiasm about the surge in both football scholarship and fan writing over the last decade, with a particular emphasis on the critical mass of writing on women’s soccer which will help shape any attempt he makes to revisit “The Ball is Round.”

He also talks about women’s soccer when I ask him about his view of U.S. soccer culture — as he describes the various constituencies and histories that make up the life of the game in this country. As Goldblatt characterizes that culture, “America itself is at least five or six nations all stuck together in this strange federal compromise that’s lasted the last couple of hundred years. [Its soccer culture is] huge, diverse, interesting and growing. But complicated and fragmented at the same time. But, well, welcome to America…”

As for whether parts of America would be welcoming the rest of the world in 2026 Goldblatt does not share any native nerves about how FIFA World Cup vote might go. Laughing, though, he agrees that Loretta Lynch’s legal pursuit of FIFA executives might play well globally as a truly rare example of popular American foreign policy, but may be less well-received with the FIFA congress.

“My suspicion is that economics will overcome ethics as far as most delegates are concerned,” he says. “I mean Morocco has its friends, but I just can’t see them being able to mobilize enough support even with that sort of rancor …

My sense, quite hard, is, bless Morocco — we could have quite a nice, funky World Cup there — but it’s just not going to happen is it? I mean, there’s just no way. It’s America and friends’ tournament to lose.”

Still, Goldblatt thinks the U.S., Canada and Mexico might want to be careful of what they wish for:

“Even if the whole thing was completely straight, the model that has been developed for staging mega events does not work,” he says. “That’s a problem for FIFA and the [International Olympic Committee]. They could all stop taking bribes and put on haloes and it still would not work. So there’s that issue.

“On corruption and globalization, I mean FIFA is a good example, albeit quite a little one, of two decades worth of the globe’s elite absolutely taking the piss, moving their money and their legal operations into offshore havens, deceiving the rest of us while enriching themselves, and getting away with it. That’s absolutely what’s been going on at FIFA for the last 20 years.”

Expect that history to be rounded out in future editions of Goldblatt’s work, but also expect the rest of us to play our part in the stories he tells too. If anyone knows that it is indeed the game of all our lives, it’s David Goldblatt.

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