My title is not directed at other reviewers here, but at the many glowing reviews for this book featured on its cover and first pages. This is not a beautifully written book, the majority of it is extremely tedious, and at its worst the writing is virtually incoherent.
THE BALL IS ROUND is touted as a history of soccer, but it is ultimately a book about world history in the 20th Century, with soccer as the lens through which that history is viewed. This is an important distinction to make, because reading this book will give you little understanding of the tactical evolution of the game, the famous personalities, players, coaches, the legendary moments of triumph and failure, the great rivalries between teams. The book is much more interested in the politcal and historical aspects of the game's history, and much less so in the sporting ones.
Nevertheless, the book is extremely comprehensive in the outlook that it does take. Goldblatt examines the history of the game on practically (often literally) a nation by nation basis, covering the entire world. He divides the book both by historical era and geographical location, so that chapters generally alternate back and forth from one continent to the next while the book proceeds gradually forward through historical time. Unfortunately, much of this content ends up being tedious and scrapped together.
THE BALL IS ROUND starts off well, the sections about the early history of the game are excellent and I recommend them, but after the first one or two hundred pages, the quality of prose and content rapidly decline. Goldblatt approaches this history with a relentless determination both to editorialize it and to cast it in literary terms, leading to often tortured descriptions of situations and events. It becomes a long, slow, uphill slog. There is a lot of information here, but you will really have to work for it. The book's prose and structural coherence gradually disintegrate into an awkward litany of facts and propositions, even to the point of virtual incoherence. For example, "If the Premiereship has come to signal the renascent successes and costs of England's new commercially minded private sector and the tastes of its comfortable middle classes, the fate of the national team has offered more complex readings." Really slow down and try to parse that sentence.
With a lot more editing, and perhaps another year or three of work, I think this book could have realized its high ambitions and been a classic. As it is, it is neither a good historical survey nor an engaging read for the football/soccer enthusiast. There is much to learn about world history and the history of soccer within the pages of THE BALL IS ROUND, and the sections on the early history of the sport are really very good, but the middle sections of the book lack structure and are poorly written. It gets a bit better again towards the end.
One interesting thing this book revealed was how rife with corruption the entire history of the sport of soccer has been. Goldblatt does not shy away from these ugly moments, which are often swept under the rug by other books and commentators.
I wish I could give this book a more positive review, but I have to be honest. I know of few readers who would push past the two or three hundred page mark on this one, and perhaps that is why there are only a handful of reviews here in spite of the sport's surging popularity in the US. Being stubborn and reading the whole thing like I did is unlikely to be a satisfying use of your time.