The Joy of Soccer

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John Doyle talks about the sport and the 2010 World Cup

Soccer is sometimes referred to as the world's game. It is a phrase likely to be repeated as the world comes together to play, watch and celebrate the sport at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this week.

Yet what is it about soccer that draws in the world? The best one to answer that might be a man who has been around the world to see it.

John Doyle

Soccer is sometimes referred to as the world's game. It is a phrase likely to be repeated as the world comes together to play, watch and celebrate the sport at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this week.

Yet what is it about soccer that draws in the world? The best one to answer that might be a man who has been around the world to see it.

A television columnist for the Globe and Mail, John Doyle added sportswriter to his title in 2001, with a single visit to McVeigh's New Windsor Tavern in Toronto. Along with the rest of the people in the bar, enough to fill the place and then some, Doyle watched a soccer game - Iran vs. Ireland.

On Nov. 15, 2001, a column by Doyle about the viewing experience ran in the Globe.

"I wrote about it because it was a very powerful vignette of multicultural Toronto. Also, it was an example of people from very different backgrounds brought together at an unholy hour on a Saturday morning by television," he said.

That was television and soccer, actually.

"I think, in that (column), some people thought that I described accurately what international soccer is about, in terms of bringing people together from such disparate backgrounds. It was not long after that I was asked if I would be interested in going to the (2002) World Cup in Korea-Japan, covering it for the paper and I said, 'Yes, of course.'"

Since that World Cup experience, Doyle has continued to follow the game, travel to international competitions and provide soccer coverage - through Euro 2004 in Portugal, World Cup 2006 in Germany and Euro 2008 in Austria-Switzerland.

His new book, "The World Is A Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer," reflects on these viewing and travel experiences. It also recounts 10 games played on the road to the upcoming World Cup.

Different from other sports

Soccer is more than a game, Doyle told The Telegram in a recent interview in anticipation of his book's release.

"It's a universal language. It's a lingua franca. It's one of the very few things that exists in the world now which links cultures, countries that are so far apart on everything else," he said.

Yet fans tap into more than just the internationalism of soccer or the spirit of competition at a match.

For example, at the club level, "Barcelona is a startling example of how different soccer can be from other professional sports. Most soccer teams around the world are not franchises, in the way a major league baseball team is and even an NHL team is, where owners can pack up the team one day and move it to another city," he said.

"In the case of (FC) Barcelona, Barcelona is owned by the people of the city. There is no corporate corporation that owns Barcelona. It's owned by the people and it's the people's team."

It is not only ownership, it is also how professional soccer teams are viewed by the community, he said. In some countries, at the club level, soccer teams truly are rooted in a city, in a neighbourhood.

"I was in Argentina last year, went to Buenos Aires, I went to see Argentina play," Doyle said. "I had someone translating for me and, as we were leaving the stadium to go to the press conference, I noticed there were various areas in the building, in the sort of bowels of the building, that were roped off. ... As we were leaving, I asked the guy, 'What's all of this?' And he said, 'Well, that's the school.'"

The school was in the stadium. The hall where Doyle attended a news conference, a meeting with Argentine star player Diego Maradona, was actually the school's auditorium.

"The kids go to school, have their classes, where the superstars of the game play a few feet away on the field. There's that kind of integration between the community and the club which is unimaginable in professional sports in North America and that kind of creates a very different dynamic between the supporters and the clubs."

Soccer around the globe

As for competition, you do not need to know anything about the game to fall into the drama of country vs. country soccer, Doyle said.

"One of the great things about soccer is you can use the style of a national team as a sort of way into the culture of a country. So the English national team, for example, plays in a very disciplined but utilitarian style. It relies on what the English call the bulldog spirit to win a game. Spain plays with a very Latin sort of panache and flair and sometimes the players even look like matadors. They have such confidence and Élan and they're proud of the skills they have. The Italians play with a strong emphasis on individual skills, on very precise skills, and simultaneously they play with a cunning on the field. They're capable of taking a one-goal lead after 10 minutes and holding on to it for the rest of the game. They play with that sort of discipline. The Italians also tend to feel there's always a sort of conspiracy against Italy," Doyle laughs.

"These sorts of things tend to reflect, very much, the sort of nature of a country. While soccer is sort of universal, each team has its own style which reflects certain clichÉs about the culture. So there's no single nation in the world that is the quintessential soccer nation. There just isn't."

In soccer, he said, small countries can beat big countries, smaller players get past bigger players.

It's why there is no certainty when it comes to major tournaments, including the 2010 World Cup.

"I think this World Cup will be a great World Cup," Doyle said. "It's the first World Cup held in Africa, which in itself is monumental in a symbolic way, that it's on that continent for the first time - the biggest sporting event in the world.

"But by having it in South Africa, that makes it distant from the power bases, the traditional power bases of soccer in Europe and South America. And if we use the first World Cup in Asia as a guide - that was the one in Korea-Japan in 2002 - then that distance from home tends to create a psychological disconnect. ... It's very hard to define what it is that happens, but in the first World Cup in Asia, some of the traditional European powers like France, Portugal, Italy, didn't do so well."

Doyle said home continent support may help to push countries such as South Africa, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana to greater accomplishments than what might otherwise be expected.

He also said national pride may play a role for other countries, Slovakia being one.

"In Slovakia's case, it's the first time it has qualified for a World Cup as an independent country. ... That's an event that really validates a young country, when it appears on the biggest stage in the world, and there's a pride, there's a dynamic, there's a force behind all of that which compels players to perform at a level that they might not normally be capable of," he said. "Given all of that, my suspicion is it will be a great World Cup for upsets."

In a scramble and with some negotiation, publishers of Doyle's book were able to get a schedule for World Cup 2010. It is included in the back, noting every game, including the opener - South Africa vs. Mexico on June 11. The final game of the tournament is set for one month later, on July 11.

Organizations: Globe and Mail, NHL

Geographic location: South Africa, Toronto, Barcelona Korea-Japan Portugal Iran Ireland Argentina Germany Austria-Switzerland Buenos Aires Italy North America Asia Spain Slovakia Africa Europe South America France Ivory Coast Nigeria Ghana Mexico

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