The Ball is Round, by David Goldblatt

Fields of dreams that covered the globe
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Look at the numbers. The United Nations has 192 members. Fifa, football's world governing body, has 207. Half the people on the planet watched Zinédine Zidane implode during this summer's World Cup final. About a billion people play the game on some kind of organised basis, often without headbutting opponents in the chest. There are 25 million kilometres of white lines on the Earth's football pitches, enough to circle it a thousand times. This is world domination on the scale of a Bond villain's fantasy; and even the Americans play it these days.

Since the human race is often corrupt, venal and greedy, why should its premier pastime escape? Mammon provides a ubiquitous backdrop in this global history of football, a back-breaking work of staggering research. Beginning with Chinese "kick-ball" and Mayan head tennis, David Goldblatt anatomises the multiple ways in which football expresses "the Faustian bargain that all modern societies have made with the forces of money and power". The game as we know it began in 1863, when some southern toffs met in a London pub to form the Football Association, and within a few years it had spread to the lower orders.

At that time Britons were everywhere, and took football with them. Evolution and the inequities of the global economy have produced strikingly different ways of playing and running the game. But there are common threads.

Proceeding region by region, constantly aware of how football is enmeshed in society, this monumental history tells a complex tale of use and abuse at the hands of politics and commerce. In recent times, for example, the reflected glory from his glamorous and all-conquering Milan side provided the oomph for Silvio Berlusconi's vault into power in Italy, while George Weah parlayed the name he made for himself at Milan - and not forgetting Manchester City - into a shot at the Liberian presidency.

The case of Brazil provides the clearest demonstration of how football can shape a society. The national team, black and white together, united a country that measures out its history in World Cup-sized slices. The trauma of 1950, when Uruguay snatched the trophy, was overcome. Despite chronic maladministration, the beautiful game, as Pelé described it, continues to be a Brazilian monopoly. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano notes, "Professional football does everything to castrate the energy of happiness, but it survives in spite of all the spites."

But if part of Goldblatt's message is that football can be bought, he is also keenly aware of its potential for glory; why it matters so much. Sepp Herberger, the German national coach whose World Cup win in 1954, "the Miracle of Berne", gave a defeated people a sense of identity and purpose, kept 361 notebooks all through the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Every word in them is about football.

A book such as this has to intertwine events on the pitch and off it, and it does so brilliantly. A series of break-outs recount significant matches, while throughout the text there's a heady whiff of what makes the game so addictive. Galeano again: "The more the powerful manipulate it, football continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs." Football conquered the world with its capacity to astonish, and this is its definitive history.

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