Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle explores the international phenomenon of soccer
In A Great Feast of Light, John Doyle viewed his childhood in Ireland through the television screen. Now, he turns his eye to the most popular sport on the planet: soccer. It's a journey that begins with the first game John saw, in 1960s-era Ireland, through soccer in the 21st century - the World Cups in 02 and 06, the European Championships in 04 and 08. And Doyle has traveled the globe during the build-up to next year's World Cup 2010. In between the drunken fans, crazed taxi drivers, leprechauns and lederhosen, Doyle muses on the evolution of soccer as a global phenomenon. He shows a sport where for 90 minutes on the pitch anything seems possible. A game where colonized nations can tackle the power of their colonizers; where oppressed immigrant groups can thoroughly trounce their host countries. This book examines soccer from a new angle. John Doyle offers a compelling social history of the ultimate sport, each country and team competing in the historic 2010 World Cup, and how the game has kept pace as the global village has sprung up around the playing field.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
One: the first kiss
“In my childhood in a small western town, the local soccer club had the status of an illegal organization.”
—John Waters, Irish writer, 2002
It began as most illicit affairs in the old Ireland began: after Mass on a Sunday at a place where people gather. It was innocent enough, at the start.
I saw my first soccer game on a sunny summer Sunday in 1967. I was nine years old. The place was Longford, a small town in the middle of nowhere. It’s a place people pass through, knowing as they drive along its long, flat main street or see its train station go by that they have almost reached the northern counties of Ireland or are still a long way from Dublin. No matter what direction they’re heading, north or south, Longford hardly registers. But Longford is a county, and Longford town is its capital. In 1967, a few thousand people lived there. On Sundays, the shops were open, to accommodate the farming families who lived in outlying areas and came into the town once a week. On other days, most of the business done in the town was administrative. Longford town was, then, where people went to get a licence, in order to appear in court or deal with authority in some way. The town had a long history of anchoring authority. For two centuries, during British rule in Ireland, the town had a British military garrison. Even in the 1960s, forty years after British rule had ended, a former garrison town in Ireland still had a special significance. The hated British army barracks had stood there. Maybe men had died in some assault on the barracks during the War of Independence. Maybe men had died there, imprisoned and shot by British soldiers during that same war. The place was thus tainted. Usually, part of the lingering taint was an appreciation for soccer, a game introduced by British soldiers during the occupation of Ireland.
We didn’t live in Longford. We lived a few miles away, in Carrick-on-Shannon. Carrick was a smaller, prettier town, a place where the River Shannon turned and widened. On a sunny summer Sunday it was a quiet, pleasant and relaxed place. We were in Longford because there was an indoor swimming pool, and my sister Máire and the Coughlan girls loved to swim. The Coughlans lived near us in Carrick, and we’d all become great friends. Often on a Sunday, after Mass and the big lunch, Mr. Coughlan would drive the two girls and Máire to Longford and the swimming pool. His son Martin, a year older than me, would go too, and I usually tagged along. While the girls swam, we’d wander around the town in a bored way, looking in the shops for toys we couldn’t find in Carrick. On this Sunday, Mr. Coughlan had some business to take care of, so he took us to a tiny, ramshackle stadium and paid a few pennies for us to enter. There were about a hundred other people there.
A soccer game between Longford Town Football Club and Sligo Rovers had just begun. In minutes, I was transfixed. I’d never seen soccer played, in person or on TV. All I knew was that it was an English game and the players couldn’t use their hands. The rules were unknown to me. But the role of soccer in Ireland was not. The Christian Brothers railed against it at school, calling it “the garrison game.” They sneered at it, saying that the players only played for money, the game was unmanly and foreign, best ignored. They compared it unfavourably with Gaelic football and hurling, the two most popular sports in the country. Gaelic football was played by strong, fit men, and hurling was for fast-running men who weren’t afraid of a clatter on the head from a flying stick. Gaelic players didn’t play for money, they played for pride. They represented their local area, and if they were good enough, they played for their county. The Brothers said that soccer belonged in England, not in Ireland. They said that soccer players in Ireland and their followers were “Shoneens,” a word they spoke with a curled lip of contempt. To be a Shoneen was an awful thing. Sean is the Gaelic for John, and a Shoneen meant a small John, or Johneen, meaning a toady who wanted to be something like John Bull. Being a Shoneen was about the worst thing an Irish person could be. Some of the Brothers said that half the members of the government up in Dublin were Shoneens.
Carrick was in County Leitrim, which wasn’t famous for its Gaelic football or hurling. The county was always getting knocked out in the early stages of the all-Ireland championship in both sports. We’d only lived in Carrick for a few months, and much about life there was still new to me. But the Gaelic Athletic Association was everywhere in Ireland, and its influence was almost as powerful as that of the Catholic Church. Before Carrick, we’d lived in Nenagh, a town in County Tipperary where everybody was mad for Gaelic hurling. Tipperary was a great hurling county, everybody knew, and had some legendary players. The Brothers in Nenagh had hardly mentioned soccer, because there was no need. Only a few people who had immigrated to England and returned knew the slightest thing about it.
Attending a soccer game was, therefore, not something done lightly. And I knew that. My impression was that you could get in trouble for it. The GAA, which governed Gaelic football and hurling, had a branch and an organizing committee in every area of Ireland, no matter how small, and it kept an eye on soccer games. If you wanted to play Gaelic football or hurling, you couldn’t play soccer—or even watch a game. That was the official rule. You’d be barred forever from playing the Gaelic games. Even if you weren’t a player, but only a member of the GAA or a volunteer helping out with the Gaelic games, you couldn’t have anything to do with soccer, or you’d be out the door and nobody in the association would have anything to do with you. The only member of the GAA who was allowed to attend soccer games was a member of the committee assigned to take note of the traitors who were playing or watching. The Brothers said that if we boys were tempted to play soccer, or to go off to Longford or some other place to watch a game, we’d better be damn careful. The committee might have somebody there, watching, taking names and reporting back. We’d never play for our home county after that.
This knowledge lent a thrill to the experience of sitting in the little stadium in Longford, watching fellas play soccer. I didn’t know the word illicit then, but I had all the feelings that came with doing something un-Irish and, God knows, possibly harmful to my future and even that of Ireland. It was like telling a Christian Brother or a priest to go to hell. Yet nobody in the stadium at Longford seemed to be nervous about the GAA taking notes and names, so I relaxed and just watched. Beside me, Martin Coughlan was serene. He’d see soccer played before and said a lot of boys in Carrick played it, behind the Christian Brothers’ backs. “It’s a bit of fun, “ he said. “We might see some good moves here.”
The players were young, some had long hair, and they were enjoying themselves. The two teams were in position and I could immediately see the logic of the formation: four defenders in front of the goalkeeper, four more in the middle, with the players on the outside wings moving forward or retreating as the ball was moved around. Two forward, attacking players lined up in front of the middle four, and these were the most active and intense, all the time calling for the ball and seeking space for themselves to rush towards the opposing team. Across the middle of the field, the groups of four players moved tidily, protecting their space, keeping an eye on the forwards and, when they possessed the ball, kicking it forward short distances, waiting for an opening to send it farther forward to the two attackers. At the back, the two groups of four players formed the defence, moving little but shifting position slightly to guard the ground around them from penetration by the attacking players.
The rhythm of the game was easy to follow, almost musical in its pattern of slow, staccato movement followed by sudden rushes of high-energy sprinting. The ball was mostly on the ground, the players’ feet caressing it and coaxing it forward or sideways until it had to be sent forward, floating above everyone. Then, the opposing players would rise in the air, trying to change its direction with a glance of the head. There was a simple elegance to it all. I noted that some players were big-boned, hefty men, while others were skinny, almost frail, all legs and lungs, like greyhounds.
I knew that it was a kind of theatre I was watching. I was only nine years old, but my dad had been involved with amateur theatre for years, and I’d spent many an evening sitting in tiny theatres, church halls or the back rooms of pubs, watching one-act plays about farmers and their wayward sons and daughters, or drunken husbands who came to rue the day they’d tasted their first drop of drink. The intimacy of the theatre matched the intimacy of the soccer field, the players enacting their roles with intense concentration. The players had to think fast, with their feet and heads, and probe the space in front of them, searching for ways to move the ball that would cause panic in the other team. I was hypnotized by the rhythm of it.
My dad was also a fiercely Gaelic man, a proud speaker of the Gaelic language and supporter of the Gaelic games. I’d been to hurling matches in Tipperary, and at first been unnerved and then bored by the ferment of the crowd and the packed action on the field, which was hard to follow if you were small and trying to see everything. Gaelic hurling and football were about town against town, village against village or county against county. All everybody did was roar for the local men on the field, men who worked in the local shops or factories and represented them. That was the only point of going to a game—the shouting and braying that Nenagh was the best, or shouting “Come on, Tipp!” when Tipperary played. On the field were two groups of fifteen players, and the contest seemed chaotic. Height and strength mattered, and big lads with barrel chests tore up and down the field. In Gaelic football, the men kicked the ball with all their might; in Gaelic hurling, they whacked the ball hard with their sticks, all frantic energy and force. Yet when somebody scored, he looked self-conscious, as if he hadn’t really meant to do that, while the crowd roared in appreciation. It didn’t seem to make sense. And for all the intensity and noise of the crowd, I had the feeling that it was inconsequential. Outside of two towns or counties, nobody would really care what happened.
This soccer was different. It seemed aloof, more about tactics and skill than brute strength. The players were of all shapes and sizes. A small man could beat a big man with the skill and speed of his feet. The game had a spare, uncomplicated grace. It seemed to radiate the purest form of exhilaration in running, kicking and following a rolling ball along green grass. And it was more difficult to score than in the Gaelic games because the goal was smaller; yet because it was more difficult, the intensity of effort was greater. The game required thinking, agility and tactics. The cadence and pulse of it seemed connected to something outside of my experience. The players would have to be outlaws of some kind to indulge in a game that was condemned so often by all the priests and teachers. I didn’t know what debauchery meant any more than I did illicit, yet I had a child’s unerring sense that what I was watching was forbidden because it had a languid, honeyed pleasure to it. It tasted good, tempting and new. Besides, the Gaelic games seemed to me to be all wrapped up in the rigid tally of things that defined Irishness and we were all supposed to support—the Church, the priests, the Christian Brothers, going to confession on Saturday and Mass on Sunday. Soccer was the forbidden thing. It wasn’t hearty and Irish, it was foreign, and on that Sunday, it seemed delicious.
The experience was like the shock and pleasure of the first glancing kiss from a first love, from a woman who could make a man silent, excited, thrilled and always enthralled. I would spend a life in search of that pleasure. I’d seek it out, and everywhere it would be with me, the bliss of it. Here and there, across countries and continents, I’d find it. I’d change, and Ireland would change, but the bliss of that first kiss stayed constant.
From the Hardcover edition.
JOHN DOYLE has been a critic for The Globe and Mail since 1997 and has written the Globe's daily television column since 2000. His first book, the memoir A Great Feast of Light, was published to great acclaim in the US, UK, and Canada. He has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs to talk about popular culture, television, soccer, and Ireland. His writing has appeared in Report On Business magazine, Elle Canada, Flare, En Route, Books in Canada, The Irish Times, and the Toronto Star, among others. John Doyle lives happily in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Praise for A Great Feast of Light:
"[This] book crackles with unexpected angles, and is written with a kind of naïve delight. It is the ideal present for anyone given to pontification about the brain-deadening effects of television."
— The Sunday Times, (UK)
"A marvelous read, with keen insights and laugh-out-loud moments..."
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
"I had to stop reading several times because I was laughing hysterically."
— Malachy McCourt
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel