The World is a Ball
The World is a Ball
by John Doyle
"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...
- The Sunday Times, (UK) "[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."
- Publishers Weekly, starred review "A marvelous read, with keen insights and laugh-out-loud moments..."
- Malachy McCourt "I had to stop reading several times because I was laughing hysterically."
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