Football Crazy

The World Is A Ball author John Doyle on Maradona, World Cups, and following Ireland

SURVIVING A withering glare from Diego Maradona; partying with French and Spanish football supporters on a train from Hanover to Berlin; and sitting in a Canadian bar, experiencing agony and ecstasy while following the Irish soccer team - it’s all in a day’s work for John Doyle.

John Doyle, the Canadian based Irish journalist and author, has been writing on football for The Globe and Mail, one of the main newspapers in Canada, for the best part of a decade, and he is coming to the Cúirt International Festival of Literature for a special football related reading with Steve Bloomfield, author of Africa United - how football explains Africa.

The boys in green

Mr Doyle’s love affair with the game began in the late 1960s when he was a child growing up in Co Leitrim and a regular family Sunday outing happened to take in a football match.

“I was living in Carrick-on-Shannon and on a Sunday outing we were in Longford and saw Longford Town play Sligo Rovers,” he recalls. “It was the first time I saw a match. In the late 1960s Ireland was dominated by the GAA. Soccer was obscure and outside Dublin, Cork, and Limerick it was seen as ‘the English game’. There was still the ban when GAA people were not allowed play it and were not supposed to attend soccer games, and I was watching the game in that context on a sunny Sunday.”

Although Mr Doyle is now based in Toronto, he remains a passionate follower of the League of Ireland.

“I continue to keep an eye on the League of Ireland and look at the results and I’m fascinated with the ups and downs and financial woes and the teams that have almost gone bust,” he says. “I know the situation at Galway United and how precarious it is. It’s a pity this is happening to the league given the devotion of fans throughout Ireland.”

While Mr Doyle writes primarily on culture for The Globe and Mail, he began writing on soccer for the paper when his boss, a football loving Scot, got talking to him about the sport and asked him to cover the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.

Since then he has covered the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2004 and 2008, and numerous major club and international matches. However his football journalism is not that of the traditional match report as he attempts to explain soccer to North Americans and to give them an understanding of why it matters so much to the rest of the world.

These experiences eventually led to writing The World Is A Ball - the joy, madness, and meaning of football, published by Transworld Ireland in 2010. The book enjoyed warm reviews with Linden MacIntyre, author of the Giller Prize winner The Bishop’s Man saying: “Even if you don’t like soccer but care about people, the games that people play and why they play them – this is a book to love.”

Much of the book concerns Mr Doyle following the trials and tribulations of the Republic of Ireland football team. I ask him if following the State team is duty or a pleasure, a masochistic or a patriotic thing?

“It’s all of the above,” he says, “but I think for an emigrant it’s also a vital link to your background, your nationality. It’s an emotional thing and it’s an extraordinary experience to be in an Irish bar in North America watching the Irish team play.”

In all his years following the RoI, who does Mr Doyle feel is the greatest player ever to don the green shirt?

“Roy Keane,” he replies without hesitation. “He emerged in the dying days of the Jack Charlton era and took Ireland on his own back to the World Cup in 2002. The fact he did that by force of will alone played a factor in the Siapan fiasco. He embodied the new Ireland of hard work, discipline, and a refusal to be cowered by large reputations.”

Surviving Maradona

Keane would easily make any list of ‘Greatest Footballers Of All Time’, but when talking about the single greatest player in the history of the sport there are really only three or four names that come up, and one of those is always Argentina’s Diego Armando Maradona, the star of Mexico 86, whose leadership, inspiration, and dazzling talent and virtuosity made an excellent tournament into an unforgettable one.

Maradona’s stint as the national coach of Argentina was not particularly successful but it was certainly action packed, and Mr Doyle found himself at the centre of a bit of that action at a press conference with El Diego, earning himself a rebuke from the temperamental star.

“I wanted to go to Argentina as soccer matters so much there,” he says. “To be in Buenos Aires to see Argentina play Columbia, to be in South America to see one South American nation play another for a place in the World Cup was amazing. The atmosphere was intense.

“I was at the press conference after the game and I had arranged for an interpreter to translate from Spanish for me. Maradona gave the press conference himself, which is unusual as the manager is normally accompanied by a player but Maradona is like a god in Argentina. People practically bow down to him and the questions were very deferential. Nobody was going to question him openly to his face.

“While he was answering the questions he realised there was whispering going on. It was my translator translating for me but Maradona is not used to hearing any other noise in the room when he speaks. He was looking around to figure out where it was coming from and when he saw it was us, he gave me this glare that said ‘I am Maradona and nobody speaks when I speak.” It was a look that only a true superstar could give. That was a memorable moment.”

The world game

There are those who see football as something that divides and separates people. They would point to Rangers and Celtic as showing how different football teams in the same city inspire fellow citizens to become bitter rivals.

Yet this is a narrow view of the sport, one which discounts its appeal as ‘the world game’ and for its power in uniting different cultures, creeds, and outlooks. As the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci said: “Football is the open-air kingdom of human loyalty”. It is a verdict Mr Doyle’s own experiences at the 2006 World Cup in Germany more than validates.

“Being at a World Cup is like being at a rock festival,” he says. “You are at a giant party. People are there to have a good time. If you are a soccer fan you are in a place where it’s the only thing that matters, and it’s heaven to be in such a place.

“One of the defining experiences for me was after I had been in Hanover where Spain played France, which France won to everybody’s surprise. I was on the late train back to Berlin, at about 1.30am/2am. I was in a carriage with a lot of French supporters who were asleep, so I went to the bar on the train and it was like a massive party there.

“It was full of French and Spanish supporters and people from all over the world, not just journalists, but fans, who had been at the game, and the game was all they were talking about. There were about 14 different languages, but everybody was speaking the same language - football - and wanted to make friends with everybody else.

“The train got back to Berlin. It was about 4am, it was a gorgeous night, and I saw on the streets two German teenagers fast asleep on the pavement, they were spooning and holding hands and they had the German flag draped around them. It was amazing to me that they felt so safe that they could be asleep on the street, and that is what the World Cup brought to the streets and the city.”

John Doyle and Steve Bloomfield will read in the Druid Lane Theatre on Saturday April 16 at 12 noon. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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