This might have been a different book: more ruminative, less densely packed. Instead Goldblatt has given full rein to his high style and an entirely fitting overload of information. It is in its own way a performative book, a 540-page brick of a thing that will block out the light, fill your rucksack, develop an ache in your shoulder, and plunge you face first into the structures and cultural minutiae of an absurdly overblown sport.
In all, this is a fascinatingly detailed account of the way football is used and abused by political interests even as technology has made it a global entertainment.
The book closes with the 2018 World Cup final presentation to France in Moscow, which took place during a freakish summer downpour. There was a shortage of umbrellas: only Vladimir Putin was sheltered at first for the presentation. “At a distance the participants appear like scurrying ants, the stage’s dimensions are Lilliputian,” Goldblatt notes from the stands. “The podium is awash in a landscape that is flooded. Facing the cameras, the players’ backs are turned to most of the crowd in the stadium; one can only connect with their euphoria by the media of the big screens. At the same time, high above the stadium, the storm we have made is raging and indifferent to us all.”
Goldblatt’s 2006 work The Ball is Round remains by some distance the best global history of football from a political and economic perspective. The Age of Football is essentially a companion work, offering a painstaking survey of the game as it is now and leaving no doubt that football is both a tool of globalisation and representative of its paradoxes. It may be a game, but its extraordinary reach means that, for better and for (mainly) worse, it is far more important than that.
This is an often eccentric book. There’s an imagined conversation between Uefa executives and the long-dead Walter Benjamin and suggestions for television shows. The vocabulary is enjoyably recondite (“fissiparous”, “chaebols”), then suddenly sweary (“WTF?”) or sarcastic (“no kidding”). The tone veers from balanced academic discourse to double-barrelled opinion. But perhaps those tonal gear changes are the only way to capture the spirit of a sport that can itself be playful and deadly serious, at once silly yet beautifully profound.
Goldblatt could go on and often does. He references situationist theory and post-Marxist analysis, Guy Debord and Walter Benjamin as a twin strike force, to substantiate his persuasive belief that pretty much all of the hopes and inequalities and fears of contemporary society are played out in the spectacle of 11 v 11. This is not a book for the armchair reader of either football or global politics, but it is an irrefutable argument against anyone who might still suggest that either is only a game.