David gets his kicks from chronicling football world

By Simon Yaffe

WRITER David Goldblatt was working for the Open University when an idea about football led him on a path which has taken him around the world.

David had his brainstorm while wondering about the dearth of working-class men on his politics course.

"I thought to myself, 'What are they are interested in' - and football came to mind," he recalled.

"I went to my bosses and suggested a six-week taster course on football and society, but they didn't want to go through with it."

Unperturbed, David came up with a "map of football" - and sold the idea, which led to The World Football Yearbook, published by Dorling Kindersley.

He brought football statistics to life with photographs, charts, graphs and diagrams.

It was around 1998 and football literature - through history, politics, sociology and geography - was starting to emerge.

Simon Kuper's seminal Football Against the Enemy and Pete Davies' All Played Out were the only two books in that genre until then.

"Thanks to Italian football being shown on TV and then Spanish football, there is now a fantastic array of books on other countries' football," the 45-year-old said.

"There is now a bigger middle-class football book-reading public, but I think it has always been there to an extent.

"What was not there was a recognition among readers or writers that it was permissible to reflect the game in a certain way."

Raised in London in a "secular but culturally Jewish home", David attended Tottenham Hotspur's midweek evening games, as his father, Ivan, worked on the markets at the weekend.

He recalled: "We ended up supporting Spurs because my grandfather Max, who ended up in London from South Africa via a long bohemian tour of South-East Asia and the Pacific, followed them.

"My dad was into it much more though, but by around 1975/76, it had all turned a bit rough and nasty at White Hart Lane and in football, so he didn't want to go anymore.

"I felt slightly bereft as I was too young to go by myself to White Hart Lane, as we lived in Ruislip, so it was a bit of a shlep.

"I ended up going to a rugby-playing school and my fervour was only rekindled later on.

"I look at it as a hiatus from football, but I never really stopped following Spurs."

David went to Cambridge to read medicine, but he was more interested in history and wanted to be a writer.

His first job was for the Labour Party at the House of Commons.

"I learned I didn't want to be an MP - I didn't have a thick enough skin," recalled David, who now lives in Bristol.

He returned to Cambridge where he gained a PhD in social theory and the environment, which was published as a book in 1996.

But his big break came with the 2006 publication of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football.

"It took three years of research, but there is stuff in it which I learned about when I was 18," he said. "It is still dawning on me how successful it is.

"It is a big book, so it takes a long time to be absorbed, but it has been considered by my peers to be a landmark and definitive history of football. That is pretty amazing.

"I was in my early 20s when I first discovered people wrote global histories and I wanted to do the same.

"Football was my root and I had been preparing it for a long time in some way."

For The Ball is Round, David travelled to 15 countries, including Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Serbia, Greece and most of Scandinavia.

He also went to the 2004 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia and Euro 2004 in Portugal.

"Serbia was the most extraordinary," David said. "I went to the Red Star Belgrade v Partizan Belgrade derby and watched the Partizan fans, as their team was losing 3-0, set fire to the stadium."

David also travelled to Israel in 2008 for BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents.

He met fans of Betar Jerusalem's notorious La Familia - a group of nationalistic fans of arguably Israel's biggest club.

David explained: "I had read the previous year about a group of Betar fans who joined settlers groups in a flag-planting exercise on a proposed hilltop settlement in east Jerusalem.

"It sounded like a really interesting story."

He watched Betar take on Maccabi Ahi Nazareth, a club from the largest Arab town in Israel.

"The game was akin to Stockport County facing Manchester City in financial terms, but at half-time a group of La Familia ran to the back of the stand and started praying like they were at the Western Wall," David said.

"I worked out that one of them was Guy Israeli, La Familia's leader, and I asked him what he was doing.

"He pointed at the Ahi Nazareth fans and said he wanted them to see that they were Jewish. They had very ultra-nationalistic attitudes, but like any ultra-nationalism, their reactions are born of fear."

David's latest offering is Futebol Nation (Penguin, 9.99), which tells the footballing history of Brazil.

Brazilian citizens' demanding improved public services, the spiralling cost of next month's World Cup and an end to corruption has brought millions of people out on to the countries' streets.

It was something which piqued David's interest in a country which loves its football, but is racked with injustices and a perceived lack of empathy for many of its population.

He explained: "I was in the city of Belo Horizente for the Brazil versus Uruguay Confederations Cup semi-final last summer.

"Brazil won and normally such a victory would be celebrated, but when I returned to the September 7 Square, where I had been earlier in the day, there was a 120,000-strong demonstration.

"They tried to march on the stadium, but were stopped by rubber bullets and tear gas.

"It was unbelievable - it was like a civil war in THE footballing nation, which made me want to write about it."

David also witnessed demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro and went back for two more weeks to research his new tome.

The Brazil World Cup is the most expensive on record, but David feels there is a need to question the legitimacy of such "mega events" as the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, due to be held in Rio.

"The World Cup's status, political appeal and cost have become more global and significant than it has ever been," he said.

"Brazil is torn though, because it is the only country to be defined and re-imagined through the character and performances of its national team.

"However, something snapped last year because of the way this World Cup has been funded, organised, staged and planned.

"There is now a significant proportion of the population of Brazil who are saying enough is enough.

"Widespread protests have happened before at World Cups, but not on such a scale.

"Chilean exiles demonstrated at its government in West Germany in 1974, while there were protests urging people not to go to Argentina in 1978 because of its junta government.

"The Italians were barracked in 1938 by anti-fascists."

Father-of-two David, who is married to Sarah Bond, also teaches sociology on and off at Bristol University and has recently returned from a three-and-a-half month teaching sabbatical in Los Angeles.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph