Footie Fanatic: John Doyle reveals that soccer, not the tube, is his one true love

Footie Fanatic: John Doyle reveals that soccer, not the tube, is his one true love

In his new book, John Doyle, the Globe’s sardonic TV critic, reveals that soccer, not the tube, is his one true love 

Doyle at BMO Field (Image: Derek Shapton) 

Soccer is a game that inspires deep and lasting love like no other. As John Doyle conveys in his new book, The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer, the love runs especially deep in Toronto, where European, African and Asian immigrants and their descendants passionately support their home teams. Thanks to three years of sellout Toronto FC games, that ardour is catching on among a growing collection of sports enthusiasts interested in a game outside the force-fed mythology of Leafs Nation. And yet, TV and newspaper sports desks still view it as a niche interest. The sidelining of soccer has, if anything, strengthened fans’ devotion to the sport and consolidated them as a band of outsiders. As Doyle explains it, “The lack of soccer coverage makes the allure of the game all the more intense, like pining for a love who is far away.”

Doyle is something of a professional outsider. Like many of the city’s soccer fans, he is an immigrant. Having arrived from Ireland in 1980 to do a PhD in English at York University, he subsidized his education (and played against his highbrow literary background) by writing entertainment stories for Canadian and Irish newspapers. In 1990, he turned his freelance work into a full-time job writing for Broadcast Week, the TV insert that used to come with the Globe. It wasn’t the most prestigious beat (he once wrote a self-deprecating article about the exclusion of the lowly TV journalist from the cliques of “real” reporters), but in the subsequent years as a critic, he has become one of the paper’s strongest voices. His stubborn contrarian stance isn’t always popular. He has incurred the wrath of Fox News for lambasting Bill O’Reilly in a series of scathing columns and, with equal pugnacity, upset defenders of public television with his relentless criticism of the CBC. It’s a persona that has garnered him a loyal following of readers.

Television writing, however, doesn’t capitalize on Doyle’s gift for story­telling. Soccer reporting does. His coverage of the sport started getting attention in 2001, first in a TV column about an Ireland-Iran match as experienced from the corner of a noisy Toronto bar, next as the Globe’s correspondent at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Serious soccer fans saw the move as another media snub (“They’re sending a TV critic to do a sports writer’s job?”), but for the city’s uninitiated, Doyle’s reporting was a revelation—a window into a foreign and mysterious universe on and off the field.

Doyle’s new book, his second work of non-fiction, anthologizes his World Cup and European Championship coverage. (He likes to write on matters close to his heart: his first book recounted his childhood in Ireland.)

The essays dispense with the overreaching analysis typical of the genre, instead telling the more personal stories on the margins of the main event: a Brazilian woman dancing with a plastic kangaroo in anticipation of a match, or a Korean girl sobbing and shaking from the emotional exhaustion of a great home team game. “I’m like all of them,” Doyle says, “the loners searching out a congregation of like-minded people.”

It’s that curiosity and desire for community that compels Doyle to walk away from the crowd of sports journalists in the press box and out into the street parties of, say, Ibaraki, Japan. Drawing a rectangle in the air with his fingers, he explains, “That’s the field, and that’s also what you see on the TV screen. My job is to move outside of that rectangle, to get out in the city, to know everything that’s going on.” He honed his style of reportage after watching a game at Tivoli Billiards in Kensington Market with a group of elderly Portuguese men. “Day labourers used to wait for work calls there. It showed me how soccer is woven into the texture of communities,” he says. Lately, Doyle watches games at the Football Factory, a soccer-centric bar in his Queen West neighbourhood.

When the World Cup takes over South Africa this month, Torontonians representing all 32 competing nations will be in the streets, too, hanging flags from apartment windows, bringing traffic to a halt with honking post-game cruises, and skipping work to join the 2.2 billion other people obsessed with a little black and white ball on a green rectangle an ocean away—a global collection of like-minded fanatics packed into bars, yelling, crying, laughing and praying under the glare of a TV screen.