DAVID GOLDBLATT'S 992-page tome, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, traces the sport from its seeds (sown in China in 200 B.C.) through its growth in 19th-century England and its kudzu-like spread across the continents. Goldblatt provides impressive scholarship, showing how soccer was affected by political developments (fascism's rise in Europe; Evita Per�n's reign in Argentina), lending perspective to icons like Beckenbauer and Best and setting off each chapter with lively quotes. ("[Soccer] can cause young men to faint, holy men to swear and strong men to become impotent for a day," says Nigerian writer Samuel Akpabot.) Brave is the reader who goes cover to cover, but rich are the rewards.