Some of you may have missed my book reviews. Since the English Premier League is well under way, I thought I would share this review I wrote a couple of years ago of a delightful book by a great Uruguayan writer and left-wing intellectual, Eduardo Galeano. He shares my deep love for the Beautiful Game.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano
I am a football supporter. But “support” is not the right word. It sounds dry, and there is nothing dry about football. It is pure passion.
This passion Galeano feels. The daring and sheer beauty of a player who knows his relationship with the ball (that “crazy feeling”), who loves and dares it to do better, who turns on it and sends it far away, watching it take flight. The exhilaration of those improvised steps, back heels, feints, step overs, bicycle kicks – in all their impulsive, if well rehearsed, tricks and turns and tumbles.
Early on Galeano declares his disillusionment with the modern game: it has been destroyed, he believes, by the evils of commercialism, It’s a profitable spectacle: “a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.” This is all in keeping with his Latin American left-wing credentials, of course. He clings to the image of a group of boys kicking a ball in a dusty street, and afterwards singing: “We lost, we won, either way we had fun.”
Indeed, modern football is about money: sponsorship, fees, the trading of players. The individual player, the freedom, the delight in his skills is subservient to the almighty team. The team serves its manager – and its fans (not enough about the fans in this book, I felt. What would football be without us – imperfect, adoring creatures that we are?)
This book is successful at many levels: its graceful language; the short chapters with titles in lower case, like “the man who turned iron into wind,” and “the perfect kiss would like to be unique.” The author illustrates each page with tiny, impish figures (the cover depicts “god and the devil in rio de janeiro”). Many chapters are simply headed “goal by zico” or “didí and she” (“she” being the ball), describing the extravagancies of a striker or goal-keeper.
Woven into the elegant descriptions of Platini and Pelé and Puskas (Galeano works from the first South American championship in 1916 right up to the 2002 World Cup), is a mixture of social commentary and world history in small chunks. A wry, oft-repeated refrain amongst these brief catalogues is: “Well-informed sources in Miami announced the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.” Mr. Galeano writes with reverent nostalgia about the “spiky-haired, dark-skinned poor” of Buenos Aires, the Boca Juniors fans; and the “Black Marvel” of his native Uruguay, José Leandro Andrade. There is moral indignation about “soccer’s new monarch,” Sep Blatter, and “soccer for robots.”
These are the lights and shadows of football in the book’s title. But no – that joy of the people in their game is still there; it always will be. From my office window I look out on a narrow lane where, every afternoon after school, a football rises and falls above the zinc fences; I imagine shouts, scuffles, laughter.
This is the world’s game, and it will continue speaking its unique, universal, wordless language.
Author Note: Eduardo Galeano was born in 1940 in Montevideo into a middle-class family. He left school at age 16 and began a journalism career at age 20. He was editor-in-chief of the journal “Marcha,” the daily “Epocha,” and the University Press. After the military coup of 1973, he was imprisoned and then forced to flee Uruguay. He had meanwhile published a novel and several books on politics and culture. In Argentina, he founded and edited “Crisis,” a cultural magazine. “The Open Veins of Latin America” (1971), essays denouncing the exploitation of the continent by European powers, made Galeano famous. In 1976, a bloody coup in Argentina forced him to flee this time to Spain, where he wrote his famous trilogy “Memory of Fire.” In 1985 he finally returned to Uruguay, where he still lives. With other left-wing intellectuals he joined the advisory committee of TeleSUR, a pan-Latin American television station in Venezuela, in 2005. In 2006, he was among a group of writers and artists demanding sovereignty for Puerto Rico. Last year, he underwent a successful operation for lung cancer.