Sunday, June 27, 2010


In the time of the World Cup, if one is not watching the matches, one could do the next best thing: read Eduardo Galeano’s classic Soccer in Sun and Shadow. The best time to read this wonderful book is when the tournament is at the rather lazy league stage, when those with the “favourite tag” play far too cautiously to offer pleasing football.

This 240 page book is as much a racy history of football as an illuminating history of the World Cup from 1930 to 1998. Told in 221 short pieces, these two stories blend nicely, as they tell us how from a pastime football became a profession, and then an industry, and how from a strictly local event, in fact, non-event, it became a global spectacle. In the process many things happened. For one thing, “the player became a worker”, but without many rights, as Maradona, Laudrup, Hogo Sanchez, Bebeto, and others would find later, and to fight for the players’ rights they organized a soccer players union. Then rather than creating poetry on the field with the ball, when teams focussed on just winning, the game lost much of its beauty and grace. But a win brought delight to the people of those countries in particular who had little to be happy about. Such a country looked up to its players to redeem her honour in the football field which it had lost in other far more important playing fields – this indeed was the story of Argentina’s humiliation in the FalkIand war, and its victory over England in the 1986 World Cup, no matter that it was achieved through deceit. Maradona never apologized for his “hand of God” goal, neither did Argentina, and that defeat still rankles England. Galeano notes the contribution of the dictators in making winning virtually the sole goal. When a team receives the message “Win or die” from the ruler, as did the Italian team from was Mussolini before playing the final match in the 1938 World cup, all space for beautiful play disappears. In due course people took over this role from the dictator; a Columbian defender had to pay for his life for the self-goal he scored in the 1994 World Cup match. Doesn’t the traditional Brazilian attitude, rejecting defensive football – “Brazil must attack, it is for its opponent to defend” - look like an anachronism in today’s football, at least at the World Cup level? As the game moved into the society from its periphery, it soon became a commercial institution with a complex structure and governance. As transnational bodies took over football administration, the game’s corporatization was complete. Business interests would supersede national interests, if it came to that, and even winning would become secondary, no matter what consequences, as it did, when Brazil had to play an unfit Ronaldo for the entire duration of the final match when it played France in 1998 World Cup. Players became resources or commodities to be used by the establishment; they were reduced to “monkeys in a circus”. Even the language changed; thus Maradona was spoken of as the employer’s “investment”. Of football, Camus, who played as a goal keeper in Algeria, once said, “Everything I know about morals, I owe to soccer”, but that was a different age, remarks Galeano.

In the pages of Galeano’s book one reads about creative artists of the great game, and about aspects of their personality too - one reads about the sheer magic of Pele, Garrincha, Puskas, Cruyff, Eusebio, Beckenbauer, Maradona, and a host of others, and also about how Maradona spoke “truth to power”, as the author puts it, and was made to pay for it. One reads about Gullit’s speaking out against the money culture in football, his protesting against apartheid in sports, and also Pele’s self-centredness, and lack of empathy for the poor (“...a coin never fell from his pocket”). In 1978, the creative Holland team lost to Argentina in the final, but Galeano does not end the story of the great Dutch footballers with that defeat; he notes how in the award ceremony, these brave men refused to “salute the leaders of the Argentina’s dictatorship”. The book informs us about such instances of courage and many more ones of commitment to basic human values of many celebrated footballers.

Galeano is a great master of irony. In his football narrative, the sordid exists with the delightful, and the depressing with the spectacle. The contrast is as illuminating as it is painful. As the opening ceremonies of the 1978 World Cup were being held in Argentina under dictatorship, “A few steps away ... the torture and extermination camp ... was operating at full speed. A few miles beyond that, prisoners were being thrown alive from airplanes into the sea.” One can never be in any doubt about who these prisoners were; they were not ordinary criminals, they were political prisoners. That was when in Argentina, even curiosity was dissent. Nothing brings out the sheer vulgarity of situation more poignantly than Kissinger’s words about Argentina, “This country has a great future in all ways”.

Forget about the unforgettable content. One could read this book for the purity of its prose, and the style of its narrative. In a short piece of less than a hundred and fifty words, the author describes a goal by Zico, and sums up the description with a sentence that captures the magic of that goal so well: “ ‘Tell me about that goal’, pleaded the bind”. In Galeano’s hands, football writing, for the first time in the history of that discourse, achieved the status of art.

I end with a sincere request: if you are not watching Brazil or Argentina or Spain playing, then do read Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

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