This is the first installment of a recurring feature on books you might want to read in anticipation of Brazil 2014. Although it’s a review, I announce the book in advance so that you can read along if you’d like, and feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments section. As a side note, the photo above was taken by photographer and Uruguayan football fan, Jimmy Baikovicius (used under creative commons license). It’s one of many remarkable football photos he took at the 2010 World Cup (and he also has sets following Uruguay in this World Cup qualification cycle and of domestic games involving Peñarol). I encourage you to check out his work on flickr.
“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”
Eduardo Galeano is an Uruguayan author of serious creative non-fiction of a magical realist bent. He is also a serious football fan, and El Fútbol a Sol y Sombra (Football/Soccer in Sun and Shadow) is his history of the sport. Because of its South American perspective, this is my recommendation if you only have time to read one book in anticipation of this summer’s World Cup.
The book is divided into very small, parable-like sections, often less than a full page and few longer than two. After a few opening sections reflecting on the various roles and elements of football (the player, the goalkeeper, the fan, the stadium, etc.), Galeano turns to chronicling the history of the game from the earliest images of men playing with balls (Ming dynasty) to a World Cup between 1994 and 2010, depending on which edition you have.
For Galeano, though, history is also myth, a version of the Fall. Glorious moments of beauty are cast against a backdrop of inevitable human decay and decline. It is also the story of colonization, a chiastic world in which Europe and South America, white players and black, and ultimately capital and labor vie with one another. It is the history of a universal impulse to play subjected to the strictures of rule and regulation by the British and then exported, only for South America to reinvest it with the creativity and passion, the play, of its primeval heritage. Another potential colonial chiasmus is found in the language of the game, which is drawn from either theater and play, or from war, though Galeano is too wise to pretend that the latter of these is the exclusive preserve of the colonizer.
As one would expect from Galeano’s perspective, the United States mostly appears alongside the European and capitalist colonizers of the game. The notable exception is our historic 1950 World Cup victory against England, where the U. S. is briefly accorded New World status. More representative are the “News of the World” updates that accompany each World Cup entry. From 1962 on, we are told that “well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.”
Though Flamengo and Fluminense make a brief appearance, along with other club sides from South America and Spain, Galeano’s history is primarily that of the international game. That story unfolds through four kinds of parables: World Cups, great players, great goals, and critical moments in the economic reconquest of the game by capital, the ever-unfolding Fall against which those players and goals offer a brief counter-point.
Galeano’s mythical history reveals a tension that is at least arguably inherent in the democratic socialism underlying his narrative. Though Galeano identifies “true” soccer with the people and child-like play, it is the actions of great individuals and the goals that they score, rather than the efforts of the collective that he lionizes. It is a story of great men (and men they are), though Galeano is at pains to show that his greatest heroes are also great men of the people (Maradona is shown speaking Neapolitan truth to European elites; his commitment to a bilardismo ethos and his tax evasion are quietly passed over). If the myth is that of the people, it is shaped by the demi-gods who stride amongst them.
The same tension can be seen in Johann Cruyff, football’s Mick Jagger at the heart of total football. If they were no better at removing the tension in reality, Soviet theorists of the game were at least more consistent in insisting on the collective, adopting the metaphor of the machine to insist that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Galeano’s discomfort with this line of thinking is evident in his worrying over “La Maquina,” the great River Plate side of the early 40s that he insists “had nothing in common with the mechanical coldness of a machine.” The humanity that he sees embodied in the people’s game is clearly the humanity of the individual, not of the whole.
This commitment to artisan over industry is echoed in the book’s artistic design. Though they could result from the clever artifice of professional design, the accompanying illustrations have a distinctly homespun feel. Most of them are simple silhouettes, evoking the feel of pasted additions. The top of each left-hand page and the bottom of each right are lined with decorative headers and footers respectively, the former of traditional, leather football, the latter of more modern, hexagonal design. To my eye, the overall design is reminiscent of books from the more artisanal, early handprint period of bookmaking (though I must confess to substantial ignorance regarding Latin American book history, which may well offer more immediate design referents).
Because Galeano’s mythical framework–that football was once a beautiful game most powerfully expressed by Brazil ’70 and now corrupted by the Fall of commercialization and globalization–is one accepted by the majority of sports writer and perhaps of fans as well, it’s important to point out that this is, in fact, a myth. If professionalism has really reduced the quality of football, perhaps we should extend this thinking to other fields of human endeavor. Would you trust your triple bypass to a cold, mercenary professional when you could have a loving amateur practitioner instead? But perhaps surgery lacks football’s basis in playful creativity, in which case you should definitely stick to amateur theater for your entertainment needs.
What makes Galeano’s book work is the fact that he recognizes this mythical structure for what it is, presenting the Fall as always already behind us. Frustrated with the money-driven circulation of players in the modern game? Galeano notes that the professional game in South America emerged in the 1930s to combat the flight of players to Europe. Tired of the commercialism that is ruining the sport? No doubt you will lament, as this book does, the emergence of jersey sponsorship in the mid 1950s. Galeano is well aware that the game slipped into the way of all flesh well before the onset of Sky Sports or Champions League money.
Most fans imagine that the Fall has happened slightly before the onset of their own middle-age (as it happens, just about the time that the actors on the pitch start to become consistently younger than themselves). One might thus expect Galeano, born in 1940, to lose his sense of wonder right around the time of Brazil ’70. It is probably fair to say that the tone of the book does sour at about that time, darkening into the 80s and through the 90s.
The first edition of the book ends shortly after the 1994 World Cup. Later editions, however, offer an “Extra Time” with new entries for each of the later World Cups as well. Readers will be pleased that Galeano made this concession to the mechanical sports industry he ridicules and its transparent profit motive, for the additions are welcome notwithstanding their increasingly bitter tone. Yet just when all hope seems lost, World Cup 2010 ends with an unexpected burst of joy.
On the first day of the World Cup, I hung a sign on the door of my house that said: “Closed for soccer.”
When I took it down a month later, I had played sixty-four matches, beer in hand, without budging from my favorite chair.
The exploit left me drained, muscles stiff, throat raw, but already I feel nostalgic.
It is a plan worth emulating this June.
In March, I’ll be turning to Alex Bellos’s Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. It’s the main resource for English-speakers on Brazilian football, so it will be another great lead up to this summer. It was written while Bellos was serving as a Brazilian correspondent for The Guardian, and he went on to ghost-write Pelé’s autobiography. He has since written a highly regarded popular book on math, which suggests he can make any topic exciting.