When Galeano writes on football.
(It’s football, not soccer!)
Eduardo Galeano was one of the greatest journalists from Latin America — a contemporary of many of the magnificent minds that America (the continent, not the country which has appropriated the name and reduced it into a mecca of greed and self-righteousness) has produced. And like any individual during those days with a drop of humanity in them, Galeano was also imprisoned, exiled, and forced to flee his country by the pro-US terrorist regime under Juan María Bordaberry. He moved to Argentina in 1973 and lived there for three years until Videla took over the country in a bloody coup and added his name to the list of people to be executed, forcing him to move to Spain where he stayed till 1985. Galeano was extremely bold and true to his words — the words with which he spun magic; and like any true Uruguayan he lived and loved football.
Galeano wrote the book Le Football, ombre et lumière (Football in shadow and light), which is published in English speaking nations as Soccer in sun and shadow. I am still pissed off at this translation, because nowhere in the world where football is venerated it is called soccer. The fact that they had to put the American English name of the game in the title is nauseating. The book talks about the origin of football and chronologically lists the development of the game, how big businesses took over the control of it and destroyed it’s beauty. It is built with the world cup matches as the skeletal structure while the flesh and blood is provided by numerous anecdotes surrounding the game and the politics of the time. Galeano’s humour is beyond comprehension at times and invariably passionate. He abhors the fact that the rich European companies have bled the game of its beauty and has left a robotic structure apt only for a money making machinery.
He routinely makes fun of the shallow pro-US political analysts and journalists. One running joke he has repeated throughout the book is about how the right wing imperialists kept on predicting the fall of Fidel Castro: “Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours”. Castro eventually outlived Galeano by more than a year — something I am sure would have pleased our author.
The Euro-centric approach of world football annoyed him a lot and when the proud ones inevitably fall, Galeano would be there, waiting: “In 2006 Italy and France met in the final match. This time they met in the airport departure lounge”.
However he is never the one to punch down, knowing that most of the European nations and clubs are playing the beautiful game right only because of the immigrant players in the team. This is what he has to say about Zidane’s momentary lapse of reason: “At the end of the tournament, in practically the final moment of the final match, a bull charged: Zidane, who was saying farewell to football, head-butted a rival who had been needling him with the sort of insult that lunatic fans like to shriek from the upper decks. The insulter got flattened and the insulted got a red card from the referee and jeers from a crowd poised until then to give him an ovation. And Zidane left the field for good.
Still, this was his World Cup. He was the best player of the tournament, despite that final act of insanity or integrity, depending on how you look at it. Thanks to his beautiful moves, thanks to his melancholy elegance, we could still believe that football was not irredeemably condemned to mediocrity.”
This two faced approach and the inherent racism amongst European fans is still evident today and more so. The eccentric yet fantastic Italian player Mario Balotelli has been the butt of racial abuse for years. The talented Belgian player Romelu Lukaku once said that if “I play well I am Belgian player Lukaku; if I do not I am player of Congolese descent Lukaku”. More recently the non-white players in the English team which lost the Euro finals to Italy were racially abused, their pictures vandalised all over England and their social media pages filled with nauseatingly racist messages, pictures of monkeys and bananas.
Galeano is sad how his national team is playing. He talks about the golden days of Uruguayan football. He is such an ardent fan, and like any of them he can’t find a fault in his team which is something any football fan can relate to. This is what our man has to say about the controversial play by the Uruguayan superstar Suarez, a not so sportsmanlike move: “The best save of the tournament was the work of a goal scorer, not a goalkeeper: Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez, standing on the goal line in the final minute of a decisive match, blocked the slippery ball with both hands. A goal would have taken his country out of the Cup; thanks to his act of patriotic lunacy, Suárez was sent packing but Uruguay was not.”
This is a book about football, or so it may seem. In fact Galeano has used the premise of this beautiful game to give a general context of how anything beautiful is exploited by capitalism to make money for the few; and like anything capitalist, the business of football extends its exploitation towards the global south. He also points out how the purveyors of world football, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has always sided with tyrants and fascists. When Spanish players left the country during Franco’s fascist regime, they were banned for life. When Algerians wanted to play as a independent team, during the peak of their independence struggle against the French, FIFA unsurprisingly banned them. Also, there is nothing unholier than the love affair between the federation and the pro-Nazi sporting giant Adidas and the love kid of an agency they created together, International Sports and Leisure. Galeano goes on to paint the grim picture of exploitation thus: “Pakistani children sewed the high-tech ball for Adidas that started rolling on opening night in the stadium at Seoul: a rubber chamber, surrounded by a cloth net covered with foam, all inside a skin of white polymer decorated with the symbol of fire.”
I am not sure if Galeano used to write sports columns for newspapers. However, I imagined myself reading those reports. Perhaps the last world cup might have gotten some joy for him. It brought the revival of his team, to a certain extent at least. We saw the fantastic play between Suarez and Cavani — something that perhaps evoked the great Uruguayan games of yore. Galeano states something which seems obvious to all of us lovers of the Latin American game — football is not something that can be quantified. Beauty is not defined by numbers. It might have been invented by the colonists, but it is now owned by the global south even if the number of trophies may say otherwise.
Let me close this article with what Galeano had to say about the greatest player to have graced this game:
“Maradona is uncontrollable when he speaks, but much more so when he plays. No one can predict the devilish tricks this inventor of surprises will dream up for the simple joy of throwing the computers off track, tricks he never repeats. He’s not quick, more like a short-legged bull, but he carries the ball sewn to his foot and he has eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the field. He can win a match with a thundering blast when his back is to the goal, or with an impossible pass from afar when he is corralled by thousands of enemy legs. And no one can stop him when he decides to dribble upfield.
In the frigid soccer of today’s world, which detests defeat and forbids all fun, that man was one of the few who proved that fantasy too can be effective.”