Thursday, June 18, 2015

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

The FIFA Women's World Cup is happening in Edmonton and I have friends with tickets to every event. Not that I have any desire to watch soccer myself, but people around me are talking about the sport, so I decided to experience it in my own way: via a book. Of course.

Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow turned out to be so much more interesting than I had imagined. Originally published in 1995, the edition that I read was revised and updated in 2013 and translated by Mark Fried. I loved it! The chapters are more like vignettes consisting of a few paragraphs. Galeano's style is engaging and the book is packed with fun facts. I kept wanting to read passages aloud to anyone who would listen.

    "In 1988 Mexican journalist Miguel Angel Ramirez discovered a fountain of youth. Several players on Mexico's junior team, who were two, three, and even six years beyond the age limit, had been bathed in the magic waters: the directors falsified their birth certificates and fabricated fake passports. This treatment was so effective that one player managed to become two years younger than his twin brother."

I learned that Albert Camus played soccer for the University of Algiers in 1930. "He had been playing goalkeeper since childhood, because in that position your shoes don't wear out as fast. Son of a poor home, Camus could not afford the luxury of running the fields; every night, his grandmother examined the soles of his shoes and gave him a beating if she found them worn."

One anecdote sounds like something from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. In 1953, a Catholic priest offered a guarantee of victory to the Brazilian team Flamengo, provided the players attended his mass before each match and said the rosary while kneeling before the altar. Flamengo won the championship three years in a row and their rivals protested that divine help was unfair.

    "Steve Berlusconi, owner of Milan, forbade fans from singing the club's anthem, the traditional chant 'Milan, Milan,' because its malevolent vibrations paralyzed his players' legs."

  "A leading Spanish player, Pablo Hernandez Coronado, says that when Real Madrid refurbished its stadium the team went six years without winning a championship, until a fan broke the curse by burying a head of garlic in the center of the playing field."

When San Lorenzo's stadium in Buenos Aires was demolished in 1983, "weeping fans carried off fistfuls of dirt in their pockets."

    "There are towns and villages in Brazil that have no church, but not a one lacks a soccer field. Sunday is the day of hard labour for cardiologists all over the country. On a normal Sunday people die of excitement during the mass of the ball. On a Sunday without soccer, people die of boredom."

During the German occupation in 1942, Ukraine's Dynamo Kiev "committed the insane act of defeating Hitler's squad in the local stadium. Having been warned, 'If you win, you die,' they started out resigned to losing, trembling with fear and hunger, but in the end they could not contain their yearning for dignity. When the match was over, all eleven were shot with their club shirts on at the edge of a cliff."

Galeano gives a brief summary of every World Cup (played by men), making liberal use of corny metaphor. In 1962, "The Chileans had beaten Italy in a match that was a pitched battle, and they also beat Switzerland and the Soviet Union. They gobbled up the spaghetti, chocolate, and vodka, but choked on the coffee: Brazil won 4-2."

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, one of my favourite books, is a fictionalized account of a tragedy Galeano places under the heading 'Fervor:'

 "In April 1997 guerrillas occupying the Japanese embassy in the city of Lima were gunned down. When commandos burst in and carried out their spectacular lightning butchery, the guerrillas were playing soccer. Their leader, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, died wearing the colours of Alianza, the club he loved.
     Few things happen in Latin America that do not have some direct or indirect relation with soccer. Whether a shared celebration or a shipwreck that takes us all down, soccer counts in Latin America, sometimes more than anything else, even if the ideologues who love humanity but can't stand people don't realize it."

At the 1966 World Cup in England: "Someone had stolen the Rimet Cup, but a dog named Pickles found it in a London garden, and the trophy reached the winner's hands in time. England won 4-2. [...] Queen Elizabeth gave Alf Ramsey, the manager of the victorious team, a title of nobility, and Pickles became a national hero."
A few paragraphs of current affairs, expressed in tongue-in-cheek headlines, places each World Cup in historical context. i.e. 1954: "General Stroessner was being elected president of Paraguay in a close contest against himself. In Brazil the noose tied by businessmen and officers, money and guns, was tightening around President Getulio Vargas and soon he would burst his heart with a bullet. US planes were bombing Guatemala with the blessing of the OAS, and an army created by that northern power was invading, killing, and winning. While in Switzerland the national anthems of sixteen countries were being sung to inaugurate the fifth World Cup, in Guatemala the victors were singing 'The Star Spangled Banner' and celebrating the fall of President Arbenz, whose Marxist-Leninist ideology had been laid bare when he touched the lands of the United Fruit Company."

1994: "Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were killing each other in the pieces that had been Yugoslavia. In Rwanda something similar was happening, but television spoke of tribes, not peoples, and implied that the violence was the sort of thing black people do."

Galeano exposes the racism in professional sports, including the fact that "black players earn less than white ones." In 1916, "Uruguay was the only country in the world with black players on its national team."

Someone in my house happens
to be a former sports journalist
and so we just happen to have
a Zidane figure on a bookshelf. 
2006 World Cup: "French political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen declared that the country could not see itself in its players, for nearly all were black, and he added that its captain Zinedine Zidane, more Algerian than French, refused to sing the national anthem. The vice president of the Italian senate, Roberto Calderoli, echoed the sentiment saying that the French team consisted of blacks, Islamists, and Communists who preferred 'l'Internationale' to 'La Marseillaise' and Mecca to Bethlehem. Earlier, the coach of the Spanish team, Luis Aragones, called French player Thierry Henry a 'black piece of shit,' and president in perpetuity of South American soccer, Nicolas Leoz, opened his autobiography by saying he had been born 'in a town populated by thirty people and a hundred Indians.'
      At the end of the tournament, in practically the final moment of the final match, a bull charged: Zidane, who was saying farewell to soccer, 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 soccer was not irredeemably condemned to mediocrity."

I don't follow sports, but I had already been made aware of what happened with Zidane because of reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. She uses Zidane as an example in the larger context of racism in contemporary society.
FIFA's corruption comes under Galeano's witty scrutiny. "Like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, FIFA's unjust system sentences first and tries later, so there will be plenty of time to cover up."

illustration by John Tenniel
    "Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not to facilitate play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring."

    "The goal is soccer's orgasm. And like orgasms, goals have become an ever less frequent occurrence in modern life. Half a century ago, it was a rare thing for a match to end scoreless: 0-0, two open mouths, two yawns."

This book is the opposite a yawn. Galeano's lively passion for the game has so enchanted me that I might even consider watching one of the women's World Cup games.

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