Alejandro Ernesto/EPA

Eduardo Galeano: The beautiful game loses its man of letters

Uruguayan writer passed away April 13 at 74, having inspired generations of sports fans, social justice activists

“Luckily on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”

Eduardo Galeano may have been best-known as a literary giant of the Latin American left, but the Uruguayan writer, who died Monday of cancer at age 74, was also global soccer’s pre-eminent man of letters. His celebrated collection of aphoristic vignettes on the game, “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” has become an integral part of the canon of soccer — and all sports — writing. His passing has removed a distinctive voice that managed to celebrate the escapism offered by the spectacle of soccer and at the same time demand it be grounded in the social conditions that surround the stadium and held accountable for the incomparable place it has assumed in global culture.

It was a testimony to his craft that Galeano’s writing spoke to the global experience of the football fan while always remaining grounded in a recognizable Latin American literary idiom. A journalist, a historian and an outspoken critic of imperialism and social injustice, Galeano’s writing on soccer invoked a geographically inflected lyricism in which finding poetry in the sport was itself a kind of political act, emphasizing individual subjectivity above the collective order.

European analytical writing about football was born out of the more earnestly empirical social criticism that attended the industrial age — of which the modern game was a byproduct. Latin American writers could talk without irony about the beautiful game partly through intimate knowledge of the ugliness from which it offered a temporary escape. And the idiomatic versions of the game from country to country became a broader expression of identity.

“A style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different,” Galeano wrote. “Tell me how you play, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

The football-writing tradition of which he was a part may be traced back to the years immediately after World War I, when the likes of the Argentinian magazine El Grafico were defining a modern form of sports writing that was also self-consciously historical — forever drawing the immediate game into a broader context of what had gone before.

The emerging form was, by its very nature, prone to projection about a cultural activity often seen as a metaphor or even proxy for other conflicts. 

As David Goldblatt noted in his history of the game, “The Ball Is Round,” this was also the period and place in soccer writing that first saw the claims of football as art formulated and players compared to conductors and soloists.

Galeano was born into that tradition (in Montevideo in 1940), and it shaped his voice, though he transcended it by being wary of national essentialism in his works, famously writing, “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead, ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle, and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”

He lived with the contingencies of shifting national fates. Beyond the insular world of soccer, he started his career in the early 1960s as a journalist and was an editor of the influential weekly journal Marcha in Uruguay, followed by stints at a daily paper and a university press before he was forced to flee Uruguay for Argentina during the 1973 military coup. He was there only a few years, before the 1976 coup in his new home forced a move to Spain, where he remained until his return to Montevideo in 1985.

Later, in describing the 1978 World Cup in junta-ruled Argentina, Galeano write scathingly of games being played while "a few miles beyond [the stadium] prisoners were being thrown alive from aeroplanes into the sea.”

As a writer, Galeano was at one time primarily known for his critiques of the historic exploitation of a continent by Europe and the U.S. His 1971 history of five centuries of that exploitation, “Open Veins of Latin America,” enjoyed a new lease of life in 2009 after Hugo Chávez gave a copy to Barack Obama, though Galeano was characteristically ambivalent about the legacy of the book, saying, “It was trying to be a work of political economics, but I just didn’t have the right training,” and adding that he had “moved beyond that stage.”

While he would move through several stages in his writing, up to and including his final book, “Children of the Days,” with its this-day-in-history counterpoint to what he saw as Latin America’s “intimate land condemned to amnesia,” he always returned to soccer.

In doing so, he would come to experience the transformation of the game into the exploitative corporate spectacle he saw as exemplified by FIFA.

The world governing body’s selective sense of its own accountability, as it moved around the world staging elaborate World Cups with dubious social legacies, repeatedly struck a chord with Galeano’s broader critiques of neoliberalism.

“From their castle in Zurich, the owners of soccer do not propose, they impose,” he wrote. “That’s their way.” And he dedicated himself to resisting FIFA’s transformation of the sport into what he saw as a soulless technocracy.

‘I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead, ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle, and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.’

Eduardo Galeano

His life as a writer and fan was interpolated with his experience of FIFA World Cups. The short segments of “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” were laid out in chronological order through the history of the game, with descriptions of World Cups inserted as the de facto rhythm of the book. Those descriptions all followed the same form, starting with a whistle-stop tour of the sociopolitical state of the world that would pull focus abruptly from warring nation-states to some end-of-newsreel novelty, often in the same paragraph. (Tongue-in-cheek recurring elements included Fidel Castro’s reportedly being on his death bed every four years.)

The writing served to implicate readers — and the writer — in their complicity with the absurd spectacle of World Cups, in a world with many more legitimate claims for attention. Yet it did so while honoring the powerful impulse that repeatedly returned himand his readers to the game, often despite those who ran it.

On the sense of emptiness he felt after rising from his “favorite chair” at the end of the 2010 World Cup, in an updated epilogue to a recent edition of “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” Galeano wrote:

I miss the celebration and the mourning too, because sometimes soccer is a pleasure that hurts, and the music of a victory that sets the dead to dancing sounds a lot like the clamorous silence of an empty stadium, where one of the defeated, unable to move, still sits in the middle of the immense stands, alone.

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