As we enter what newspapers call the business end of World Cup football, let us pay a tribute to a man who is not there. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, is the poet laureate of the game; his
Soccer in Sun and Shadow
is a fabulous combination of a fan’s homage and a social commentator’s insights.
“Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are. For many years soccer has been played in different styles, unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before. These are days of obligatory uniformity, in soccer and everything else,” he wrote of what he called “the only religion without atheists”.
According to legend, every four years, Galeano put up a sign on his door: ‘Closed for Soccer’, and didn’t emerge for a month while he watched the World Cup in his favourite chair and wrote about it. Not this year, though. Galeano, died of lung cancer in 2015. He has been compared with Marquez and Neruda; his
Open Veins of Latin America
is a textbook of post-colonial and capitalist studies.
The best writers on sport combine child-like fandom with professional maturity. Thus, Galeano is able to write of Pele: “When he executed a free kick, his opponents in the wall wanted to turn around to face the net so as not to miss the goal.” But he can also write of the same player, “Off the field he never gave a minute of his time and a coin never fell from his pocket.” Poetry in both praise and criticism!
In the section ‘The Sin of Losing’, Galeano says, “Football elevates its divinities and exposes them to the vengeance of believers.” Colombian player Andres Escobar who scored a self-goal in the 1994 World Cup was shot dead on his return home. That was an extreme case, but as Galeano says, “We are because we win. If we lose, we no longer exist… in football, as in everything else, losing is not allowed; failure is the only sin that cannot be redeemed.”
Galeano’s profundity is masked in humour, his knowledge in the wry, throwaway line. The French writer Albert Camus was a goalkeeper — a fact recycled every World Cup year. Yet it took Galeano to explain why. Camus came from a poor home and played in that position because “your shoes don’t wear out as fast”.
It is possible that Galeano’s classic on football might outlive his more political books where too the epigrams and succinctness startle the reader into recognising an original. A statement that gives a flavour of his work and a glimpse into his soul is, “In 1492, the natives discovered they were Indians; they discovered they lived in America.” He was fond of saying, “History never really says goodbye; historysays ‘See you later’.”
Galeano, champion of the downtrodden, once said, “The walls are the publishers of the poor.” He knew walls were their first goals too.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)
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