Country Focus: Uruguay
Soccer in Sun and Shadow: Revised edition including commentary on the 2002 World Cup
By Eduardo Galeano
Translated by Mark Fried
Originally published as El Fútbol a Sol y Sombra by Verso, 1998.
My edition: Verso, 2009.
Genre: Nonfiction /Sports
Time period: 5,000 years ago – 2002
A little over a decade ago, I read Eduardo Galeano’s Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World. This feisty Uruguayan writer’s political and social commentary gave me a critical, no-holds-barred view of my own country from the standpoint of a Latin American. Galeano shook up my brain like a snow globe, and I couldn’t help indulging in another of his books for this project. Since the love of soccer is the one of the few things in this world that most earthlings have in common, I picked Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
The 167 chapters fall in chronological order. The first few delve into soccer’s origins and main components: the ball, the stadium, the positions, the goal and the rules. Galeano recaps every World Cup (the international championship tournament held every four years) since the first in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1930.
He sprinkles in anecdotes about dozens of notable players and teams, including Ramón Unzaga, the Chilean who invented the bicycle kick; MVP of the 1958 World Cup Didí, a Brazilian who spoke about the ball as if she were alive; and the courageous Ukrainian teammates who were murdered for refusing to tank to their Nazi opponents.
No sports fan can resist bragging about their game’s star players. Galeano waxes poetic over many, including Brazil’s incomparable Pelé: “…those of us who were lucky enough to see him play received alms of an extraordinary beauty: moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe immortality exists;” Argentina’s young Maradona: “By night he slept with his arms around a ball and by day he performed miracles with it;” and Germany’s Beckenbauer: “…in the back nothing escaped him, not one ball, not a fly, not a mosquito could get through; and when he attacked he was like fire.”
Those legends represent the “sunny” side of soccer. Galeano doesn’t hesitate to point out soccer’s numerous “shadows,” among them: corporate logos dominating players and stadiums, corruption at both the international level (FIFA) and club level, violent fans, and the players’ loss of spontaneity and creativity.
Galeano’s writing style is so engaging and bite-sized that Soccer in Sun and Shadow kept my attention despite the fact that I have only the most casual interest in and knowledge of soccer. (My soccer resume consists of two seasons on a city league in fifth grade and one season of indoor soccer in high school.) I admit that my interest flagged on the (many) descriptions of plays.
I was a bit disappointed that Galeano never mentioned women’s soccer – a surprisingly sexist snub by someone who has written so passionately about human rights in his other works. But I don’t want to end on a shadow.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow left me with the impression that Galeano believes that at its best, soccer is an art that transcends the labels of nationality and race, and, by its very nature eschew the shackles that corporations and standardization would place on it.
He writes, “A reporter once asked the German theologian Dorothee Solle: “How would you explain to a child what happiness is?”
“I wouldn’t explain it,” she answered. “I’d toss him a ball and let him play.”