Football in Sun and Shadow

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most famous voices, was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lover of football. Though when we think of South American World Cup winners Brazil, with five victories, outstrips every other team, and Argentina, with two wins and four finals, is likely to be our next thought, Uruguay was, of course, the very first winner of the World Cup in 1930. Perhaps they would have been even more successful if they hadn’t refused to defend their title in 1934 in protest at Italy’s decision not to travel to Uruguay for the initial tournament. They won again in 1950, and, though that was their last appearance in a final, they have since finished fourth three times, most recently in 2010 – a record England might envy, and Scotland can only dream of.

If such facts are to your liking, you will find them in Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow (translated by Mark Fried), originally published in 1995, but since updated to 2010 (and recently reissued by Penguin Classics). However, one does not read Galeano simply for the facts (meticulously researched though his work is – there are nine pages of sources) but for the poetry. Eusebio was “long legs, dangling arms, sad eyes”; of Jimmy Greaves he says, “They would see him land, but they never saw him take off”; Pele “climbed into the air as if it were a staircase.”

The book begins with a history of football, its origins, the development of its rules in England (and the discovery, in Scotland, that everyone chasing the ball wasn’t the most effective way to play), and the spread to South America via its ports. Until the 1930 World Cup, the book is very much focussed on South America; from that point on it is largely a history of the World Cup rather than football. Each World Cup is introduced with an outline of world events at that time; this being Galeano these sketches are truly international, with 1930, for example, covering an earthquake in Italy, Marlene Dietrich, Mayakovsky’s suicide, Mahatma Ghandi in India, and August Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua. After Castro’s revolution in Cuba he inserts the following every four years:

“Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.”

At each World Cup he picks out the key moments and players, including the most memorable goals (I can’t resist offering his take on Archie Gemmill in 1978, Scotland’s only World Cup mention):

“The Netherlands, which was doing well, was playing Scotland, which was doing poorly. Scottish player Archie Gemmill got the ball from his countryman Hartford and kindly asked the Dutch to dance to the tune of a lone bagpiper. Wildschut was the first to fall, his head spinning, at Gemmill’s feet. Then Gemmill left Suurbier reeling in the dust. Krol had it worst: Gemmill put it between his legs. And when the keeper Jongbloed came at him, the Scot lobbed the ball over his head.”

The main attraction of Football in Sun and Shadow, however, is its international perspective on the game itself: we are frequently treated to stories of Scottish and English football in our media, but rarely is it proportionate to our place in the world (like so much else): here England only feature for Charlton’s goal against Argentina in 1962, Stanley Matthews, and their 1966 win.

Even in a book about football, politics will never be absent with Galeano. He outlines football’s early racism in South America, with Chile in 1916 demanding that a 4-0 defeat by Uruguay be disallowed as Uruguay had two ‘Africans’ in the team. Italy’s’ victory in 1938 is greeted by the Italian press as “the triumph of Italic intelligence over the brute force of the Negroes.” More recently, Galeano reminds us that that when France won in 1998:

“Nearly all the players wearing blue shorts and singing ‘La Marseille’ before each match were immigrants or the children of immigrants.”

Though a lover of football, Galeano is not admirer of the men who control it. He begins by describing the story of football as a “sad voyage from beauty to duty.” Joao Havelange, who became head of FIFA in 1974, is an “old-style monarch.” Another chapter is titled ‘The Telecracy’ – “television rules,” and he also covers a number of corruption scandals. He points out that players, for all their celebrity, have little say:

“Up to now the stars of the show have been blindingly absent from the structures of power where decisions are made.”

Still, he ends at the place we all hope to be – placing a sign on his door which says ‘Closed for football’ only to be taken down once the tournament is over.

Football in Sun and Shadow is a perfect World Cup book. Galeano has a knack for including everything that is important while still finding space for the unexpected fact. It is also delivered in short, bite-size chapters, ideal for devouring when the ball goes out of play.


Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Football in Sun and Shadow”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Well, how timely from several respects. I was actually looking at this in Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday, wondering if any of my blogging/Twitter friends might review it. It does sound fascinating from many respects. I grew up in the Johan Cruyff-Franz Beckenbauer era, so the World Cups of the 1970s would probably be the most familiar to me. (I do recall Uruguay being quite a force in the early ’70s.) That said, it would be great to learn more about those early tournaments. As you know, pretty much anything about the 1930s or ’40s appeals to me!

  2. Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano (tr. Mark Fried) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] I read this book for Richard and Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Lit event which is running in July and August. Grant has also written an excellent review of it here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: