Author of Soccer In Sun and Shadow, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano is best known in North America as the author of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. That novel made headlines (and vaulted to #2 on the Amazon sales list) when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez publicly handed US President Barack Obama a copy of the book, which is about the foreign exploitation of Latin America.
Open Veins is widely considered to be a leftist-leaning and in the early 1970s was banned by the right-wing military government, not only in Uruguay, but in Chile and Argentina as well.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow is listed as a history of world soccer. While that is true, that’s not the reason to read this book. It’s in no way a comprehensive tome on the beautiful game. In stark contrast to other books, Galeano does not give a play-by-play recount of each World Cup or dive into the minutiae of particular eras.
The book opens with a few lyric sketches — The Player, The Idol, The Fan. These are Galeano’s romanticized notions but are the same ones that many of us cling to as well. Many of these sections revived my own idealized notions of football. When we dream of football, we dream about the world Galeano writes of — not the modern noise of agents, transfer fees and endorsement deals. We dream of the pure simplicity of a ball at our feet and the sunshine on our faces.
The general style of the text at first reminded me of what you’d read on old baseball or football cards. Short stories about certain players but at times told with a little more panache. As I read more, the sections began to remind me of an older uncle recounting anecdotes of players they’d watched and been awed by. This approach is not completely successful as there are a few stories that seemed to lack a point.
However, in among Galeano’s free flowing anecdotes are some wonderful gems. One line in particular really struck me —
“The machinery of the spectacle grinds everything up in its path”
This Twitter-sized thought, so perfect for the social-media driven time we now live in, encapsulates much of what is wrong in football. Start with transfer speculation. One has to wonder if the daily grind of Cesc to Barcelona stories had as much to do with eroding Arsenal’s resolve as any amount of money could have done. When that saga finishes a new grind begins. Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. Wayne Rooney to Chelsea. The machine feeds itself and its appetite seems endless.
Those gems are why I found the book more enjoyable in small doses — much the way I read poetry. The sections are short but for me each section was akin to the lines of its own football pitch. Inside those lines is room to roam, to create, to explore your own thoughts on each of the anecdotes.
Another strength of the book is to add some new color to well-known trivia. Many will know that French novelist Albert Camus was an avid footballer. Some will also know that he was a goalkeeper for the University of Algiers team until tuberculosis forced him to turn full-time to his intellectual pursuits. Galeano asserts that Camus played goalkeeper all his life because in that position because your shoes don’t wear out quickly. Camus grew up in a poor family and his shoes were subject to examination every night when he got home. If the soles of his shoes were worn, he would be punished.
It’s easy to see why Soccer in Sun and Shadow is now in its fifth printing. This new edition includes newly written material on the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. The 2010 World Cup was notable for Galeano as Uruguay was a semi-finalist, narrowly losing to a powerful Dutch team. His only consolation was Diego Forlán finishing as the joint top scorer and being named the top player of the tournament.
Galeano leave us with the closing thought that “soccer is a pleasure that hurts” — something that holds true in so many facets of the game, whether you’re a player or a supporter. This book is a pleasure without pain and I’d recommend grabbing a copy if you’ve not yet read it.