One of the aims of this blog is to accumulate and share information with newly converted soccer fans. This is going to be the first in series of posts discussing books that we’ve read that have helped us learn about the rich traditions of the game of soccer and, more importantly, books that have strengthened and solidified relevant strands of cultural knowledge that underpin the histories of nations, clubs, rivalries and traditions. I’m going to start off with the Uruguayan writer and historian Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow because I’ve already quoted from it twice in my posts here. Galeano begins this work with an “author’s confession” that I clumsily paraphrased a few weeks back; my sloppiness due in part to the fact that I’d just returned my borrowed copy back to the library. As fate would have it, a used copy in excellent shape fell squarely in my lap a few days later on one of my all-too-frequent used book store hauntings. So let me properly quote from Mr. Galeano’s confession:
“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which country or team performs it.”
I cannot overstate how much this confession echoes and informs how I view soccer and why I’ve started to follow it so closely. It was so liberating to follow and enjoy a sport completely for the sake of its intrinsic beauty and aesthetics; to be a fan free from and unburdened by the weight of biases, regional rivalries and the oftentimes irrational hatred and hostilities they sometimes lend to the fan experience. I’m not saying that rivalries and bias towards “enemy” teams and sides have no place in the sports experience at all. They are in all actuality one of said universe’s raison d’etres and fundamental facts of life. I’m not even saying that the tension and bitterness they add to a fan’s life aren’t part of what makes following a team that much more glorious and worthwhile. I know without a doubt that the existence of the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals and my hatred of them only helps strengthen and solidify my love for the Steelers. One of my goals now is to learn the depth and history of soccer derbies and rivalries so I can understand the history of the game better. But, as an American, my initial entry into the European and International soccer universe completely free of baggage and bias felt awesome and was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a lifetime of sports fandom. Galeano appears to have arrived at this confession after years and years of sloughing off his ingrained bias (something extremely difficult to do) toward rival Uruguayan clubs like Penarol, who are referred to as “the enemy team.” Sadly, I’m going slowly in the reverse direction as I accumulate the customary likes and dislikes of a newly discerning fan. For now, the search for beauty on the pitch remains my primary motivation regardless of where it comes from.
Another reason I relate to Galeano’s confession so much is that I became hooked on soccer when I noticed the stylish and electrifying play of Thierry Henry for France’s 2006 World Cup team. Incidentally, what happened in the final between France and Italy struck me as an abomination even in my embryonic understanding of the sport. At any rate, I found out that Henry played for Arsenal–thus beginning my enduring support of that particular squad. It was an incredible stroke of luck in my development as a fan that Henry happened to play for a side known for precision passing, skill, stylish and, yes, beautiful football. Had he played for Stoke City or any number of Serie A sides this might be another blog about pro wrestling, strange literature or comic books. I feel such a connection to Galeano’s confession because I’d inadvertently used it as a blueprint for my own philosophy and feelings towards the game before I’d even read it.
There’s certainly more to this work than the confession at the beginning, as Galeano uses language in a dizzying, dazzlingly poetic manner analogous to the wizardry displayed by this year’s model Barca. Here’s an example from his description of the legendary 1974 “Clockwork Orange” Dutch National team:
“this orange fire flitted back and forth, fanned by all-knowing breeze that sped it forward and pulled it back. Everyone attacked and everyone defended, deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan” page 143
That was excerpted from a chapter simply titled “Cruyff.” Soccer in Sun and Shadow consists of a whirlwind of often short prose-poem chapters that cover legends of the game like Cruyff and Maradona, as well as the often murky machinations of FIFA, the rampant commercialization of the game (tightly administrated and controlled by FIFA) and other important topics. Each World Cup up until 1998 (2002 is covered in the newer edition) is given it own chapter wherein the historian takes over, placing that year’s tournament comfortably in the historical, political and cultural context of the time while describing the teams, players and goals as only he can. In my opinion, these are the most vital and informative chapters in the book. Galeano is also the author of Open Veins of Latin America, an influential work (perpetually missing from the University of Pittsburgh’s library shelves) that gained further notoriety when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez presented President Obama with a copy a few years back. I mention this only because Galeano’s political perspective is definitely left-of-center and in this climate that may or may not appeal to certain readers, but the object of this blog is not politics and anyone who rejects or subtracts points from Soccer in Sun and Shadow on those grounds is missing out on excellent source of soccer history and folklore.
A few further notes-My personal copy is the older edition that ends with the 1998 World Cup, whereas I’d previously borrowed the updated 2002 version from the library. Soccer in Sun and Shadow is translated into English by Mark Fried. It’s original title is El futbol a sol y sombra. There is also an English, most likely British, version titled Football in Sun and Shadow.