Once again the whole world has arrived at that four years interval when the entire glob gets fixated on one sport, the most popular one in the world: “the beautiful game,” and what better time to read an amazingly well written and thoroughly informed text on that game.
There are very few writers like Eduardo Galeano and even less books on Football that could provide the reader with basically everything there is to know about the game, all under 280 pages, all pages have graphics about the game and are only half text, which makes reading much easier.
Galeano, a highly progressive Uruguayan journalist, writer, and novelist, is widely read and deeply respected in Latin America and beyond. As an exile of many years from his country he has also written a good deal about exile, and how one should deal with the experience of being exiled from a land one is in love with and how to endure it; some of his texts on exile have been translated into Persian.
In this book he starts with "Author’s Confessions” and his impressions as a young boy in love with Football: “Like all Uruguayan children, I wanted to be a Football player. And I played quite well. In fact I was terrific, but only at night when I was asleep. During the day I was the worst wooden leg ever to set foot on the little Football fields of my country…Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good Football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead; ’A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good Football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
He then proceeds to an “anatomy” of the sport; “The Player,” “The Goalkeeper,” “The Idol,” “The Fan,” “The Fanatic,” "The Goal,” “The Referee,” “The Manager,” After some lyrically thoughtful description of these protagonists, he deals with the historical origins, rules of the game, and its current format. After these preliminaries he takes us through every single World Cup from 1934, ‘38, ‘50, ‘54, ‘58, ‘62, ‘66, ‘70, ‘74, ‘78,’82, ‘86, ‘90, ‘94, ‘98, 2002, 2006 and 2010. Along the way we get a full picture, from a very partisan Latin American progressive point of view, on exactly how this sport has evolved into its current multi-billion dollar, television networks dominated, multi-national business apparatus it has become.
His criticism of FIFA is unsparing, but he’s equally critical of the whole stifling ethos surrounding the game at every level, and minces no words about the current “Staid and Standardized” version of the game: ”Professional football, ever more rapid, ever less beautiful, has tended to become a game of speed and strength, fueled by the fear of losing. Players run a lot and risk little or nothing. Audacity is not profitable. Over forty years, between ’54 and ’94 World Cups, the average number of goals fell by half, even though as of 1994 an extra point was awarded for each victory to try to discourage ties: in modern Football ever more teams are made up of functionaries who specialize in avoiding defeat, rather than players who run the risk of acting on inspiration and who allow their creative spirit to take charge.”
Let’s go over some of “anatomy” of the game:
“The Goal: The goal is Football’s orgasm. And like orgasm, goals have become an ever less frequent occurrence in modern life. Half a century ago, it was a rare thing for a match to end scoreless: 0-0, two open mouths, two yawns. Now the eleven players spend the entire match hanging from the crossbar, trying to stop goals, and they have no time to score them.”
“The Goalkeeper: They call him the doorman, keeper, goalie, bouncer, or net-minder. But he could as well be called the martyr, pay-all, penitent, or punching bag. They say where walks the grass never grows…Whenever players commit a foul, the keeper is the one who gets punished: they abandon him in the immensity of the empty net to face his executioner alone. And when the team has a bad afternoon, he is the one who pays the bill, expiating the sins of others under a rain of flying balls.”
“The Player: He is the envy of the neighborhood: the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun….Businessmen buy him, sell him, lend him and he lets it all happen in return for the promise of more fame and more money. The more successful he is and the more money he makes the more of a prisoner he becomes. Forced to live by military discipline, he suffers the punishing daily round of training and the bombardment of pain killers and cortisone that hides his aches and fool his body.”
“The Fanatic: The fanatic is a fan in a madhouse. His mania for denying all evidence finally upended whatever once passed for his mind, and the remains of the shipwreck spin about aimlessly in waters whipped by a fury that gives no quarters….In an epileptic fit he watches the matches but does not see it. The fanatic cannot let his mind wander because the enemy is everywhere, even in the quiet spectator who at any moment might offer the opinion that the rival team is playing fairly. Then he’ll get what he deserves.” (Wonder if any of this description of Football fanatics sounds familiar to any of us? Wink, wink!!!)
“The Referee: In Spanish he is the arbitro and he is arbitrary by definition….Nobody runs more. This interloper, whose panting fills the ears of all twenty-two players, is obliged to run the entire match without pause…For over a century the referee dressed in mourning. For whom? For himself. Now he wears bright colors to disguise his distress.”
Origins of the game: Although Galeano attributes the origins of the game to ancient China; he also mentions that different version of it, people kicking around a ball, existed basically in every ancient culture; Egyptians and Japanese both had fun kicking the ball. So did the ancient Greek. The plays of Antiphanes contain telling expressions like “long ball,” “short pass” and “forward pass.” The Romans had their fair share of the game: “They say that Julius Caesar was quick with his feet, and that Nero couldn’t score. In any case, there is no doubt that while Jesus was dying on the cross the Romans were playing something fairly close to Football. Roman legionaries kicked the ball all the way to the British Isles. Centuries late, in 1314, King Edward II stampede his seal on a royal decree condemning the game as plebian and riotous: ‘Forasmuch as there is a great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise, which God forbid.” (Doesn’t this sound a bit like our own mullahs’ distress about Football?)
In 1592 in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare turned to Football to formulate a character’s complaint:
Am I so round with you as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.
According to Galeano some form of ancient Football was also played all over Latin America, from Mexico and Aztecs to Central America to The Indians of the Bolivian Amazon.
My original intention was to write a very brief review of this rather small book, but it’s already two and half pages long and my review has barely begun. So instead of continuing in this format I’ll just write in the parts of the text which I found interesting (basically most of it!), in the comment section, in days to come. We’re gonna have World Cup with us till July 13th, another three weeks to the championship game.
The mania shall be maintained until then!