Poets and Scoundrels of the Beautiful Game
As another World Cup begins, there is no better guide to its joys and iniquities than the late Eduardo Galeano — a lifelong fighter for justice and “beggar for good soccer.”
The 2018 World Cup is now upon us, promising to call forth heartaches, hallelujahs, and wonder as part of a universal, even unifying passion. Yet the joy that millions take in it is polluted by foul, for-profit priorities, violent classism, and discrimination.
As left-wing soccer fans plot a course between these dueling components, there’s no better to guide for navigating the game’s darkness and lights than the late Uruguayan author and activist Eduardo Galeano.
Galeano, whose work has inspired generations of revolutionaries, was a writer “obsessed with remembering,” he once proclaimed, “with remembering the past of America and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia.”
When a Guardian columnist asked him what’s responsible for humanity’s amnesia — for being blind, in Galeano’s words, to small things and small people, the writer responded: “It’s not a person. It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten. … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.”
This understanding lit within Galeano a commitment to the importance of remembering — a fierce repossession of a kidnapped memory and consciousness. In an article honoring the late writer after his death, Khury Petersen-Smith wrote: “Above all, Galeano was committed to remembering. His defense of what Howard Zinn called ‘people’s history’ was key to understanding a world that begs to be changed.”
Even what many consider Galeano’s magnum opus is titled Memory of Fire. Writer Scott Sherman explains that:
Memory of Fire is a kind of secret history of the Americas, told in hundreds of kaleidoscopic vignettes that resurrected the lives of campesinos and slaves, dictators and scoundrels, poets and visionaries. Memoirs, novels, bits of poetry, folklore, forgotten travel books, ecclesiastical histories, revisionist monographs, Amnesty International reports — all of these sources constituted the raw material of Galeano’s sprawling mosaic.
Galeano remembers soccer in the same way. His book El fútbol a sol y sombra (Football in Sun and Shadow) was first published in 1995. He calls the book an “homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows.” It shares Memory’s kaleidoscopic structure — its 270 pages contain 150 chapters, the longest of which is a few pages, the smallest no more than two paragraphs.
Here, the scoundrels are FIFA monarchs like João Havelange and Joseph Blatter, guilty of transforming every player into an advertisement in motion, while prohibiting them to wear any message of political solidarity; or Nike and Adidas, who lust after the commodification of passion and identity.
The poets are the game’s rebels and dissenters: Diego Maradona, the disobedient rascal who protested the dictatorship of television over the sport and fought unflinchingly for players’ labor rights; or the French star Raymond Kopa, a former coal miner, who led other French players to join the rebellion of May 1968, when Paris barricades rattled the world.
The folklore is a penalty-kick save by Ernesto Guevara, not yet “Che,” on the banks of the Amazon in Colombia; the suicide of faded Uruguayan star Abdón Porte, who in 1918 shot himself at midnight at the center of the Nacional Stadium; or the enemy fan who, in 1937, buried a toad in Vasco da Gama’s playing field on a very rainy night, calling down a curse of a dearth of championships for a dozen years. The Amnesty International reports are Amnesty International reports.
For Galeano, sports were a mirror of all things. Reclaiming the muted history surrounding them — including the stories that maintain the fire of resistance and forge sports into a tool of hope — is inseparable from the fight for a better world. As Shaun Harkin wrote similarly in an article about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, “The struggle for the soul of football is synonymous with the struggle for the kind of society we deserve to live in.”
Soccer in Sun and Shadow reconstructs a people’s history. The historical perspective through which he heralds each World Cup — from the first in 1930 through 2010, the last one written about for the 2013 edition before his death in 2015 — is of paramount importance for reclaiming what, and who, deserves to be remembered.
In introducing the 1954 World Cup, Galeano writes, “While in Switzerland, the national anthems of sixteen countries were being sung to inaugurate the fifth World Cup, in Guatemala, the victors were singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and celebrating the fall of President Arbenz, whose Marxist-Leninist ideology had been laid bare when he touched the lands of the United Fruit Company.”
Similarly, as the 1978 World Cup got underway, Galeano remembers:
Domitila Barrios and four other women from tin-mining communities were launching a hunger strike against Bolivia’s military dictatorship, and soon, all Bolivia would be on a hunger strike: the dictatorship was falling. The Argentine military dictatorship, in contrast, was enjoying good health and, to prove it, was playing host to the eleventh World Cup.
Galeano remembers that a few miles from Buenos Aires’ Monumental Stadium, “prisoners were being thrown alive from airplanes into the sea.” He remembers that “special guest Henry Kissinger predicted, ‘This country has a great future in all ways.’”
Yet Galeano’s book isn’t only a stage-setter of broader political and historical contexts, but an homage to the people who play and beautify the sport: children, poor and working-class players, the game’s rebels and political figures, those whose daily struggle preserves the soul of soccer and makes it worthy of a celebration of its lights.
Even some of the working people whom others might call the scoundrels receive Galeano’s sympathy — they are products of an environment that itself must receive the blame.
Galeano advocates for a sport and a world where its greatest athletes aren’t “pressed by the law of productivity to win by any means necessary … [where] many anxious and anguished players become running drugstores,” nor where its fans’ violence “grows in direct proportion to social injustice and the frustrations that people face in their daily lives … tormented by a lack of jobs and lack of hope.”
Instead, Galeano points his finger up the social hierarchy, at the shadowy figures who exploit the game and its fans in the name of wealth, as well as at global capitalism itself.
“The morals of the market,” Galeano writes, “which in our days are the morals of the world, give a green light to all keys to success, even if they’re burglar’s tools. Professional soccer has no scruples because it is part of an unscrupulous system of power that buys effectiveness at any price.”
As the book comes to a close, Galeano concludes his own dueling views of the sport he loves:
A bit of insanity worthy of a better cause? A primitive and vulgar business? A bag of tricks manipulated by the owners? I’m one of those who believe that soccer might be all that, but it is also much more … Professional soccer does everything to castrate that energy of happiness, but it survives in spite of all the spites. And maybe that’s why soccer never stops being astonishing.
Galeano believed in memory “not as a place of arrival, but as a point of departure — a catapult throwing you into present times, allowing you to imagine the future instead of accepting it.”
He passed away in 2015, so this is the first men’s World Cup after his death. But remembering his conviction, we can catapult Galeano’s own approach into the present. We can imagine how he would have set the stage of the 2018 World Cup and consider what’s important to remember about the people’s history happening around us:
His blatant racism and bigotry were not enough to keep Donald Trump from being elected President of the United States. Around the world, right-wing regimes were scurrying after his shadow, while working people were rallying in resistance.
Syria was suffering as a battleground for imperial powers, while those same powers were keeping its chances of democracy, as well as its refugees, at bay. Transnational solidarity was reverberating in movements for justice; when Brazilian socialist Marielle Franco was assassinated in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, signs in the protests that followed were demanding: Vidas Negras Importam.
In the United States, a player of a different kind of football was taking a knee in order to stand with the oppressed, and his stance was receiving international solidarity.
Israel was maintaining its ethnic cleansing, massacring scores of Palestinians who were calling for their right to return to their homeland, while it was blaming the victims’ deaths on anything but its own apartheid state. And yet a week before the World Cup got underway in Russia, the Argentinian team was sending a message that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement was gaining ground.
IN 2014, when protests erupted in Brazil due to the corruption, profiteering, and impending collateral damage that went with playing host to that summer’s World Cup, Galeano released the following statement:
As far as I’m concerned, the explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified. In its thirst for justice, it is similar to other demonstrations that in recent years have shaken many countries in many parts of the world.
Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.
As this World Cup gets underway, let’s borrow a page — let’s borrow every page — from Galeano’s book.
Let’s reclaim the memory of who is worthy of celebration and be undeniably visible on the side of what’s worth fighting for and fighting against. Let’s celebrate the ways in which soccer remains a sport of the people, maintains its energy of happiness — and most of all, let’s actively remember the people’s history that surrounds the beautiful game.
Let’s resist the status quo demanded by those who exploit the soul of modern soccer, yet refuse us a better history, a brighter present and future. The FIFA monarchs and bureaucrats, the TV contracts and advertisements, the anthems and nationalism — they do nothing to make the game beautiful.
Its allure comes from its drama, and its elegance from the awe-inspiring expressions of human potential displayed by those on the field, even those paid by the millions. And far more than that, it comes from the joy and sorrow of the fans who love and embrace it.
After all, we are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.