One wonders what Eduardo Galeano would think of the momentous developments in global soccer that occurred after his death in early 2015.
We do know much of what he thought about the game he adored up to the end of last century, when he published “Soccer in Sun and Shadow.”
His lyrical homage to a game of imagination, forged by children on the fields of free play all over the world, was countered with a fiery condemnation of the spectacle adult professional soccer had become, dominated by corporate forces he loathed.
Galeano was an Uruguayan novelist, journalist and strident anti-capitalist, and his 1998 paean to the passion of his youth follows an understandable line of argument for someone whose boyhood idyll has turned into a greedy, corrupted enterprise.
From the very first sentence—”The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty”—readers should prepare to be tugged from one emotional drift to another by Galeano, who is wrestling to reconcile his own conflicted feelings.
After denouncing the television industry and corporate sponsors that have commandeered the staging of the World Cup, Galeano curiously reserves only a fraction of his wrath for the entity that made it all possible:
There is no multinational corporation that enjoys greater impunity than FIFA.
A month after Galeano’s passing, nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice. A widely probed scandal has reached all the way to longtime FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, over bribes and an overall pattern of corruption spanning more than two decades.
The road to soccer perfidy that led to Zurich and shocking hotel raids and arrests began well before that, as Galeano expertly lays out these intermingling forces. He revels in the magnificent play of Garrincha, the physically deformed son of destitute Brazilian parents and who was considered the greatest dribbler ever:
. . . in the entire history of soccer, no one made more people happy.
Garrincha is Galeano’s tragic individual hero, with a post-soccer life wracked by domestic abuse, alcoholism and poverty. He died in 1983, just as the lords of soccer began to cash in on the sport’s sprawling, televised global popularity.
Galeano is left to applaud Argentinian bad-boy Diego Maradona, banished from the 1994 World Cup because of a positive doping test, as soccer’s “most strident rebel,” and who also has fallen into steep personal decline.
But the biggest crime in Galeano’s eyes is the “frigid soccer . . . which detests defeat and forbids all fun” and has turned players into “monkeys in a circus:”
To win without magic, without surprise or beauty, isn’t that worse than losing?
Yet this blanket indictment is quite a stretch, and Galeano knew it. While his leftist politics, reflected in his 1997 book, “Open Veins of Latin America,” often permeate his views about soccer, he does not see the game strictly through a political prism.
That’s because Galeano is ultimately a fan, and like all fans is captivated by the magnetic pull of a breathtaking dribble, an indescribable goal and mystical moments of joy and anguish.
No matter how much money the best players make, and how much to high heaven the game’s highest chambers of power smell with the rancid odors of graft, the sport on the field seems untouchable.
The millions that Lionel Messi earns haven’t dampened his brilliance. The once-drab German style of play has been replaced by new-found creativity that resulted in a spellbinding World Cup title. In the United States, a ticker-tape parade in New York City is held for its female world champions.
The incurable appeal of soccer was once seen as the chief obstacle to clean up the game. But as Galeano noted near the end of his enduring meditation, its indestructibility has been created from that dynamic, and remains as its most powerful asset:
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.