“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager & an immortal figure in footballing history, was not much off the mark with this famous quote of his. And Eduardo Galeano‘s book seems to reverberate that sentiment, though in much spectacular detail.
‘Soccer in Sun and Shadow‘ is easily the most beautiful book written on the Beautiful Game in every respect. Beauty lies in simplicity & the joy of reading this book comes from its its elegant yet effortless writing. In fact, Galeano abhors the language of the so-called soccer doctors or the football analysts & commentators while mocking them for complicating the game more than necessary through the use of fancy words & terminologies which the common man doesn’t understand. He presents a utopian vision of the game – how the game ought to be played in today’s world, where winning has become so vital that adventure is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency.
The chapters are very short indeed, some of them barely a page or so. Through these chapters, the book explores every aspect of the sport, be it the origins of the sport, the players, the clubs, the managers, the rules, the referee (most maligned individual), fans or the fanatics. One gem of a saying about fanatics goes as follows –
“For the fanatic, pleasure comes not from your own club’s victory, but from the other’s defeat.”
Galeano takes delight in amazing the reader with a slew of extraordinary anecdotes, some of them bordering on the unbelievable. We have the Italian forward Meazza dropping his pants on his way to taking a penalty, for it seemed the only way to beat the stolid goalkeeper – by making him break down in laughter. Coming back to the fanatic for a moment, Galeano recounts how a Boca Juniors fan on his deathbed pronounced his last wish – he wanted to be wrapped in a flag of rival club River Plate so that when he died, he could feel that as if “it was the death of one of theirs“. There is a hilarious incident regarding a referee, who starts the game with the fans mourning for his recently-deceased mother but is immediately cursed & heckled by them when a decision goes against their team. As Sanfilippo replays a stunning goal in a shopping mall where once a stadium had stood as everyone applauds, one can’t help feeling present on the very day the goal was being scored in the stadium, watching it happen with their own eyes. We have a couple of Mexican journalists about to be executed by Bosnian renegade soldiers in war-torn Sarajevo when one realises they belong to the country of Hugo Sanchez, the great Real Madrid striker & it all ends happily in laughter and embraces. And then comes the world’s longest penalty shootout, which finally saw its conclusion after 44 kicks but no one ever knew which team won, for there were no spectators left in the stadium by the time it ended.
Galeano recounts his admiration for some of the greatest footballers & the goals they scored through distinct chapters dedicated to them – Di Stefano, Puskas, Garrincha, Didi, Beckenbauer, Pele, Yashin, Eusebio, Cruyff, Muller, Zico, Romario, Baggio & last but not the least, Maradona – showering a lavish amount of praise on each of these legends. And these are only a select few, for Galeano writes about them comprehensively & gives us a thorough account of the history of the game. He also writes about the World Cup tournaments held till date in the backdrop of major international events of respective years, which includes a running gag about Fidel Castro & the Americans as well.
But Galeano also recognises that all is not that rosy behind the scenes – some things are indeed very wrong & threaten the very existence of the sport itself. He is extremely critical of the boring but efficient brand of soccer doled out by most teams, for winning is the only guarantee to the continuous inflow of the big bucks. He is not happy to see the bodies of footballers plastered with all kinds of brands, so much that he likens them to ‘walking advertisement billboards‘. And then there’s the people who rule the game – men like Joao Havelange & (later) Joseph Blatter at the highest echelons of apex governing body FIFA who seem to care for nothing but the commercialization of the game through television rights & sponsorship, squeezing the cash cow to its last penny.
Galeano also focuses on issues that have hounded the sport like hooliganism, which he dismisses as a disgrace to the game by some fans who have nothing better to do (while sympathising with the background most hooligans come from). He feels disappointed when he hears fans screaming scornful chants, for the game that is supposed to promote love & sportsmanship goes down an altogether different route. He also highlights how dictators like Franco, Mussolini & those in South America have manipulated public sentiment through soccer – notably in the case of Real Madrid, which Franco projected as the royal team of Spain & their success in the 1950s & 60s only gave him more leeway to use it as a vehicle for propaganda to promote his brand of politics to the Spaniards as well as the world.
However, the writer still retains some hope that all is not yet lost, thanks to the young & refreshing ideas of upcoming coaches who aim to emerge victorious while entertaining the crowds. In a moment of self-realisation, Senor Galeano confesses that
“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 team or country performs it.”
And he concludes the book on a nostalgic note, his final thoughts echoing that of every avid football lover –
“soccer is a pleasure that hurts, and the music of a victory that gets the dead dancing is akin to the clamorous silence of an empty stadium, where one defeated fan, unable to move, sits in the middle of the immense stands, alone.”
‘Soccer in Sun and Shadow’ is arguably the most compelling & erudite book ever written on football & Eduardo Galeano gives football lovers a book that they will savour & cherish for the rest of their lives. Highly recommended & a must read for everyone whose lives have been enriched by the Beautiful Game.
Overall Rating: 10/10
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