When I reviewed a couple of football-related books earlier this year (while two big tournaments were going on in real life), there was a noticeable trend in comments I received on social media. Whether readers agreed with or disparaged my views on the works in question (Football and God is Round), they were keen to point me in the direction of another book, a modern ‘classic’ of football literature from Uruguay. For that reason, I decided it was my duty to check it out: after UEFA and CONCACAF, then, it’s now CONMEBOL’s turn to talk about the beautiful game 🙂
Author Eduardo Galeano is a lifelong football fan, even if (as he makes clear at the start of his book) his ability on the field fell far short of his writing capabilities. For that reason, he decided to devote time to writing about his love for the game, and Soccer in Sun and Shadow (translated by Mark Fried) is the result. First appearing in 1995, the book was recently released in an updated edition, extended by twenty pages or so to reflect on developments over the past twenty years, with a few extra comments also scattered throughout the earlier passages.
The book consists of a series of vignettes, most of which run to well under a page. At the start of his musings, Galeano introduces us to the basics of the game, running his eye over subjects such as teams, managers, players and the all-important supporters. Less informative than speculative, these pieces examine the roles of the various agents in the world of football, with the writer’s poetic touch usually in evidence.
Once we’ve warmed up, we’re on to the main game, and the backbone of the book is provided by short recounts of all the FIFA World Cups. Between these brief history lessons, Galeano goes off on slight tangents, looking back at famous players and memorable goals, casting a loving eye over his favourites. For a football lover like myself, much of this is familiar fare, but there are some new gems. In particular, the South-American slant means we’re introduced to players and events that never quite made it across the Atlantic.
However, Soccer in Sun and Shadow is far from merely descriptive, and many of the better passages involve commentary on football’s development. Galeano looks back to the early amateurs and their joy for the game, gleefully describing their drinking (both after and before the game) and the passion the followers in the stand display each week. Then, he sadly moves on to the trend towards commercialisation and its troubling consequences:
The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin de siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable.
p.2 (Nation Books, 2013)
From a game of attack to a stultifying risk-free sport based on defence, from a spectacle full of characters to a business driven by robotic clones, from a sport played for the benefit of the community to an ad-driven global behemoth – Galeano is far from happy with the way things have developed…
There’s a lot to like about Soccer in Sun and Shadow, a book from a writer with an obvious feel for the game. This passion enables him to imbue mundane actions with poetry, such as when enthusing over Domingos da Guia, a Brazilian defender from the 1930s:
He scorned speed. Master of suspense, lover of leisure, he would play in slow motion: the art of bringing the ball out slowly, calmly, was baptized domingada. When he finally let the ball go, he did so without ever running and without wanting to, because it saddened him to be left without her. (p.82)
In addition, Galeano possesses a wry humour, able to take the sting out of heavier moments. Each of the World Cup round-ups begins with a summary of what was happening in the world at the time. While much of this makes for depressing reading, a running joke included in each round-up from 1962 onwards lightens the mood:
Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours. (p.130)
I wouldn’t say that this is a political book, but there are certainly hints of Galeano’s sympathies if you look hard enough 😉
However, if I’m honest, I can’t say I agree with all those readers hailing this as a classic. Once you get into the book, it becomes fairly repetitive, even dull at times, as the pieces blur together. It might all be fascinating to the football novice, but for someone like me who grew up in a football environment (I knew where all the World Cups had taken place, and the scores of the finals, by the time I was about eight…), there isn’t really much here to hold my attention.
As usual, though, the biggest issue is the translation. Overall, it’s good enough, but football has a language of its own, and when a novice takes it on (particularly one from North America) it’s rarely a success. I’d never heard of Fried, but when I Googled him, I found this interview at Intralingo. Apparently, he was Galeano’s regular translator, and the most fascinating part of the interview came when he was asked what Galeano book he enjoyed translating the most. His response was that he loved them all, but perhaps Soccer in Sun and Shadow was the most fun, since it required learning a new language, that of soccer. It’s a response that failed to surprise me – I suspect he’s got a fair way to go before he becomes fluent in his new language…
By no means a classic, then, but there’s certainly enough here for a casual reader to enjoy, and if you know little about football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a useful overview of the history of the game. In response to the critics, I’d have to say I preferred God is Round, even if that one is a collection of essays with no overarching structure – the search for the perfect work on football in translation continues, however. Any suggestions? Drop me a line below 😉