There are many good books about football; there are few that have claims to greatness. Published 20 years ago, Soccer in Sun and Shadow — whose author, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, died Monday at the age of 74 — stands among those few, and even those who might quibble with such status would have to agree that there really isn't anything to argue about. Even if you don't enjoy it, there's nothing else like it.
It is, at heart, a history book, one that takes as its subject the whole broad sweep of the game, from the "time of the Pharoahs [when] the Egyptians used a ball made of straw or the husks of seeds, wrapped in colourful cloths" to, in the 2003 re-printing, the World Cup in Japan and Korea, when:
Pakistani children sewed the high-tech ball for Adidas that started rolling on opening night in the stadium at Seoul: a rubber chamber, surrounded by a cloth net covered with foam, all inside a skin of white polymer decorated with the symbol of fire. A ball to lure fortunes from grass.
History to modernity, and on into the future. But what sets Sun and Shadow apart isn't just its scope, ambitious as that is. Galeano (and his long-term translator Mark Fried) brings powerful, lyrical prose to the game, and to the history of the game; a stylistic swagger and confidence that is lacking from everyday football writing. After a diet of the analytical and the sardonic it's delightful and almost disconcerting to gorge on these crackling polemics and shameless love-letters.
Not a chapterette — the book is shattered into more than 150 mini-chapters, the longest amounting to a few pages, the shortest no more than a couple of paragraphs — goes past without some line provoking a nod or a smile. And laced throughout, almost there in passing, are sketches of football's great players, taken out of the broader sweep of events and given their own spotlights. To pick one pretty much at random, here's Gerd Müller:
Nobody saw a wild wolf on the field. Disguised as an old woman, his fangs and claws hidden, he strolled along, making a show of showering innocent passes and other works of charity. Meanwhile he slipped unnoticed into the box. The net was bridal veil of an irresistible girl. In front of the open goal he licked his chops. And in one fell swoop he stood naked, then bit.
It is endlessly quotable. It is also insistent and clear-eyed in its politics: though Galeano dreamed of being a footballer when younger, he ended up a radical author, poet, journalist and analyst, whose works bent genre and form. While much of the book is devoted to the joyous and the magical, he never shies away from the myriad dark places, from the corruption and the cynicism. Sun and shadow, after all, and while some reviewers viewed his swipes as "heavy-handed," it's hard not to love a writer who can wonder "If God had time for soccer, how many directors would remain alive?" and not sound ridiculous in the process.
To describe this as a perfect book would be inaccurate, but it would also be irrelevant. It is a mess. It is deliberately a mess, a cavalcade of diversions and tangents and idle thoughts and musings and eulogies and excoriations and laments. Not all are memorable, perhaps not all are necessary, but it all amounts up to something unique, righteous and quite beautiful: history by turn as jumbled memory, as fractured story, as furious broadside, as hazy dream, and occasionally even as joke.
It should feel strange, to go from a moment of silence at a Bolivian league game for a referee's mother, straight through the 1969 Soccer War, and on to a Pele penalty in the space of a few pages. But it doesn't, because that's how memory and football work. The personal and the universal, the local and global, the micro and the macro, all jumbled together in something that looks from a distance like order but isn't, not up close, not quite.
Perhaps the most famous line comes from the introduction (or "Author's Confession"), where Galeano's entire mission (and indeed life) is wrapped up as follows:
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.'
Here are the pretty moves, in pretty words, and here too is all the stuff that gets in the way of those pretty moves: a pilgrimage, through the dark places and light. A sport rife with contradictions, and a gifted writer negotiating and teasing out the problems and pleasures of being in love with such a thing. When it comes to football writing, there have been few to match it. None have come close to its generosity and warmth.