Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Eduardo Galeano

 

 

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A manager of Liverpool soccer club once reflected: "Some people say soccer is a game of life and death but it's much more important than that". In these elegiac and deliciously droll observations from Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano reflects on mortality and immortality in the world's greatest game

Like all Uruguayan children, I wanted to be a soccer player. I played quite well, in fact I was terrific, but only at night when I was asleep. During the day I was the worst wooden leg ever to set foot on the little soccer fields of my country. As a fan I also left a lot to be desired. Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Julio Cesar Abbadie played for Penarol, the enemy team. I was a loyal Nacional fan and I did everything I could to hate them. But with his masterful passes "El Pepe" Shiaffino orchestrated the team's plays as if he were watching from the highest tower of the stadium, and "El Pardo" Abbadie, running in his seven-league boots, would slide the ball all the way down the white touchline, swaying back and forth without ever grazing the ball or his opponents. I couldn't help admiring them, and I even felt like cheering.

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.

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For the Nazis, too, soccer was a matter of state. A monument in the Ukraine commemorates the players of the 1942 Kiev Dynamo team. During the German occupation they committed the insane act of defeating Hitler's squad in the local stadium. Having been warned, "If you win, you die," they started out resigned to losing, trembling with fear and hunger, but in the end they could not resist the temptation of dignity. When the game was over all eleven were shot with their shirts on at the edge of a cliff.

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Abdon Porte, who wore the shirt of the Uruguayan club Nacional for more that two hundred games in four years, always dew applause and sometimes cheers, until his lucky star fell.

They took him out of the starting line-up. He waited, asked to return and did. But it was no use, the slump continued, the crowd whistled: on the defense even tortoises got past him, on the attack he couldn't score a single goal.

At the end of the summer of 1918, the Nacional stadium, Abdon Porte killed himself. He shot himself at midnight at the center of the field where he had been loved. All the lights were out. No one heard the gunshot.

The found him at dawn. In one hand he held a revolver and in the other hand a letter.

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It was at the World Cup in '38. In the semi-final, Italy and Brazil were risking their necks for all or nothing.

Italian striker Piola suddenly collapsed as if he'd been shot, and with the last flutter of life in his finger he pointed at Brazilian defender Domingos da Guia. The referee believed him and blew the whistle: penalty. While the Brazilians screamed to high heaven and Piola got up and dusted himself off, Giusepe Meazza placed the ball on the firing point.

Meazza was the dandy of the picture. A short, handsome, Latin lover and an elegant artilleryman of penalties, he lifted his chin to the goalkeeper like a matador before the final charge. His feet, as soft and knowing as hands, never missed. But Walter, the Brazilian goalie, was good at blocking penalty kicks and felt confident.

Meazza began his run up, and just when he was about to execute the kick, he dropped his shorts. The crowd was stupefied and the referee nearly swallowed his whistle. But Meazza, never pausing, grabbed his pants with one hand and sent the goalkeeper, disarmed by laughter, down to defeat.

That was the goal that put Italy in the final.

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They called him "El Charro" because he looked like a Mexican movie star, but he was from the countryside upriver from Buenos Aires.

Jose Manuel Moreno, the most popular player in River's "Machine", loved to throw fakes: his pirate legs would strike out one way but go another, his bandit head would promise a shot at one goalpost and drive it at the other.

Whenever an opponent flattened him with a kick, Moreno would get up by himself and without complaint, and no matter how badly he was hurt, he would keep on playing. He was proud, a swagger and a scrapper who could punch out the entire enemy stands and his own as well, though his fans adored him, they had a nasty habit of insulting him every time River lost.

Lover of good music and good friends, a man of the Buenos Aires night, Moreno used to meet the dawn tangled in someone's tresses or propped up on his elbows on the counter of some café.

"The tango," he'd say, "is the bast way to train: you maintain a rhythm, then change it when you stride forward, you learn the profiles, you work on your waist and your legs."

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One of his many brothers baptized him Garrincha, the name, the name of an ugly, useless little bird. When he started playing soccer, doctors made the sign of the cross. They predicted this misshapen survivor of hunger and polio, dumb and lame, with the brain of an infant, a spinal column like an S and both legs bowed to the same side, would never be an athlete.

There never was another right-winger like him. In the '58 World Cup he was the best in his position, in '62 the best player in the championship. But throughout his many years on the field, Garrincha was more: in the entire history of soccer no one made more people happy.

When he was playing, the field became a circus ring, the ball a tame beast, the game an invitation to a party. Like a child defending his pet, Garrincha wouldn't let go of the ball, and the ball and he would perform devilish tricks that had people dying of laughter. He would jump on her, she would hop on him, she would hide, he would escape, she would chase after him. In the process, the opposing players would crash into each other, their legs twisting around until they would fall, seasick, to the ground. Garrincha did his rascal's mischief at the edge of the field, along the right touchline, far from the center: raised in the shantytown suburbs, that's where he played. He played for a club called Botafogo, which means "firelighter," and he was the botafogo who fired up the fans crazed by fire water and all things fiery. He was the one who climbed out of the training-camp window because he heard from far-off back alleys the call of a ball asking to be played with, music demanding to be danced to, a woman wanting to be kissed.

A winner? A lucky loser. And luck doesn't last. As they say in Brazil, if shit was worth anything, the poor would be born without asses.

Garrincha died a predictable death: poor, drunk, and alone.

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How many Uruguayans were sad like him? And how many, on the other hand, were jumping with joy? Paco experienced a delayed revelation. Normally we Uruguayans belong to Nacional or to Penarol from the day we are born. People say, for example, "I'm a Penarol," or "I'm a Nacional." That's the way it's been since the beginning of the century. They say that back then the professionals of love used to attract clients by sitting in the doorways of Montevideo's bordellos wearing nothing but the shirts of Penoral or Nacional.

I think it was Osvaldo Soriano who told me the story of the death of a Boca Juniors fan in Buenos Aires. That fan had spent his entire life hating the club River Plate, as was entirely appropriate, but on his deathbed he asked to be wrapped in the enemy flag. That way he could celebrate with his final breath the death of "one of them."

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It was 1961. Real Madrid was playing at home against Atletico of Madrid.
No sooner had the game begun when Ferenc Puskas scored a double goal, just as Zizinho had in the '50 World Cup. The Hungarian striker for Real Madrid executed a free kick at the edge of the box and the ball went in. But as Puskas celebrated with his arms in the air the referee went up to him. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I didn't whistle."

So Puskas shot again. He kicked with his left foot, as before, and the ball traveled exactly the same path: like a cannonball over the heads of the same players in the wall and, just like the goal that had been disallowed, it landed in the upper left corner of the net tended by Madinabeytia, who leapt as before and, as before, was unable even to graze it.

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When Lev Yashin covered the goal, not a pinhole was left open. This giant with long spidery arms always dressed in black and played with a naked elegance that disdained unnecessary gestures. He liked to stop thundering blasts with a single claw-like hand that trapped and shredded any projectile, while his body remained motionless like a rock. He could deflect the ball with a glance.He retired from soccer several times, always pursued by torrents of gratitude, and several times he returned. There was no other like him. During more than a quarter of a century, this Russian blocked over a hundred penalty shots and saved who-knows-how-many goals. When asked for his secret, he'd say the trick was to have a smoke to calm your nerves, then toss back a strong drink to tone your muscles.