Eduardo Galeano—the famous Uruguayan writer, journalist, and political activist—passed away Monday at the age of 74. He was most widely celebrated (and defamed) for his incisive critiques of Western imperialism and capitalism, as well as his lilting, graceful prose. His most notable work, Las venas abiertas de América Latina (or Open Veins of Latin America) offered a sort of people’s history of Latin America, weaving a narrative framed by economic exploitation and political instability. His life’s work was committed to telling the story of Latin America, describing his own work as a writer as “obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia.”
Soccer fans will know him as the author of El fútbol a sol y sombra, or Soccer in Sun and Shadow. The book offers a cultural history of the beautiful game, using his trademark poignant verse to shape history and politics and economics and personal experience into a sort of paper sculpture— beautiful, unexpected, and somewhat transient. There’s a lot of darkness in the story Galeano tells—the “shadow” in the book title, as it were—yet he unfurls and shares his joy and love for the sport throughout. Football, for Galeano, was an intimate and indelible part of life— and more often than not, it represented the better parts of it. Galeano was more than a fan; he was a pilgrim, telling a story that was equal parts hard labor sentence, passionate love affair and fleeting moment of rapture.
Below are some of the best quotes from Soccer in Sun and Shadow that highlight his love for the game and his struggles to reconcile the uglier side of it, extending his evocative and poetic words as if they were hands outstretched in welcome.
In soccer, as in everything else, consumers are far more numerous than producers. Asphalt covers the empty lots where people used to pick up a game, and work devours our leisure time. Most people don’t play, they just watch others play on television or from stands that lie ever farther from the field. Like carnival, soccer has become a mass spectator sport. But just like the carnival spectators who start dancing in the streets, in soccer there are always a few admiring fans who kick the ball every so often out of sheer joy. And not only children. For better or for worse, though the fields are as far away as could be, friends from the neighborhood or workmates from the factory, the office of the faculty still get together to play for fun until they collapse exhausted, and then the winners and losers go off together to drink and smoke and share a good meal, pleasures denied the professional athlete.
— Galeano describing how consumerism has transformed the game, and how it hasn’t.
Pedro Rocha slid along like a snake in the grass. He played joyfully and his joy was infectious: the joy of the play, the joy of the goal. He did whatever he wanted with the ball, and she believed every bit of it.
— Galeano describing Pedro Rocha’s performance during a 1969 fixture between Uruguayan clubs Peñarol and Estudiantes.
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.
— Galeano describing the famous German international Gerd Müller.
Artur Friedenreich, son of a German immigrant and a black washerwoman, played in the first division for twenty-six years and never earned a cent. No one scored more goals than he in the history of soccer, not even that other great Brazilian artilleryman, Pelé, who remains professional soccer’s leading scorer. Freidenreich accumulated 1,329, Pelé 1,279. The green-eyed mulatto founded the Brazilian style of play. He, or the devil who got into him through the sole of his foot, broke all the rules in the English manuals: Friedenreich brought to the solemn stadium of the whites the irreverence of brown boys who entertained themselves fighting over a rag ball in the slums. Thus was born a style open to fantasy, one which prefers pleasure to results. From Friedenreich onward, there have been no right angles in Brazilian soccer, just as there are none in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro or the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.
— Galeano on the evolution of Brazilian soccer.
And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the soccer idol is born. He is born in a straw crib in a tin-roofed shack and he enters the world clinging to a ball.
— Galeano on soccer idols.
The scorn of many conservative intellectuals comes from their belief that soccer-worship is exactly the religion people deserve. Possessed by soccer, the proles think with their feet, which is the only way they can think, and through such primitive ecstasy they fulfill their dreams. The animal instinct overtakes human reason, ignorance crushes culture, and the riff-raff get what they want. In contrast, many leftist intellectuals denigrate soccer because it castrates the masses and derails their revolutionary ardor. Bread and circus, circus without the bread: hypnotized by the ball, which exercises a perverse fascination, workers’ consciousness becomes atrophied and they let themselves be led about like sheep by their class enemies.”
— Galeano on soccer and politics.
Violence is not in the genes of these people who love to celebrate and are wild about the joys of music and soccer. Colombians suffer from violence like a disease, but they don’t wear it like a birthmark on their foreheads. The machinery of power, on the other hand, is indeed a cause of violence: as in all of Latin America, injustice and humiliation poison people’s souls.
— Galeano reflecting on the 1994 murder of Colombian defender Andrés Escobar.
Soccer elevates its divinities and exposes them to the vengeance of the believers. With the ball on his foot and the national colors on his chest, the player who embodies the nation marches off to win glory on far-off battlefields. If he returns defeated, the warrior becomes a fallen angel. At Ezeiza airport in 1958, people threw coins at Argentina’s players returning from a poor performance at the World Cup in Sweden. In the ‘82 Cup, Caszely missed a penalty kick and back in Chile they made his life impossible. Ten years later, several Ethiopian players asked the United Nations for asylum after losing 6-1 to Egypt. We are because we win. If we lose, we no longer exist. Without question, the national uniform has become the clearest symbol of collective identity, not only in poor or small countries whose place on the map depends on soccer. When England lost out in the qualifiers for the ‘94 World Cup, the front page of the Daily Mirror featured a headline in a type-size fit for a catastrophe: ‘THE END OF THE WORLD.
— Galeano on soccer and nationalism.
Thirty-two teams travelled to Japan and Korea to wage the seventeenth World Cup Championship in the shiny new stadiums of twenty cities. 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.”
— Galeano on the 2002 World Cup.
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.
—Galeano on his love for the sport exceeding his love for any one team.