If Maradona is football’s god, Galeano wrote its holy book

Sample: "Portugal’s best player ever was an African from Mozambique. Eusebio: long legs, dangling arms, sad eyes."

If Maradona is football’s god, then Eduardo Galeano wrote football’s holy book. The Uruguyan (who also had good politics: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people”) passed away this week. Also known as Football is a Country’s patron saint, he wrote mostly about football before television. Go well, great writer. In the meantime, go read our countryman Gary Younge’s account of his meeting with football’s messenger here. Then read my favorite entries, which I copied, from Soccer in Sun and Shadow below.

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The Opiate of the People
How is soccer like God? Each inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals. In 1902 in London, Rudyard Kipling made fun of soccer and those who contented their souls with “the muddied oafs at the goals.” Three quarters of a century later in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges was more subtle: he gave a lecture on the subject of immortality on the same day and at the same hour that Argentina was playing its first match in the 1978 World Cup.

The scorn of many conservative intellectuals comes from their conviction that soccer worship is precisely the superstition people deserve. Possessed by the ball, working stiffs think with their feet, which is entirely appropriate, and fulfill their dreams in primitive ecstasy. Animal instinct overtakes human reason, ignorance crushes culture, and the riffraff 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 forget who they are and let themselves be led about like sheep by their class
enemies.

In the River Plate, once the English and the rich lost possession of the sport, the first popular clubs were organized in railroad workshops and shipyards.

Several anarchist and socialist leaders soon denounced the clubs as a maneuver by the bourgeoisie to forestall strikes and disguise class divisions. The spread of soccer across the world was an imperialist trick to keep oppressed peoples trapped in an eternal childhood.

But the club Argentinos Juniors was born calling itself the Chicago Martyrs, in homage to those anarchist workers, and May 1 was the day chosen to launch the club Chacarita at a Buenos Aires anarchist library. In those first years of the twentieth century, plenty of left-leaning intellectuals celebrated soccer instead of repudiating it as a sedative of consciousness. Among them was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who praised “this open-air kingdom of human loyalty.”

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Blacks

In 1916 in the first South American championship, Uruguay creamed Chile 4–0. The next day, the Chilean delegation insisted the match be disallowed “because Uruguay had two Africans in the lineup.” They were Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado. Gradín had scored two of the four goals.

Gradín was born in Montevideo, the great-grandson ofslaves. He was a man who lifted people out of their seats when he erupted with astonishing speed, dominating the ball as easily as if he were walking. He would drive past the adversaries without a pause and score on the fly. He had a face like the holy host and was one of those guys no one believes when they pretend to be bad.

Juan Delgado, also a great-grandson ofslaves, was born in the town of Florida, in the Uruguayan countryside. Delgado liked to show off by dancing with a broom at Carnival and with the ball on the field. He talked while he played, and he liked to tease his opponents: “Pick me that bunch of grapes,” he’d say as he sent the ball high. And as he shot he’d say to the keeper, “Jump for it, the sand is soft.”

Back then Uruguay was the only country in the world with black players on its national team.

***

Andrade

Europe had never seen a black man play soccer.

In the 1924 Olympics, the Uruguayan José Leandro Andrade dazzled everyone with his exquisite moves. A midfielder, this rubber-bodied giant would sweep the ball downfield without ever touching an adversary, and when he launched the attack he would brandish his body and send them allscattering. In one match he crossed half the field with the ballsitting on his head. The crowds cheered him, the French press called him “The Black Marvel.”

When the tournament was over, Andrade spent some time hanging around Paris as errant Bohemian and king of the cabarets. Patent leather shoes replaced his whiskery hemp sandals from Montevideo and a top hat took the place of his worn cap. Newspaper columns of the time praised the figure of that monarch of the Pigalle night: gay jaunty step, oversized grin, half-closed eyes always staring into the distance. And dressed to kill: silk handkerchief, striped jacket, bright yellow gloves, and a cane with a silver handle.

Andrade died in Montevideo many years later. His friends had planned several benefits for him, but none of them ever came off. He died of tuberculosis, in utter poverty.

He was black, South American, and poor, the first international idol ofsoccer.

***

Leônidas

He had the dimensions, speed, and cunning of a mosquito. At the ’38 World Cup a journalist from Paris Match counted six legs on him and suggested black magic was responsible. I don’t know if the journalist noticed, but Leônidas’s many legs had the diabolical ability to grow several yards and fold over or tie themselves in knots. 

Leônidas da Silva stepped onto the field the day Brazilian great Arthur Friedenreich, already in his forties, retired. Leônidas received the scepter from the old master. It wasn’t long before they named a brand of cigarettes and a candy bar after him. He got more fan letters than a movie star; the letters asked him for a picture, an autograph, or a government job.

Leônidas scored many goals, but never counted them. A few were made from the air, his feet twirling, upside down, back to the goal. He was skilled in the acrobatics of the chilena, which Brazilians call the “bicycle.”

Leônidas’s goals were so pretty that even the goalkeeper would get up and congratulate him.

***

Didi

The press named him the best playmaker of the 1958 World Cup.

He was the hub of the Brazilian team. Lean body, long neck, poised statue of himself, Didi looked like an African icon standing at the center of the field, where he ruled. From there he would shoot his poison arrows.

He was a master of the deep pass, a near goal that would become a real goal on the feet of Pelé, Garrincha, or Vavá, but he also scored on his own.

Shooting from afar, he used to fool goalkeepers with the “dry leaf”: by giving the ball his foot’s profile, she would leave the ground spinning and continue spinning on the fly, dancing about and changing direction like a dry leaf carried by the wind, until she flew between the posts precisely where the goalkeeper least expected.

Didi played unhurriedly. Pointing at the ball, he would say: “She’s the one who runs.”

He knew she was alive.

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Eusebio

He was born to shine shoes, sell peanuts, or pick pockets. As a child they called him “Ninguém”: no one, nobody. Son of a widowed mother, he played soccer from dawn to dusk with his many brothers in the empty lots of the shantytowns.

He set foot on the field running as only someone fleeing the police or poverty nipping at his heels can run. That’s how he became champion of Europe at the age of twenty, sprinting in zigzags. They called him “The Panther.”
At the World Cup in 1966 his long strides left adversaries scattered on the ground, and his goals, from impossible angles, set off cheers that never ended.

Portugal’s best player ever was an African from Mozambique. Eusebio: long legs, dangling arms, sad eyes.

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Goal by Pele

It was 1969. Santos was playing Vasco da Gama in Maracanã Stadium. Pelé crossed the field in a flash, evading his opponents without ever touching the ground, and when he was about to enter the goal along with the ball he was tripped.

The referee whistled a penalty. Pelé did not want to take it. A hundred thousand people forced him to, screaming out his name.

Pelé had scored many goals in Maracanã. Prodigious goals, like the one in 1961 against Fluminense when he dribbled past seven defenders and the keeper as well. But this penalty was different; people felt there was something sacred about it. That’s why the noisiest crowd in the world fellsilent. The clamor disappeared as if obeying an order: no one spoke, no one breathed. All of a sudden the stands seemed empty and so did the playing field. Pelé and the goalkeeper, Andrada, were alone. By themselves, they waited. Pelé stood by the ball resting on the white penalty spot. Twelve paces beyond stood Andrada, hunched over at the ready, between the two posts.

The goalkeeper managed to graze the ball, but Pelé nailed it to the net. It was his thousandth goal. No other player in the history of professional soccer had ever scored a thousand goals.

Then the multitude came back to life and jumped like a child overjoyed, lighting up the night.

***

Pele

A hundred songs name him. At seventeen he was champion of the world and king of soccer. Before he was twenty the government of Brazil named him a “national treasure” not to be exported. He won three world championships with the Brazilian team and two with the club Santos. After his thousandth goal, he kept on counting. He played more than thirteen hundred matches in eighty countries, one after another at a punishing rate, and he scored nearly thirteen hundred goals. Once he held up a war: Nigeria and Biafra declared a truce to see him play.

To see him play was worth a truce and a lot more. When Pelé ran hard, he cut right through his opponents like a hot knife through butter. When he stopped, his opponents got lost in the labyrinths his legs embroidered. When he jumped, he climbed into the air as if it were a staircase. When he executed a free kick, his opponents in the wall wanted to turn around to face the net, so as not to miss the goal.

He was born in a poor home in a far-off village, and he reached the summit of power and fortune where blacks were not allowed. Off the field he never gave a minute of his time and a coin never fell from his pocket. But those of us who were lucky enough to see him play received alms of extraordinary beauty: moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe immortality exists.

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Goal by Maradona

It was 1973. The youth teams of Argentinos Juniors and River Plate were playing in Buenos Aires.

Number 10 for Argentinos received the ball from his goalkeeper, evaded River’s center forward, and took off. Several players tried to block his path: he put it over the first one’s head, between the legs of the second, and he fooled the third with a backheel. Then, without a pause, he paralyzed the defenders, left the keeper sprawled on the ground, and walked the ball to the net. On the field stood seven crushed boys and four more with their mouths agape.

That kid’s team, the Cebollitas, went undefeated for a hundred matches and caught the attention of the press. One of the players, “Poison,” who was thirteen, declared, “We play for fun. We’ll never play for money. When there’s money in it, everybody kills themselves to be a star and that’s when jealousy and selfishness take over.”

As he spoke he had his arm around the best-loved player of all, who was also the shortest and the happiest: Diego Armando Maradona, who was twelve and had just scored that incredible goal. Maradona had the habit ofsticking out his tongue when he was on the attack. All his goals were scored with his tongue out. By night he slept with his arms
around a ball and by day he performed miracles with it. He lived in a poor home in a poor neighborhood and he wanted to be an industrial engineer.

***

Havelange

In 1974, after a long climb, Jean-Marie Faustin Goedefroid de Havelange reached FIFA’s summit. And he announced: “I have come to sell a product named soccer.”

From that point on, Havelange has exercised absolute power over the world of soccer. His body glued to the throne, Havelange reigns in his palace in Zurich surrounded by a court of voracious technocrats. He governs more countries than the United Nations, travels more than the Pope, and has more medals than any war hero. 

Havelange was born in Brazil, where he owns Cometa, the country’s largest bus and trucking company, and other businesses specializing in financial speculation, weapons sales, and life insurance. But his opinions do not seem very Brazilian. A journalist from The Times of London once asked him: “What do you like best about soccer? The glory? The beauty? The poetry? Winning?” And he answered: “The discipline.”

This old-style monarch has transformed the geography ofsoccer and made it into one of the more splendid multinational businesses in the world. Under his rule, the number of countries competing in world championships has doubled: there were sixteen in 1974, and there will be thirty-two as of 1998. And from what we can decipher through the fog around his balance sheets, the profits generated by these tournaments have multiplied so prodigiously that the biblical miracle of bread and fish seems like a joke in comparison.

The new protagonists of world soccer — countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — offer Havelange a broad base of support, but his power gains sustenance, above all, from his association with several gigantic corporations, Coca-Cola and Adidas among them. It was Havelange who convinced Adidas to finance the candidacy of his friend Juan Antonio Samaranch for the presidency of the International Olympic Committee in 1980. Samaranch, who during the Franco dictatorship had the good sense to wear a blue shirt and salute with his palm extended, is now the other king of world sport. These two manage enormous sums of money. How much, no one knows. They are rather bashful about the subject.

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The Telecracy

Nowadays the stadium is a gigantic TV studio. The game is played for television, so you can watch it at home. And television rules.

At the ’86 World Cup, Valdano, Maradona, and other players protested because the important matches were played at noon under a sun that fried everything it touched. Noon in Mexico, nightfall in Europe, that was the best time for European television. The German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, told the story: “I sweat. My throat is dry. The grass is like dried shit: hard, strange, hostile. The sun shines straight down on the stadium and strikes us right on the head. We cast no shadows. They say this is good for television.” Was the sale of the spectacle more important than the quality of play? The players are there to kick not to cry, and Havelange put an end to that maddening business: “They should play and shut their traps,” he decreed. Who ran the 1986 World Cup? The Mexican Soccer Federation? No, please, no more intermediaries: it was run by Guillermo Cañedo, vice president of Televisa and president of the company’s international network. This World Cup belonged to Televisa, the private monopoly that owns the free time of all Mexicans and also owns Mexican soccer. And nothing could be more important than the money Televisa, along with FIFA, could earn from the European broadcast rights. When a Mexican journalist had the insolent audacity to ask about the costs and profits of the World Cup, Cañedo cut him off cold: “This is a private company and we don’t have to report to anybody.” When the World Cup ended, Cañedo continued as a Havelange courtier occupying one of the vice presidencies of FIFA, another private company that
does not have to report to anybody.

Televisa not only holds the reins on national and international broadcasts of Mexican soccer, it also owns three first-division clubs: América, the most powerful, Necaxa, and Atlante.

In 1990 Televisa demonstrated the ferocious power it holds over the Mexican game. That year, the president of the club Puebla, Emilio Maurer, had a deadly idea: Televisa could easily put out more money for the exclusive rights to broadcast the matches. Maurer’s initiative was well received by several leaders of the Mexican Soccer Federation. After all, the monopoly paid each club a little more than a thousand dollars, while amassing a fortune from selling advertising.

Televisa then showed them who was boss. Maurer was bombarded without mercy: overnight, creditors foreclosed on his companies and his home, he was threatened, assaulted, and declared a fugitive from justice, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. What’s more, one nasty morning his club’s stadium was closed without warning. But gangster tactics were not enough to make him climb down from his horse, so they had no choice but to put Maurer in jail and sweep him out of his rebel club and out of the Mexican Soccer Association, along with all of his allies.

Throughout the world, by direct and indirect means, television decides where, when, and how soccer will be played. The game has sold out to the small screen in body and soul and clothing too. Players are now TV stars. Who can compete with their shows? The program that had the largest audience in France and Italy in 1993 was the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup between Olympique de Marseille and AC Milan. Milan, as we all know, belongs to Silvio Berlusconi, the czar of Italian television. Bernard Tapie was not the owner of French TV, but his club, Olympique, received from the small screen that year three hundred times more money than in 1980. He lacked no motive for affection.

Now millions of people can watch matches, not only the thousands who fit into the stadiums. The number of fans has multiplied, along with the number of potential consumers of as many things as the image manipulators wish to sell. But unlike baseball and basketball, soccer is a game of continuous play that offers few interruptions for showing ads. The one halftime is not enough. American television has proposed to correct this unpleasant defect by dividing the match into four twenty-five minute periods–and Havelange agrees.

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The 1990 World Cup

Nelson Mandela was free, after spending twenty-seven years in prison for being black and proud in South Africa. In Colombia the left’s presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo lay dying and from a helicopter the police were shooting drug trafficker Rodríguez Gacha, one of the ten richest men in the world. Chile’s badly wounded democracy was recuperating, but General Pinochet, at the head of the military, was still keeping an eye on the politicians and reining in their every step. Alberto Fujimori, riding a tractor, was beating Mario Vargas Llosa in the Peruvian elections. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas were losing that country’s elections, defeated by the exhaustion wrought by ten years of war against invaders armed and trained by the United States, while the United States was beginning a new occupation of Panama following the success of its twenty-first invasion of that country.

In Poland labor leader Lech Walesa, a man of daily mass, was exiting jail and entering government. In Moscow a crowd was lining up at McDonald’s. The Berlin Wall was being sold off in pieces, as the unification of the two Germanys and the disintegration of Yugoslavia began. A popular insurrection was putting an end to the Ceausescu regime in Romania, and the veteran dictator, who liked to call himself the “Blue Danube of Socialism,” was being executed. In all of Eastern Europe, old bureaucrats were turning into new entrepreneurs and cranes were dragging off statues of Marx, who had no way of saying, “I’m innocent.” Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours. Up in heaven, terrestrial machines were visiting Venus and spying on its secrets, while here on earth, in Italy, the fourteenth World Cup got under way.
Fourteen teams from Europe and six from the Americas took part, plus Egypt, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Cameroon, which astonished the world by defeating the Argentine side in the first match and then playing head to head with England. Roger Milla, a forty-year-old veteran, was first drum in this African orchestra. Maradona, with one foot swelled up like a pumpkin, did the best he could to lead his team. You could barely hear the tango. After losing to Cameroon, Argentina drew with Romania and Italy and was about to lose to Brazil. The Brazilians dominated the entire match, until Maradona, playing on one leg, evaded three markers at midfield and set up Caniggia, who scored before you could even exhale.

Argentina faced Germany in the final, just as in the previous Cup, but this time Germany won 1–0 thanks to an invisible foul and Beckenbauer’s wise coaching.

Italy took third place, England fourth. Schillaci of Italy led the list of scorers with six, followed by Skuharavy of Czechoslovakia with five. This championship, boring soccer without a drop of audacity or beauty, had the lowest average scores in World Cup history.

***

Gullit

In 1993 a tide of racism was rising. Its stench, like a recurring nightmare, already hung over Europe; several crimes were committed and laws to keep out ex-colonial immigrants were passed. Many young whites, unable to find work, began to blame their plight on people with dark skin.

That year a team from France won the European Cup for the first time. The winning goal was the work of Basile Boli, an African from the Ivory Coast, who headed in a corner kicked by another African, Abedi Pele, who was born in Ghana. Meanwhile, not even the blindest proponents of white supremacy could deny that the Netherlands’ best players were the veterans Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, dark-skinned sons of Surinamese parents, or that the African Eusébio had been Portugal’s best soccer player ever. 

Ruud Gullit, known as “The Black Tulip,” had always been a full-throated opponent of racism. Guitar in hand, he sang at anti-apartheid concerts between matches, and in 1987, when he was chosen Europe’s most valuable player, he dedicated his Ballon d’Or to Nelson Mandela, who spent many years in jail for the crime of believing that blacks are human.

One of Gullit’s knees was operated on three times. Each time commentators declared he was finished. Out of sheer desire he always came back: “When I can’t play I’m like a newborn with nothing to suck.”

His nimble scoring legs and his imposing stature crowned by a head of Rasta dreadlocks won him a fervent following when he played for the strongest teams in the Netherlands and Italy. But Gullit never got along with coaches or managers because he tended to disobey orders, and he had the stubborn habit of speaking out against the culture of money that is reducing soccer to just another listing on the stock exchange.

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Maradona

He played, he won; he peed, he lost. Ephedrine turned up in his urinalysis and Maradona was booted out of the 1994 World Cup. Ephedrine, though not considered a stimulant by professional sports in the United States or many other countries, is prohibited in international competitions.

There was stupefaction and scandal, a blast of moral condemnation that left the whole world deaf. But somehow a few voices of support for the fallen idol managed to squeak through, not only in his wounded and dumbfounded Argentina, but in places as far away as Bangladesh, where a sizable demonstration repudiating FIFA and demanding Maradona’s return shook the streets. After all, to judge and condemn was easy. It was not so easy to forget that for many years Maradona had committed the sin of being the best, the crime of speaking out about things the powerful wanted kept quiet, and the felony of playing left handed, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means not only “of or pertaining to the left hand” but also “sinister or questionable.”

Diego Armando Maradona never used stimulants before matches to stretch the limits of his body. It is true that he was into cocaine, but only at sad parties where he wanted to forget or be forgotten because he was cornered by glory and could not live without the fame that would not allow him to live in peace. He played better than anyone else in spite of the cocaine, not because of it.

He was overwhelmed by the weight of his own personality. Ever since that day long ago when fans first chanted his name, his spinal column caused him grief. Maradona carried a burden named Maradona that bent his back out of shape. The body as metaphor: his legs ached, he couldn’t sleep without pills. It did not take him long to realize it was impossible to live with the responsibility of being a god on the field, but from the beginning he knew that stopping was out of the question. “I need them to need me,” he confessed after many years of living under the tyrannical halo of superhuman performance, swollen with cortisone and analgesics and praise, harassed by the demands of his devotees and by the hatred of those he offended.

The pleasure of demolishing idols is directly proportional to the need to erect them. In Spain, when Goicoechea hit him from behind — even though he didn’t have the ball — and sidelined him for several months, some fanatics carried the author of this premeditated homicide on their shoulders. And all over the world plenty of people were ready to celebrate the fall of that arrogant interloper, that parvenu fugitive from hunger, that greaser who had the insolent audacity to swagger and boast.

Further Reading

Fanon forever

Fanon is your revolutionary’s revolutionary. His life and work continue to inspire and empower a new generation of dreamers and fighters against despotism and nihilism.