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 three of my favorite entries, which I copied, from Soccer in Sun and Shadow below.
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.”
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.
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.