Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano (tr. Mark Fried)

If you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the thrills and spills of the 2018 World Cup, this could be the ideal book for you: Football in Sun and Shadow by the eminent Uruguayan journalist, novelist and writer Eduardo Galeano.

First published in 1995 and subsequently updated to 2010, Football in Sun and Shadow is a marvellous collection of short essays/vignettes focusing primarily on each World Cup from the first in 1930 to the nineteenth in 2010. By adopting this approach, Galeano charts the development of the contest, touching briefly on the multitude of stars and the numerous dramas that have emerged both on and off the field over the years. In addition to providing an array of facts, this book is a wonderful paean to the artistry of football, capturing as it does the sheer grace, poetry and magic of the beautiful game.

The book begins with short sketches of the key ‘players’ and elements of the sport, from ‘The Goalkeeper’, ‘The Idol’ and ‘The Fan’ through to ‘The Referee’, ‘The Manager’ and ‘The Theatre’. While the goalkeeper is ‘the first to pay – it is always the keeper’s fault’, somewhat unsurprisingly, the idol is the star – ‘the ball seeks him out, knows him, needs him.’

These initial snippets are followed by others which offer a potted history of the origins of football, its early development in Britain and subsequent arrival on the shores of South America via the sailors, diplomats and traders of the UK. Here the game is enthusiastically embraced in the early years of 20th century, particularly by the poor and underprivileged, blossoming in the slums of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil where it requires little more than a makeshift ball and the sheer desire to play.

Football had made a lovely voyage: first organized in the colleges and universities of England, it brought joy to the lives of South Americans who had never set foot in a school. (p. 25)

Once the timeline reaches 1930, Galeano turns his focus to the World Cup, reflecting some of the highs and lows of each tournament, the main players and incidents with a particular emphasis on the most skilful goals. To give you an example, here is the writer’s portrait of Didi, the hub of the Brazilian team and leading playmaker of the 1958 World Cup.

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. (pp. 84-85)

Each tournament is placed within the broader political, cultural and social landscape of the day by way of a brief summary covering key developments on the world stage – a technique which works brilliantly as an introduction, effectively putting football on a par with the other significant international events. The following passage is taken from the scene setter for the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina.

In Germany the popular Volkswagen Beetle was dying, in England the first test tube baby was being born, in Italy abortion was being legalized. The first victims of AIDS, a disease not yet call that, were succumbing. The Red Brigades were killing Aldo Moro, and the United States was promising to give Panama back the canal it had stolen at the beginning of the century. Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours. (p. 121)

That final line about the imminent fall of Castro is repeated in Galeano’s introduction to every World Cup from 1962 to 2006, acting a kind of running joke on the dictator’s position in Cuba.

The vignettes that follow give a flavour of each tournament, the sights and sounds of some of the most significant matches and moments from the Cup.

During the days that followed, TV showed images of the ’82 Cup: the billowing tunic of Sheik Fahad […], who ran onto the field to protest about a goal by France against Kuwait; the goal by Englishman Bryan Robson after half a minute, the quickest in World Cup history; the indifference of German keeper Schumacher, who once was a blacksmith, after he knocked out French striker Battiston with his knee. (p. 127)

Fundamental changes to the game also merit a mention – for example, the introduction of red and yellow cards for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, and the decision to award three points for a win in 1994 to discourage teams from playing for a draw.

While the book gives a truly international perspective on the sport, Galeano’s passion for the game stems from his early love of the football played in his native continent of South America. He writes enthusiastically of a fluid, open kind of football, typified by Argentina’s River Plate team in the early 1940s, in which the players ‘traded places in a permanent rotation’ – in addition to their natural roles, defenders attacked and attackers defended.

In particular, Galeano laments the decline of creativity and flair over the years, the increasing dominance of a ‘staid and standardized’ kind of football, ‘a game of speed and strength, fuelled by the fear of losing’. What saddens him most is the move towards teams of ‘functionaries who specialize in avoiding defeat’ rather than artists who have the freedom to express themselves with all the vision and imagination this unleashes. When a relatively rare example of creativity breaks through, it is a joy to behold.

At the World Cup in 1970, Brazil played a football worthy of her people’s yearning for celebration and craving for beauty. The whole world was suffering from the mediocrity of defensive football, which had the entire side hanging back to maintain the catenaccio* while one or two men played by themselves up front. Risk and creative spontaneity were not allowed. Brazil, however, was astonishing: a team on the attack, playing with four strikers – Jairzinho, Tostão, Pelé and Rivelino – sometimes increased to five and even six when Gérson and Carlos Alberto came up from the back. That steamroller pulverized Italy in the final. (p. 109)

*‘Door-bolt’ or backline defence.

There is praise too for the Colombian team of the early ‘90s and Nigerian team of 1998.

Galeano is equally scornful of the monetisation of the game – the increasingly lucrative television rights and advertising contracts play a crucial role here, often influencing the timing of World Cup matches to maximise the revenue gained from the European markets. Unsurprisingly, the dominance of FIFA merits a few mentions in this context, driven by the hard-nosed commercial strategy of its former president, João Havelange, a dominant force from the mid ‘70s to the late ‘90s. ‘I have come to sell football,’ he announces on taking up the presidency, a statement which seems to typify his values and general approach.

Politics and money matters aside, what really shines through from Football in Sun and Shadow is the author’s sheer love of football – the myriad of myths and legends, the stories of heroes and villains, and perhaps most of all, the sense of artistry and magic that can emerge on the field. This is a wonderful testament to the creativity of football, written by a true poet and admirer of the game.

I read this book for Richard and Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Lit event which is running in July and August. Grant has also written an excellent review of it here.

Football in Sun and Shadow is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano (tr. Mark Fried)

  1. A Life in Books

    Not one for me but I’m pleased that Galeano pours scorn on the business of football. My brother was utterly obsessed when we were growing up and remained so decades into adulthood but now seems disillusioned with the whole thing.

    I hope you enjoyed the last four weeks, Jacqui. We were in Germany when they lost, then Poland when they lost then came back home to the UK…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did enjoy the last four weeks, thank you. In fact, I don’t know quite what to do with myself of an evening now that the football and tennis have both come to an end at the same time! I suspect it will be back to books and DVDs for the rest of the summer.

      How funny to hear those World Cup defeats seem to have followed you around on your European jaunt. Maybe you should have extended your trip and gone to Croatia instead! Seriously though, I met up with a friend earlier today whose son-in-law was absolutely inconsolable after England’s exit in the semi-finals. It was almost as if there had been a bereavement in the family…genuinely heartbreaking stuff for him.

      Reply
      1. A Life in Books

        Perhaps we should have put in a bid for funds! There were two stunned Germans sitting across the garden from us at breakfast, hardly able to speak to each other, and I’ve several times thought of the restaurant full of excited young Poles who I wished luck as we left. It’s very hard when fans put such emotional investment into it.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I can well imagine how shocked that German couple must have been. There was clearly something wrong in the German camp as they didn’t seem to be gelling as a team. A most unusual occurrence for them as they’re usually so well organised and difficult to break down.

          I hope those young Poles have got over their disappointment by now. As you say, it’s tough when the fans have invested so much belief and emotion in their team that it becomes a matter of national pride.

          Reply
  2. Caroline

    Every time I say, I won’t be watching and then, especially when France are doing well, I end up in front of the TV anyway and this year was particularly rewarding. Not only because I’m French, but because it was really good this year. I’m glad we avoided drama (French/UK final) as we’re a French/UK household. Needless to say, one of us was really disappointed. Me too actually. It would have been so lovely for the UK. I will never watch club football but seeing talents like Mbappé – and others, of course – is a joy as it’s so skillful and athletic. I can’t believe it, I’m waxing lyrical about football.
    Thanks for the review, it does sound like an excellent book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! It’s been a fantastic tournament, one of the best I can remember for many a year. While I’m not that into football on a regular basis — I don’t support any particular team and have little interest in the Premiership — I LOVE the World Cup. I think it stems from a sense of nostalgia for the years when my father was still alive. One of my earliest memories consists of being hauled off the beach by my dad and subsequently bundled into the car so that we would make it home in time for a critical game in the 1970 World Cup. England were playing of course, but I can’t recall who they were up against that day! Anyway, I’ve loved the tournament ever since. As an only child, there was no escape from international football as my dad had to have someone at home to enthuse to.

      I’m so glad that France won on Sunday. Yes, they had a bit of luck with that free kick and then the controversial penalty incident, but Mbappe and Pogba were pretty unstoppable overall. I couldn’t help but wonder what Galeano would have made of Mbappe’s skills and talent. Quite a lot, I suspect – there’s a chapter there just waiting to be written in the afterlife.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        Lovely memories. It was similar in our home. My dad never watched football but he did watch the World Cup so did my mum. He would have been so pleased.
        I’m sure, if he’s isn’t injured like so many, we will hear a lot more from Mbappe. I thought Griezmann was amazing too. I also just loved the joy they showed. So many teams looked so grim but they genuinely enjoyed being there. The penalty wasn’t entirely justified. Possibly not at all, so it’s good to know they would have won anyway.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s funny, isn’t it, how the international tournaments capture people’s imagination like this? Lovely to hear that your dad would have been pleased with the result. I agree, France’s win was well deserved – they seemed pretty unstoppable across the tournament as a whole. And yes, what joy in the celebrations! Not only the players but the President too – that photo of Macron up on the ledge was amazing. The Croatian President was really getting into it too, wasn’t she? So gracious in her congratulations to the French team. I couldn’t see Theresa May doing anything quite like that…

          Reply
          1. Caroline

            Yes, it is.
            No I can’t imagine Theresa May doing that but then she’s such a stiff person. Macron comes across as quite natural. The two trainers were also quite pleasant with each other before the game. And hardly any yellow cards. That’s what I always like about France. Not like Colombia and their eight yellow cards. That was shocking.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes I thought Colombia would be down to 9 or 10 men by the end of that game against England. The referee had his hands full there, for sure.

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m sure there must be a cricketing equivalent out there somewhere. Seriously though, if any of your friends are into football, then I would recommend they take a look at this book. It’s so beautifully written that it’s a real joy to read.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Can’t say I am very bothered about football. I applaud the author though for being appreciative of the artistry and more critical of the huge sums of money involved.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I didn’t think this would be one for you, Ali! That’s one of things I liked about Galeano’s philosophy towards the subject, his clear passion for the creativity and flair in the game.

      Reply
  4. Jonathan

    I managed to watch quite a bit of the world cup what with some well-timed holiday. It’s meant I haven’t read as much as normal and haven’t blogged at all since the beginning. I don’t normally like books about sport but this one does sound like it would be good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you were able to catch quite a lot of it. Great stuff. I think I managed to catch most of the evening games but not the afternoon ones. Well, with the exceptions of weekends, of course.

      I would definitely recommend this book, primarily on account of the quality of the writing which is just beautiful. Plus the vignette approach makes it ideal for dipping into whenever you have a spare couple of minutes. His pen portraits of the key players are really quite poetic.

      Reply
  5. winstonsdad

    I hope to read this at some point I’ve read a number of football books over the years the idea of him mix the football and social situation appeals and I am missing the football it was a great World Cup

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m missing it too! I hardly know what to do with myself in the evening now that it’s finished. It was a great tournament, so open and unpredictable. And I’m glad that France won in the end – they have so much flair and talent in that team.

      As for Galeano’s book, I think you’d really enjoy it. The social context really helps to put each tournament in perspective, and Gealeno doesn’t shy away from commenting on some of the sociopolitical aspects of the game. In addition to the comments on commercialisation, he also touches on racism in the sport – a point that Grant brings out in his review.

      Reply
  6. Richard

    I’d been thinking of reading this for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month this year, Jacqui, and in the end decided to save it for some other time. So glad to see your write-up of it here, though, and to find out that you enjoyed it so. I believe one football-loving writer I like–probably either Juan Villoro or Manuel Vázquez Montalbán–calls Galeano’s book one of the best ever on the subject of football, so I look forward to reading it eventually to judge for myself. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really loved it, Richard, and I hope you enjoy it too whenever you decide to dive in. It brought back so many memories for me, particularly those associated with the tournaments in the 1970s, the ones that coincided with my childhood. The writing is beautiful, almost poetic at times. I’m not surprised to hear that it’s considered to be one of the best books on the sport – it surely must be the most artistic!

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I have to confess that the last time I was interested in football was when I was about 10! And like others I do get very cross about the amount of money spent on it. Nevertheless, it does sound like a very well written book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – I doubt it’s for you then, Karen! I’m sure other books go into the economics of the sport in much more detail than is evident here – nevertheless, it was interesting to see the Galeano’s perspective on the overarching strategy. He was clearly no fan of the philosophy of FIFA under Havelange’s leadership.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I would recommend reading Galeano’s non-football books as well – I’ve loved both Mirrors and Children of the Days which similarly give a non-Anglocentric view of the world.
    I, too, enjoyed the World Cup – though I would have preferred Croatia to win with its Scotland-sized population! I have a memory of David Narey scoring a wonder goal against Brazil in 1982. I was ecstatic, my dad was more wary suggesting it would only encourage Brazil to step up a gear. They did and won 4-1. I’ve learned to be more pessimistic since!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I just googled that David Narey goal – what a fantastic strike! I had totally forgotten about that match until you mentioned it, but I do vaguely recall it now (I certainly remember the scoreline!). It’s a book that revives so many memories from various World Cup tournaments over the years. Happy days (or not, as the case may be).

      I would definitely be open to reading more by Galeano (well, that’s if I ever allow myself to buy books again – Sun and Shadow was one of only 2 or 3 purchases I’ve made since the beginning of this year). His prose style is so fluent and elegant, I can imagine it being a joy to read irrespective of the subject.

      Anyway, thanks so much for writing about this book – I am so glad I picked up a copy after reading your review!

      Reply
  9. Sarah

    This is definitely going on my list as I’m feeling bereft now the footy is over. This should keep me going until the premier league kicks off again in a few weeks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray! It would certainly fill that gap, for sure. Plus, it’s an ideal book for dipping into every now and again, so you could make it last all season. :)

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    I never thought I’d be interested in a book about football! You’ve worked a miracle Jacqui :-) A lot of it will be lost on me but it does sound beautifully written and really interesting. I’m going for a lie down – I don’t know who I am any more….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Oddly enough, while I don’t have any real interest in the Premiership, I do love the World Cup. It’s almost certainly a throwback to the days when my dad was alive and we watched some of the big games as a family. So, in the normal scheme of things, I don’t tend to pay much attention to what’s going on in the footballing world – just every couple of years once the big international tournaments get underway. :)

      Reply
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