Football, Myth and Reality


By Eduardo Galeano
In April 1997, when commandos broke into the Japanese ambassador's residence in the city of Lima and carried out their spectacular lightning butchery of the occupying guerrillas, the rebels were playing football. The leader, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, died wearing the colours of Alianza, the club he loved.

At the same time in Montevideo, the city announced it would hire 150 garbage collectors. Exactly 26,748 young people applied. The only way to handle such a crowd was to hold a lottery in the city's largest football stadium, Centenario, where in 1930 Uruguay won the first ever World Cup. The site of that joyful event of long ago was besieged by unemployed youths. Instead of goals, the electronic scoreboard displayed the numbers of the lucky few who got hired.

Not much occurs in Latin America that doesn't bear directly or indirectly on football. It occupies an important place - at times the most important of places - despite the denials of ideologies who love humanity but can't stand people. For intellectuals of the right, football simply proves that the people think with their feet; and for intellectuals of the left, it's the reason why the people don't think at all.

But such contempt holds no sway with flesh-and-blood reality. When collective emotions take root in the earth and bear fruit in the human body, they become a shared celebration or a shared disaster, and they exist without self-justification or apology. Like it or not, for better or worse, in these days of doubt and desperation, football-club colours are for many Latin Americans the only certainty worthy of absolute faith, the true source of the greatest jubilation and deepest sadness.

"Racing, an inexplicable passion", I read on a wall in Buenos Aires. And on a wall in Rio de Janeiro, a fan of Fluminense had scrawled: "My beloved poison". Some anonymous hand, in a paroxysm of fervour, left its testimony on a wall in Montevideo: "Penarol, you're like AIDS. I carry you in my blood."

I read that and I wondered. Is love for a shirt as dangerous as love for a woman? Tangos don't shed any light on this. In any case, it seems a fan's pact of love is more serious than any nuptial agreement because vows of fidelity to the club rule out even the shadow of a suspicion of a potential wrong move. And not only in Latin America.

A friend of mine, Angel Vasquez de la Cruz, wrote me from Galicia: "I have always been with Celta de Vigo. Now I've gone over to their worst enemy, Deportivo de la Corua. Everybody knows you can change cities, women, jobs or political affiliation, perhaps even you ought to... but never, ever can you change teams. I'm a traitor, I know. I beg of you, believe me: I did it for my children. My children convinced me. I may be a traitor, but I'm a great father".

Stadiums are mirrors of the world 
For fanatics, those fans who live perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, love is experienced through hatred of the adversary. When the Argentine footballer Ruggieri abandoned his team Boca Juniors and joined the ranks of their traditional rival River Plate, fanatics set fire to his home. His parents, who happened to be at home, were saved by a miracle.

Last March in peaceful Holland, four hundred fanatics of the clubs Ajax and Feyenoord met in an empty lot near Amsterdam. The bloody ritual left one dead and many wounded. "They set it up on the internet," commented Argentine reporter Ezequiel Fernandez-Moores, "but the battle took place like in the Middle Ages, with sticks."

Violence stains football the way it stains everything else in this world where, in the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm, "killing, torture and mass exile have become daily experiences which no longer surprise anyone".

The mass media tend to voice alarm at the evil influences of football. Does the game cause a flock of tame sheep to turn into a pack of bloodthirsty wolves?

The answer lies in plain view for those who don't refuse to see it: stadium crowds sometimes do turn ugly from the accumulation of desperation and solitude which characterizes this end-of-century in the north and the south, the east and the west. And such tensions overflow in the stadiums no more and no less than in any other arena of the violent lives we lead.

In Greece, in the time of Pericles, there were three courts, one of which judged things: it punished the knife, for example, that was the weapon in a crime by breaking it into pieces or throwing it into the sea. Today, would it be fair to condemn the ball? Is football guilty of the crimes committed in its name?

Those who demonize football and confuse it with Jack the Ripper's father can be just as irrationally fanatic as football fanatics. And they make the same mistake as those who believe football is no more than the opiate of the people and good business for merchants and politicians: they all imagine stadiums as islands and fail to recognize that they are mirrors of the world to which they belong. Can you name a single human passion that is not used and manipulated by the powers that rule the world?

A place to confirm identity 
Respect for reality obliges us to recognize that, despite everything, the football pitch is much more than a scene of violence or a source of money, political prestige and collective valium. The playing field also provides a space for displaying skill and, on occasion, beauty, a locus of encounter and communication, and a spot - one of the few - where, if only for a moment, the invisible can make themselves seen, a feat nearly impossible now for poor people and weak countries.

As long as we're paying tribute to the prestige of Hellenic culture, let's recall the Olympics 2,500 years before the era of Juan Antonio Samaranch. Back then, when athletes competed in the nude and without a single commercial tattoo on their bodies, Greek civilization formed a mosaic of a thousand cities, each with its own laws and its own armies. The games celebrated in the stadiums of Olympia were religious ceremonies that reaffirmed national identity as an amalgam that linked diverse peoples and subsumed their conflicts: a way of saying, We are Greek that made playing sports akin to reciting the verses of the Iliad or the Odyssey, the poems on which the nation was founded.

Perhaps football fulfills a similar function in our days, to a greater degree than any other sport. The industrialization of football, which television has turned into the most successful of mass spectacles, tends to impose a uniform style of play and to erase its many profiles.

But diversity stubbornly and miraculously continues to survive and to astonish. Like it or not, believe it or not, football remains one of the most important expressions of collective cultural identity, something which in this era of obligatory globalization reminds us that the best of the world lies in the quantity of worlds that the world contains.

Certainly there is no abundance of places where the countries of the south can affirm their identity, condemned as they are to imitating lifestyles of obligatory consumption imposed on a universal scale. With national industry having disappeared, plans for autonomous development all but forgotten, the state virtually dismantled, symbols of sovereignty abolished, the countries which make up the vast shantytowns of the world have few opportunities to affirm their pride of existence and their right to be.

And their right to be tends to stand in frank opposition to the role of servitude they have been assigned by the international division of labour, and to the pitiful part the mass media obliges them to play.

Colombia is a violent country: we read that, we hear it, we see it. But is Colombia a violent country? Is it condemned to violence by nature and fate? Are Colombians born with an inclination towards crime by virtue of their genes? Or is the country a prisoner serving a long sentence in a gigantic death machine which uses impunity for fuel and fatalism as an alibi? Isn't reality more complex and contradictory than it seems at first view?

I would dare suggest that before the expert violentologists formulate their verdict they listen to some Colombian music - the gorgeous vallenatos of Alejo Durn, for example - and watch the Colombian national team play a football which comes from the joy of the people and which gives them joy.

I would specially recommend that they study a photograph of Rene Higuita's famous save at Wembley in September 1995. That was a save never before seen in any stadium in the world. With his body in the air and parallel to the ground, the Colombian keeper let the shot go by, then kicked it away with his heels, snapping his legs like a scorpion flexing his tail. The revelation lies not in Higuita's feat, but in the eloquent smile of celebration that splits his face from ear to ear as he commits his unpardonable mischief.

It was football that put Uruguay on the map back in the twenties. This small country, no more populous than a single neighbourhood in Buenos Aires or a shanty-town in Mexico City, found in football a way to project itself onto the international scene and to confirm an identity which nowadays survives more in nostalgia than in reality.

Though we are supposed to be the way we play, we Uruguayans find it more and more depressing to see ourselves in the opaque mirror of the playing field. Our football has grown boring and dirty as the country has spiralled downwards into a decadence that has reduced public education and physical education to nothing, or nearly nothing.

Our best players have gone overseas and children have ever fewer pitches on which to play and ever less desire to play. An industry for exporting legs: when a worthy player emerges, he emigrates to countries that pay, while local championships, impoverished to the point of misery, languish in mediocrity.

Yet faith still burns. Football remains the national religion and every Sunday we await a miracle. Collective memory harbours the image of the last time Uruguay won the World Cup, in the final against Brazil at Maracan in 1950. That feat is about to turn fifty, yet we recall every last detail as if it happened last week, and we entrust our souls to its resurrection.

A universal passion - despite the money
If football were limited to the countries that pay the most for it, there would be no reason for the fervour it generates around the world. South America, which pays little and is condemned to ply Europe with players, has won and continues to win more world championships of both national teams and clubs than Europe, no matter how much Europe pays.

And African football, the poorest in the world, is coming on the scene in the most humbling and joyous way imaginable, and no one can stop it.

Professional football - that lucrative industry of spectacles, that implacable machinery - is set up so that money rules, but it remains a universal passion because by some miracle it continues to possess the capacity to surprise us. That capacity for surprise is nurtured by the forgotten of the earth.

Against all odds Nigeria won the '96 Olympics. The most valuable player in the world is a young mulatto named Ronaldo who grew up in the ring of poverty around Rio and as a boy of fourteen couldn't play for the club Flamengo because he didn't have the bus fare.

The unexpected occurs despite the inequality of opportunities so tragically characteristic of this unjust end-of-century, which from the very beginning handicaps malnourished players in countries squeezed dry. In the qualifying matches for the '94 World Cup, the Eritrean team had a ball but no boots, and when the Albanian players exchanged shirts with the Danes at the end of their match, they had no shirts for the next one.

Opulence and poverty, north and south, never do they face off under conditions of equality, not in football nor in anything else, no matter how democratic the world claims to be. If the truth be told, there is only one place where north and south are on equal footing: the pitch at Fazendinha, a town on the banks of the Amazon in Brazil. The equator cuts the pitch in two, so each team plays one half in the southern hemisphere and the other half in the northern.

But it's true. Despite all the despites, football is a universal passion. The art of the foot that makes the ball laugh or cry speaks a common language in all the countries and cultures of the north and south, east and west. In the United States, where only recently it has begun to attract the enthusiasm of the public, football is not yet a popular passion, but it is at least a commercial passion, as several large companies are well aware.

The football business
Coca-Cola has been linked to international football for many years, and Nike not long ago took control of the best team in the world for the price of four hundred million dollars. The Brazilian Football Confederation granted Nike not only the exclusive rights for dressing the Brazilian national team, but for selling its games. When the team played a friendly against Mexico and won 4-0 in April of this year, Nike proved it had more clout than the coach. Zagalo didn't want Romario in the starting line-up but the company put him there, so that Romario and Ronaldo could become the dynamic duo of its shining dream team.

At that time, the press talked up the chance that Ronaldo, a star for Barcelona, would go over to club Lazio in Rome. They batted around fairytale figures exceeding ninety million dollars, and the greatest stumbling block was Ronaldo's commitment to Nike - in a contract he signed for 17 million - while Lazio had an exclusive contract with Umbro, obligatory for all its players.

Nike devours an ever-larger slice of the market for sports footwear in Latin America, a market worth a billion and a half dollars a year and growing at an annual rate of twenty per cent. And it's the same story with football kits and balls: the German companies Adidas and Puma, daughters of the Dassler brothers and not long ago the queens of the business, are being displaced by Nike and other producers from a country that couldn't care less about football.

Producers from a country? Or producers from a country which produces in several countries, by the grace of what they call globalization? Nike is the company that has been charged most often with using child labour in Asia. In February of this year, Nike and other multinationals swore before the altars of the International Labour Organization that they would do all they could not to employ children in slave-like conditions in Pakistan and elsewhere. Involuntarily, their declaration turned into a confession. It's common sense. A "topic", as the Spaniards like to say.

People say, "Football is a business." And, as often happens with common sense, they're right. It's like saying, "Politics is a business." But one could well ask, Is there anything that isn't a business in today's world? Isn't sex a business, the favourite subject for manipulation by advertising? And would anyone conclude that that means sex isn't worthwhile? According to those in the know, it continues to be a great pleasure.

If the system, which used to be called capitalism and now performs under the stage name market economy, is capable of creating surplus value from the memory of its worst enemies, like Che Guevara or Malcolm X, turning them into merchandise for mass consumption, how could sports escape being put at the service of profit?

After all, the values that hold sway today can be heard clearly in any speech by the many travelling heads of state who go about the world like door-to-door salesmen: they speak first about investment, second about trade, and third about the fraternal relations which unite our peoples. This last point gets mentioned because vice owes virtue at least a small tax and because politeness can also be profitable.

Yes, football is a business, what doubt can there be? In some countries it happens to be profitable, like England, where Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur sell shares on the stock exchange, and where Newcastle and Liverpool plan to follow in their footsteps. And it's also a business in countries where it is just getting off the ground, like the Dominican Republic, where the '96 championship was called BanCreditCard in order to promote the Banco de Credito.

Even when it turns no actual profit, football is a source of popular prestige that makes for good political mileage, as is well appreciated by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Fernando Collor, who began his career as president of a football club, Centro Deportivo Alagoano, before becoming president of Brazil.

Football, as happens with other sources of wealth and popularity, rarely has its hands clean. As a general rule, the most powerful professional clubs tell lies on their balance sheets, fail to comply with labour legislation or to pay benefits, and exhibit a certain tendency to buy off their adversaries as well as the referees.

In its May 1997 edition, the magazine Latin Trade complained that in Latin America football is still more a pastime than a product. "If the emotion of football could be bottled," the magazine sighed, "anybody could become a millionaire." And it cited the case of the Argentine club Boca Juniors, which receives no more than 120 thousand dollars for broadcast rights, while in the United States The Dallas Cowboys get two and a half million. The Dallas team plays American football which Horacio Tubio defines as, "the violent conquest of territory by means of a military exercise which is called football but is performed by the hands." American football moves large sums of money in North America, where it enjoys great popularity.

Before reading that magazine, I attended one of the classics between Boca and River in Buenos Aires. The beer company Quilmes played against the beer company Quilmes. Quilmes paid one million eight hundred thousand to display its name on the chests of River Plate's players. The match was part of the Argentine championship, which is called Pepsi Cola.

Football players - all duties, no rights
The magazine Latin Trade might be right, but the south of America is doing its all to be like the north, even if it is still far from matching its achievements. In today's world all that moves, and all that doesn't, has some commercial message. Every football player has to be an advertisement in motion, counselling the public to consume, but FIFA will not allow players to wear messages that favour solidarity. In fact, it is expressly forbidden.

Julio Grondona, president of Argentine football, recalled this prohibition recently when several players tried to show on the pitch their support for a strike of teachers who earn salaries that consign them to perpetual fasting. In April, FIFA fined the English footballer Robbie Fowler for the crime of writing on his shirt a slogan supporting striking dock workers.

In its edition of December 1995, the Brazilian magazine Placar interviewed Joseph Blatter, FIFA's number two man, viceroy of the football business. The reporter asked his opinion of the international footballers union being organized: "FIFA does not speak to players," Blatter answered. "Players are employed by the clubs."

A few months later, in October 1996, the union received a letter from Pele, who once was king of the art of football. Despite his notoriously bad encounters with Maradona, who is the public leader of the union, Pele welcomed the initiative and announced: "Let's put together the best team of all time, a team of free athletes."

Those who control the business, the owners of the ball, act as if their players did not exist. Never do they listen to them. The real protagonists of the spectacle are just spectators when it comes to the decisions made by businessmen and their bureaucrats: who plays, for how much, when, where and how. Inscrutable designs, secret accounts. FIFA modifies the rules with good reasons or with dubious ones, even floating delirious changes like enlarging the goalmouth, and the players can't say boo.

The players, the life of the party, work at a killing pace that brings to mind Winston Churchill's answer when he was asked the secret of his long life and good health: "Sports", Churchill said, "I never played them."

In professional football, duties abound: obedience, military discipline, rigorous training, matches played day after day, the obligation to produce more in exchange for less, a rash of drugs that burn out your youth but allow you to play in spite of exhaustion and injuries... Rights, on the other hand, shine in their absence.

But why complain? Don't footballers earn veritable fortunes? A chosen few do, that's true. But even theirs is not so fabulous: on the Forbes magazine list of the fifty best paid athletes of 1996, there isn't a single football player. On club balance sheets, players are still counted as assets even though the ties of feudal servitude have loosened over the past few years, and in Europe they were broken for good in 1995.

That was good news for players and for all of us who believe in labour freedom and human rights. The Supreme Court at Luxembourg, the highest judicial authority of the European Community, upheld a case brought by Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman, and the ruling established that at the end of their contracts players are free to leave their clubs. The players union in formation hopes to carry this victory to the rest of the world.

The International Association of Professional Footballers was kicked off in Barcelona at a conference on racism and discrimination. It was an eloquent baptism given the memory and reality of world sports. The greatest stars of football have suffered racism for being black or mulatto, or discrimination for being poor. And in many cases, putting together the colour of their skin and their humble origins, they were victims of both humiliations at the same time. On the pitch they found an alternative to the life of crime to which they were condemned by statistical averages.

A recent poll in Brazil found that two out of every three professional footballers never finished primary school, and half of that majority have dark skin. Despite the invasion of the middle class evident on pitches in recent years, Brazil's football has not travelled far from the days of Pele and Garrincha: Pele, who in his childhood stole peanuts at the train station, and Garrincha, who learned to dribble running from the police.

The multitudes inside some players
Inside some footballers multitudes play. They contain immense crowds, whose fortune or misfortune depends on the player's legs. And when the discriminated, the scorned, the condemned-to-eternal-failure recognize themselves in the success of a solitary hero, their sense of collective hope pulses in his moment of triumph. Even if he doesn't want it, even if he doesn't know it, his feats take on symbolic value, and through them the trampled dignity of many shines as if it had never been defeated.

George Weah, for example, means a lot to many people, not only to the Liberians who make pilgrimages to the swampy shantytown of the port of Monrovia where he grew up, but to all Africans. George Weah, the best player in the world of 1995, was born in a shack made of tins and cardboard, and by the age of twelve smoked grass and worked as a professional thief.

This doesn't happen only in football. Civil rights activists in the United States recognize Jackie Robinson as a prophet. At the end of the forties, Robinson became the first black star in the white sport of baseball. In those days, blacks couldn't share anything with whites, not even the cemetery. Robinson managed to display his extraordinary athletic skills despite the insults and peanuts thrown at him, despite being spat on, and despite constant death threats.

A similar example: for the indigenous people of Guatemala, the mistreated majority of the country which humiliates them, it is of enormous symbolic value that the greatest national figure in sports is a Quiche Indian. He was a longdistance runner, unbeatable in marathons, and today he earns a living collecting balls on a golf course.

He was born with the name Doroteo Guadamuch, but racism obliged him to drop his Mayan name and call himself Mateo Flores. In homage to his feats, Mateo Flores is the name of Guatemala's football stadium, a place which acquired international notoriety in 1996 when a tragic stampede left ninety people dead. Perhaps some day, when the time of justice arrives, if it ever does, the stadium will bear the indigenous name he had and wanted to keep.

It seems inevitable that I conclude these snapshots, these brief notes about the passion and business of football and sports in general, with a few words about Diego Armando Maradona. A few words, a few questions.

As often occurs with questions, they may only be answered with more questions: The popular heros who contain other people, the ones who carry millions inside them, are they the loneliest of all? Is Maradona filled with everyone and accompanied by no one? What is he running away from? The dogs of fame that he himself calls at the top of his lungs? Is he running in circles, pursued by the fame he pursues? Exhausted by it, stifled by it, can he no longer live because of it? Can he live without it? The fame that avenged his poverty and rescued him from scorn?

Is Maradona addicted to cocaine or to success? Is there a clinic somewhere that cures such victims? Does Maradona refuse to retire because he refuses to die? Can't he watch games instead of playing them? Is it impossible to return to the crowd from which he came? Can't he accept that the days are gone when his adversaries didn't know whether to mark him or to ask for his autograph? Can't he accept a graceful ending to his triumphant career? Can't he stop forever talking as if he were trying to score goals with his mouth? Can't he stop working as if he were god of the stadiums? Are idols, like gods, condemned to burn up in their own flames? Must the winner inevitably be sacrificed, as in the ancient Aztec ball game, an offering to the crowd who loves him and demands him and devours him? Don't we all owe some understanding and gratitude to this rebel footballer who fought so hard for the dignity of his trade and has given us so much beauty?

Translated from Spanish by Mark Fried.

Use of cookies

The website uses cookies to provide a user-friendly and relevant website. Cookies provide information about how the website is being used or support special functions such as Twitter feeds. 

By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies. You can find out more about our use of cookies and personal data in our privacy policy.