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Soccer elegy chases away

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Soccer elegy chases away


post-World Cup depression

Talk about Blue Mondays. I'm sitting here steeped in caffeine on a gorgeous summer day, and I can't get rid of the World Cup monkey on my back. After spending June developing a whole new relationship with television, I feel hollowed out and a little lost, like a torrid month long cuddlefest with some exotic foreigner has just gone the way of Brazil's defense.

As a crowning indignity, I've got France's annoying tri-tonal "Allez les Bleus" chorale running non-stop in my head in place of the samba beat. It's a hell of a mental soundtrack to finish off a great month of soccer that ended with the revelation, late in the final game, that French 'keeper Fabien Barthez wore pink underwear to the world championship.

C'est la vie, I guess.

At least there's a palliative for my pains. Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer, has devised a perfect symphony of a book for a game he clearly loves. Soccer in Sun and Shadow, published in English this year, sets out to create a psychic map of the sport that overlays the world.

In short bursts of writing as simple and economical as the most elegant charge on goal, Galeano traces the game of run-around-and-kick-the-ball back to prehistory and through the tortures and glories of its worldwide spread. He deftly weaves in left-wing politics, an anarchic dislike of professionalism and commerce, and hot, voodoo-fueled Latin American culture. The result is a book with all the mellow beauty of Brazil's samba style and a clear-eyed, sometimes sad meditation on the global passion.

Galeano has a school kid's love of the game and recasts its historical heroes-from primordial Depression-era Uruguayans to Pele, the world's first true international sports superstar, to Romario of today-into near-mythological figures.

In less sure hands (he insists he has zero talent in his feet), such stuff would probably lack subtlety. But Galeano is so graceful and confident, he threads his most complex ideas through simple sports writing without a hitch. Along the way, he drops in a few sparkling sentences that will light up even the most Cro-Magnon American soccer-basher.

In four short paragraphs, he paints a picture of Eusebio, the transplanted African who set the '66 World Cup on fire for Portugal. "They called him the Panther," Galeano writes. "Eusebio: long legs, dangling arms, sad eyes."

Of longtime Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin, another star of '66, he has this to say: "This giant with long spidery arms always dressed in black and played with a naked elegance that disdained unnecessary gestures... he could deflect the ball with a glance."

And he offers up perhaps the best-ever epitaph for Pele, the Brazilian whose goals were so insane not even Yankees could ignore them. "Those of us who were lucky enough to see him play received alms of an extraordinary beauty," he writes. "Moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe immortality exists."

Despite his frequent eloquence and rampant enthusiasm, Galeano doesn't ignore the dark side of a sport that has inspired murder, cheating and warfare. He's particularly hard on the crooks who run the game internationally and gleefully screw players and fans alike. He castigates the professional emphasis on winning at all costs for draining the fun out of soccer.

And, in a move Americans will probably appreciate, he savages the defense style of play that's cut goal scoring in half in the last 30 years, a strategy he dismisses as "the tactic of the bat... all eleven players hang from the crossbar."

Instead, he praises the rare player who breaks the shackles devised by money-hungry clubs to rip the net, the "insolent rascal who sets aside the script... all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom."

And that's about as much solace as this soccer fan will get after seeing the Boys from Brazil sent packing. Galeano's book is a mature, thoughtful exposition, an adult tribute to a game that many here think of as a kids' pastime. For the die-hard fan, it's a great treat. For the novice, it's a glimpse into the complexities and hot, dark passions of the Beautiful Game.

And, who knows, maybe Galeano will write a sequel. At least France had the guts to come after the so-called best team in the world. Maybe Barthez's pink underwear will get one last showing on the world stage.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow
Eduardo Galeano
Verso


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