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Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Lifelong sportsophobe that I am, I never dreamt that I'd read a soccer book. But when I learned that an interest in fútebol was a requirement for my Brazilian tourist visa I picked up the English translation of Eduardo Galeano's El fútbol a sol y sombra. I couldn't have found a more engrossing introduction. Galeano, a leftist historian and author of the influential The Open Veins of Latin America, works in miniature -- a particular goal, a personal story -- and sets each in its historical context:

Goal by Rahn: It was at the World Cup in 1954. Hungary, the favorite, was playing Germany in the final.

With six minutes left in a game tied 2-2, the robust German forward Helmut Rahn trapped a rebound from the Hungarian defense in the semi-circle. Rahn evaded Lantos and fired a blast with his left, just inside the right post of the goal defended by Grosics.

Herbert Zimmerman, Germany's most popular commentator, announced that goal with a passion worthy of a South American: "Tooooooooorrrrrrrrr!!!"

It was the first World Cup that Germany had been allowed to play since the war, and Germans felt they had the right to exist again. Zimmerman's cry became a symbol of national resurrection. Years later, that historic goal could be heard on the soundtrack of Fassbinder's film, "The Marriage of Maria Braun," which recounts the misadventures of a woman who can't find her way out of the ruins.

His continual themes are the loss of the artistry of the game in favor of an emphasis on defense at all costs, and the exploitation of the players by the shadowy for-profit entities that control all levels of the game. Of course I still don't understand the rules, but Galeano has taught me why I should care.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow

That lesson was reinforced by the first grown-up match I've ever watched, on TV a couple of weeks ago in Rio, Brazil's face-off against Argentina in the finals of the Copa América. Despite fielding its B team (the best Brazilian players are all with European teams and take their vacations on a European schedule), Brazil won -- by a single tying goal with seconds left on the clock, and then dominating Argentina in the penalty tiebreaker at the end. If every game is that dramatic, sign me up for season tickets. Hmm -- where's that Olympic soccer schedule?

books 2004.08.14 link