Around the World in Classics: Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Our essay series on global classics continues with a book as interested in the beautiful game’s lore as its history, by a revolutionary Uruguayan journalist and novelist.

Around the World in Classics Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano Uruguay
Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

There are few books on football more hailed in literary circles than Football in Sun and Shadow, the English translation of Uruguayan journalist and novelist Eduardo Galeano’s lyrical, effusive El fútbol a sol y sombra. Upon its release, in 1997, Publisher’s Weekly, the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker all recognised its passionate, “poetic” prose. The Financial Times called it “Sport’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Yet, Sun and Shadow feels informed as much by Roland Barthes as Gabriel García Márquez. Like the former’s Mythologies, Galeano’s book is a collection of written fragments, ranging from a paragraph to three pages, on the objects, people, moments, and concepts that together comprise a sporting culture – and which, broken down into pieces and inspected against myriad mythic and cultural backdrops, take on new, previously unearthed meaning. The Goal becomes “football’s orgasm”; The Ball “fickle” and “easily offended.” Barthes’ mix of adroitness and playfulness abounds, too: for The Fanatic, Galeano cheekily observes, “Omnipotence on Sunday exorcises the obedient life he leads the rest of the week: the bed with no desire, the job with no calling.”

In Football in Sun and Shadow, daily life and football are never far apart. Throughout, Galeano contemplates and analyses the beautiful game through the lens of his anti-imperialist, socialist politics. He invokes class when he confesses on the book’s first page that he’s “a beggar for good football,” and anti-Capitalist sentiment when he laments in its very first section, simply titled Football, the sport’s “sad voyage from beauty to duty”, asserting that “when the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots.”

Uruguayan writer, novelist and journalist Eduardo Galeano poses for pictures at his home on May 21, 2010 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Image: Ricardo Ceppi/Getty
Uruguayan writer, novelist and journalist Eduardo Galeano poses for pictures at his home on May 21, 2010 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Image: Ricardo Ceppi/Getty

Galeano never turns a blind eye to the uglier aspects of the sport’s culture. In early chapter From Mutilation to Splendour, he reveals the lengths to which Black Brazilian players went in order to play after being disallowed in 1921; in the chapter Pagan Sacrifices, he confronts the bigotry, racism and violence that too often occur “under the pretext of football.”

That phrasing is crucial; for Galeano, daily life and football might never be far apart, but Football in Sun and Shadow never allows the distinction between the two to blur, with good reason: it is at that blurring point, where football and the things that happen “under its pretext” – exploitation, violence, or any of the other ugly occurrences of day-to-day life – become one and the same, that football loses its essential beauty. For Galeano, though it can pass through metaphorical sun and shadow both, there is a purity inherent to the sport, a sense of magic in the playing and, even, in the legend of it.

For Galeano, there is a purity inherent to the sport, a sense of magic

While it’s ostensibly non-fiction, Football in Sun and Shadow is hardly a historical document; throughout the book, Galeano leans as much on football lore as football history, and for every citation of Shakespeare or Camus, there’s a tall tale – of a penalty scored after a player pulls his own shorts down, of larger-than-life goals of which there is no video document, of spirits that haunt footballing grounds – that pushes the boundaries of factuality.

It’s enough to merit the comparison to Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and not just because the two share socialist, anti-imperialist sentiments. Márquez’s magical realism permeates Football in Sun and Shadow with a sense that there might be more meaning in myth, more beauty in legend. There’s no way, after all, of even proving whether the kids to whom Galeano originally dedicated El fútbol a sol y sombra ever actually existed. Still, he wrote:

“The pages that follow are dedicated to the children who once upon a time, years ago, crossed my path on Calella de la Costa. They had been playing football and were singing: We lost, we won, either way we had fun.”

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