21 May 2015

Goal by Galeano

Football has many histories. For the recently deceased Eduardo Galeano, the history of football was "a sad voyage from beauty to duty". His book Football in Sun and Shadow is a lament for a game adrift.

In Sun and Shadow, the physical pleasure in playing the game is its very core. It's where true joy and freedom are to be found — "that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a cat with a ball of yarn". (The translation from the original Spanish is by Mark Fried.) And if you're not so good at playing, you can still feel the sympathetic resonance of a fellow unit of your species performing physical feats the urge to perform which lies deep within you yourself, grateful for a surrogate through which it can actually be expressed in flesh, bone and air.

In its parade of vignettes celebrating the enactment of this feeling throughout football's history, Sun and Shadow is shot through with nostalgia. The only stories more vivid than those that date from Galeano's youth (he was born in 1940) are those that date from before his time and passed through the hands of many master embroiderers before reaching his. Or perhaps they were distillers, boiling away the unwanted until a pure essence remained. The stories capture an innocence that diminishes from childhood until in adulthood it only occasionally flickers in the gloaming. It's a loss of innocence mirrored in football itself. The further it's pulled from that pure motive, the worse it gets. "Professional football," writes Galeano, "does everything to castrate that energy of happiness".

My own view on football, bless you for asking, is not so purist. There exists a duality aside from that of sun and shadow. One part of it is that instinct for play and the deeper-than-vicarious connection between the player and the spectator. The other is a collision of impulses and desires that one might call (with apologies to Bertie Wooster) serious purpose: a desire to fight and be fought, to confront failure and try to escape intact, to feel fear and anxiety so that relief may be pursued; individuals trying to find their way in a society; societies trying to find their way within a larger society; violence as the game's tell-tale heart. It stirs and awakens pride and other sinful virtues. Like any human endeavour that holds people's interest for more than a moment, this serious purpose exerts a tenacious pull. More than that: it's something people seek. Some people, anyway. It is as fundamental to the game as the weightless arc of a chip.

JB Priestley put this duality as "Conflict and Art". Arthur Hopcraft saw in football "conflict and beauty", the "art" being a product of the combination of the two. Whatever the terminology, football is such an apt medium for expressing the two sides that any attempt to account for the feeling of football must reckon with both. They may often be in opposition, but they also complement each other. One person's moment of sheer delight leaves another on his arse. Either way, they tumble on together, inseparable. Galeano's vision of a paradise lost renders one an agent of the dilution of the other and sometimes makes Sun and Shadow seem like an engine steaming down the railway of declinism, as quick and banal as Parkinson on Football.

Although it's simplistic to say the football industry kills joy, it is a harbour for those inclined to take serious purpose to a very serious level indeed. Those who operate on that level do a good job arguing that football is about either winning, finding ways to win, or naively wasting your time. It makes those successful at navigating the game's waters look better if they can amp up the choppiness in recounting the tales of their voyage. (The really dedicated invest in a good, realistic wave machine.)

The opposite of this kind of anxiety is probably contentment, but for some reason, contentment doesn't sit well with football. Lacks toughness, no doubt. So in a game on which a worldview of convulsion and flak-dodging settles heavily and isn't easily shifted, the view presented by Galeano is crucial. It's about moments of elation that arrive unexpectedly and can blow away like a feather. It's a view that needs tending and guarding. It needs to be continually proved, lest it be seen as just a lapse from a default sense of solemn gravity. In stacking these moments high — in creating a fiction — Galeano shows that the paramountcy of serious serious purpose is just a consensus. Football is made up of too many strands for one to be pulled out and held up as the golden thread.

Curse, you bastards, my cold concrete heart poured somewhere off the north coast of the north (and bless the Uruguayan Galeano's ability to turn on their sides the histories that proud European fools write for each other) but football has never existed the way Galeano dreamt it, and if it did, it would disintegrate and disappear into the blue sky. But Galeano's dreams are beautiful, and the history of football they tell is as essential to the overall story as South America itself. Whether Football in Sun and Shadow the best football book is an open question. (My vote would go to my forthcoming volume Are You Sure It's No Thicker Than Five Inches?: A Compendium Of Humorous Pitch-Marking Anecdotes.) But it might be the one that most needed to be written.


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