Book: Football in Sunshine And Shadow by Eduardo Galeano Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99

Monday's Book

In 1937, distraught that his team had been humbled 12-0 by Vasco da Gama, a fan buried a toad with its mouth sewn up in Vasco's pitch and laid a curse on his tormentors. For 12 years, he swore, if there was a God in heaven, Vasco da Gama wouldn't win another championship. The curse worked - not for 12 years, but 11. When they were champions again, Vasco's chairman observed, "God gave us a little discount".

Recounting stories like this with a poetic economy, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano gives us an uplifting insight into the South American sensibility. By turns reckless, ironic, impassioned and wistful, his book sparkles with supple imagery and a fine dry wit. He gives us the history of football (from a South American perspective; all European referees are deeply suspect) in a sequence of abrupt, elegant little essays. His roster of great players is a veritable bestiary - Gerd Muller was a wolf, Romario is a tiger - and they can all do impossible things with their bodies. As one Italian says of Pele, two of them jumped at the same time: but when the Italian landed, Pele was still up there.

This magic is, of course, the whole point. Football in South America, more than anywhere else, is never just a game; it is a liberation of flesh and spirit, a thing of soaring fantasy, "the forbidden adventure of freedom". The ball is a woman to be worshipped and caressed; the tango, says one player, is absolutely the best way to train. For the brutal tendency in his continent's approach, Galeano has a withering scorn, as he does for anyone who would subject the sport to discipline, rigidity, the stifling concentration on defence. As a Chilean player puts it, fear of losing makes "football for bats - eleven players hanging from the crossbar".

Moreover, football is a vivid affirmation of national character. When Uruguay won the Olympic soccer tournament in 1924 and 1928, then the first World Cup in 1930, "the sky-blue shirt was proof of the existence of the nation". Uruguay was the first country to field black players. One of these, Jose Leandro Andrade, was asked by a dazzled European press how on earth they learned to play that way, darting, interpassing, making "ringlets" round opponents. Andrade told them they trained by chasing chickens - and the reporters believed him.

Later, like all too many in these stories, he died in abject poverty. Galeano angrily mourns the treatment of players as chattels in those days. Although the stars have more money now, he's not convinced they're much better off otherwise. They're pharmacies on legs; walking billboards. The game exploits both them and us. For Galeano we are less and less fans, more and more consumers.

He is, in my opinion, absolutely right. FIFA - cosying up to the generals in Argentina in 1978, cosying up to Coca-Cola round the clock - are roundly, scornfully lambasted. They deserve every word. Galeano is a clear, sane voice amid the uncritical tumult of marketing that surrounds the game. For this alone, even if his book were not such a lovely piece of work in so many other ways, he deserves the widest possible readership.

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