¡Golazo! by Andreas Campomar, book review: A deft history of the beautiful game, and the passions it rouses in Latin America

A deft history of the beautiful game, and the passions it rouses in Latin America

Chris Maume
Thursday 22 May 2014 15:08
Comments
So much more than a sport: Maradona's 'hand of God' goal, 1986
So much more than a sport: Maradona's 'hand of God' goal, 1986

It would be a foolish historian who attempted to chronicle Latin American history since the turn of the last century without having a good look at football. When England take on Uruguay in the World Cup next month in Brazil, some of us will theorise about the match's significance for our country and its national sport. It will mean far more to the Uruguayans.

At the beginning of ¡Golazo! A History of Latin American Football, Andreas Campomar quotes the great Uruguayan novelist, thinker and football fan, Eduardo Galeano: "Every time the national team plays, no matter against whom, the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their caresses." Football is bound up with the Latin American psyche in ways that make even the most fanatical European seem like a relative dilettante.

Campomar – great grand-nephew of the man who made sure that the first World Cup was played in Uruguay – begins his story in the 15th-century Ulamaliztli courts in which rubber balls were propelled with apparently astonishing skill by Aztec knees and buttocks alone, in what often amounted to war by proxy. Irish and Scottish immigrants introduced modern football, as sport followed commerce, although cricket made it first – he recounts the rather splendid episode of the English cricketers who negotiated safe passage through a siege of Buenos Aires in 1859 in order to fulfil a fixture.

He goes on to give a compelling account of how football became a force in Latin America with an impact far beyond the pitch, helping forge national identity and fuelling regional rivalries (no two countries have played each other more times than Uruguay and Argentina). Brazil's defeat to Uruguay in the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup was a profound trauma the examination of which became a national obsession: "It is a Waterloo of the Tropics and its history our Götterdämmerung", wrote Paulo Perdigao in his book Anatomy of a Defeat.

Latin American football's history is shot through with the quality of "la viveza criolla", native cunning, victory by any means necessary – and if a little sleight of hand, a bit of ducking and diving, is involved, so much the better. After Diego Maradona had scored his famous "Hand of God" goal in 1986 he spoke of the satisfaction of having picked the pocket of England, the Malvinas marauders.

Campomar is good on the ways in which football winds through Latin American society, past and present, like a snake through the undergrowth: how the 1978 World Cup was the ultimate distraction from the grotesque cruelty of the Videla regime; how most of Colombia's leading clubs played the prison team led by the world's biggest drug lord, Pablo Escobar. How his unrelated namesake Andres Escobar died for scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup: he was shot six times, each shot resounding to the shout of "Autogol!"

Sometimes the violence can take a rather more singular turn: after Uruguay had been thrashed 6-1 by Denmark in the 1982 World Cup their coach, Omar Borras, had his library trashed by intruders. "In a highly literate country this was a very Uruguayan crime," writes Campomar. "They knew how to hurt me," Borras reflected.

It's a huge story, difficult to contain in one book, but Campomar has done a deft job of marshalling the mass of detail. "'The beautiful game'," he writes, "has achieved what a succession of third-rate dictators and craven presidents have never been able to do: to instil the continent with a sense of self-belief and historical narrative of which it can be proud, and thereby cast off those heavy shackles of colonialism."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in