Soccer: Opiate of the People

September 25, 2007

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to
duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty
that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its
very roots. In this fin-de-sidcle world, professional soc-
cer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not
profitable. Nobody earns a thing from 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, a ballet dancer
who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of
yam, playing without even knowing he's playing, with
no purpose or clock or referee.
Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and
many spectators, soccer for watching. And that specta-
cle has become one of the most profitable businesses in
the world, organized not for play but rather to impede it.
The technocracy of professional sport has managed to
impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a
soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.
Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only
once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside
the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the
entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the
stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the for-
bidden adventure of freedom.
0nce a week, the fan flees his house and goes to the
stadium. Banners wave and the air resounds with
Eduardo Galeano is the author of Open Veins of Latin America and numerous other books. He lives and breathes soccer in Montevideo, Uruguay. Excerpted from Soccer in Sun and Shadow (Verso 2003), reprinted with permission from the author and publisher.
noisemakers, firecrackers and drums, it rains streamers
and confetti. The city disappears, its routine forgotten,
all that exists is the temple. In this sacred place, the only
religion without atheists puts its divinities on display.
Although the fan can contemplate the miracle more
comfortably on TV, he prefers to make the pilgrimage to
this spot where he can see his angels in the flesh doing
battle with the demons of the day.
Here the fan shakes his handkerchief, gulps his saliva,
swallows his bile, eats his cap, whispers prayers and
curses, and suddenly breaks out in ovation, leaping like
a flea to hug the stranger at his side cheering the goal.
While the pagan Mass lasts, the fan is many. Along with
thousands of other devotees he shares the certainty that
we are the best, that all referees are crooked, that all the
adversaries cheat.
Rarely does the fan say: "My club plays today."
Rather he says: "We play today." He knows it's "player
number twelve" who stirs up the winds of fervor that
propel the ball when she falls asleep, just as the other
eleven players know that playing without their fans is
like dancing without music.
When the game is over, the fan, who has not moved
from the stands, celebrates his victory: "What a goal we
scored," "What a beating we gave them." Or he cries
over his defeat: "They swindled us again," "Thief of a
referee." And then the sun goes down and so does the
fan. Shadows fall over the emptying stadium. On the
concrete terracing, a few fleeting bonfires bum, while
the lights and voices fade. The stadium is left alone and
the fan, too, returns to his solitude: to the I who had been
we. The fan goes off, the crowd breaks up and melts
away, and Sunday becomes as melancholy as Ash
Wednesday after the death of carnival.
O utside the madhouse, in an empty lot in Buenos
Aires, several blond boys were kicking a ball
"Who are they?" asked a child.
"Crazy people" answered his father. "Crazy
Journalist Juan Jos6 de Soiza Reilly remembers this
from his childhood. At first, soccer seemed like a crazy
man's game in the River Plate. But with the expansion
of the Empire, soccer became an export as typically
British as Manchester cloth, railways, loans from
Barings or the doctrine of free trade. It arrived on the
feet of sailors who played by the dikes of Buenos Aires
and Montevideo, while Her Majesty's ships unloaded
blankets, boots and flour, and took on wool, hides and
wheat to make more blankets, boots and flour on the
other side of the world. English citizens, diplomats and
managers of railway and gas companies, formed the first
local teams. The English of Montevideo and Buenos
Aires staged Uruguay's first international competition in
1889, under a gigantic portrait of Queen Victoria, her
eyes lowered in a mask of disdain. Another portrait of
the queen of the seas watched over the first Brazilian
soccer game in 1895, played between British subjects of
the Gas Company and the Sio Paulo Railway.
Old photographs show these pioneers in sepia tones.
They were warriors trained for battle. Cotton and wool
armor covered their entire bodies so as not to offend the
ladies in attendance, who unfurled silk parasols and
waved lace handkerchiefs. The only flesh the players
exposed were their serious faces peering out from
behind wax-twirled mustaches below caps or hats. Their
feet were shod with heavy Mansfield shoes.
It didn't take long to become contagious. Sooner
rather than later, the native-born gentlemen of local soci-
ety started playing that crazy English game. They
imported from London the shirts, shoes, thick ankle-
socks and shorts that reached from the chest to below the
knee. Balls no longer confounded customs officers, who
at first hadn't known how to classify the species. Ships
also brought rule books to these far-off coasts of south-
ern America, and with them came words that remained
for many years to come: field, score, goal, goalkeeper,
back, half, forward, out-ball, penalty, off-side. A "foul"
merited punishment by the "referee," but the aggrieved
player could accept an apology from the guilty party "as
long as his apology was sincere and was expressed in
correct English," according to the first soccer rule book
that circulated in the River Plate.
Meanwhile, other English words were being incorpo-
rated into the speech of Latin American countries in the
Caribbean: pitcher, catcher, innings. Having fallen under
U.S. influence, these countries learned to hit a ball with
a rounded wooden bat. The Marines shouldered bats
next to their rifles when they imposed imperial order on
the region by blood and fire. Baseball became for the
people of the Caribbean what soccer is for us.
The Argentine Soccer Association did not allow
I Spanish to be spoken at the meetings of its directors,
and the Uruguay Association Soccer League outlawed
Sunday games because it was British custom to play on
Saturday. But by the first years of the 20th century, soc-
cer was becoming popular and nationalized on the
shores of the River Plate. This diversion, first imported
to entertain the lazy offspring of the well-off, had
escaped from its high window-box, came to earth and
was setting down roots.
The process was unstoppable. Like the tango, soccer
blossomed in the slums. It required no money and could
be played with nothing more than sheer desire. In fields,
in alleys and on beaches, native-born kids and young
immigrants improvised games using balls made of old
socks filled with rags or paper, and a couple of stones for
a goal. Thanks to the language of the game, which soon
became universal, workers driven out of the countryside
could communicate perfectly well with workers driven
out of Europe. The Esperanto of the ball connected poor
Creoles with peons who had crossed the sea from Vigo,
Lisbon, Naples, Beirut or Bessarabia with their dreams
of "hacer la America"-making a new world by build-
ing, carrying, baking or sweeping. Soccer had made a
lovely voyage: first organized in the colleges and uni-
versities of England, it brought joy to the lives of South
Americans who had never set foot in a school.
On the fields of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, a style
was born. A homegrown way of playing soccer, like the
homegrown way of dancing that was being invented in
the milonga clubs. Dancers drew filigrees on a single
floor tile, and soccer players created their own language
in that tiny space where they chose to retain and possess
the ball rather than kick it, as if their feet were hands
braiding the leather. On the feet of the first Creole virtu-
osos el toque, the touch, was born: the ball was
strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music.
At the same time, soccer was being tropicalized in Rio
de Janeiro and Sao Paulo by the poor who enriched it
while they appropriated it. No longer the possession of
the few comfortable youths who played by copying, this
foreign sport became Brazilian, fertilized by the creative
energies of the people discovering it. And thus was born
the most beautiful soccer in the world, made of hip
feints, undulations of the torso and legs in flight, all of
which came from capoeira, the warrior dance of black
slaves, and from the joyful dances of the big-city slums.
As soccer became a popular passion and revealed its
hidden beauty, it disqualified itself as a dignified pas-
time. In 1915 the democratization of soccer drew com-
plaints from the Rio de Janeiro magazine Sports: '"Those
of us who have a certain position in society are obliged
to play with workers, with drivers.... The playing of
sports is becoming an agony, a sacrifice, never a diver-
H ow is soccer like God? Each inspires devotion
among believers and distrust among intellectuals.
In 1902 in London, Rudyard Kipling made fun of
soccer and those who contented their souls with "the
muddied oafs at the goals." Three-quarters of a century
later in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges was more sub-
tle: he gave a lecture on the subject of immortality on
the same day and at the same hour that Argentina was
playing its first game in the '78 World Cup.
The scorn of many conservative intellectuals comes
from their belief that soccer-worship is exactly the reli-
gion people deserve. Possessed by soccer, the proles
think with their feet, which is the only way they can
think, and through such primitive ecstasy they fulfill
their dreams. The animal instinct overtakes human rea-
son, ignorance crushes culture and the riff-raff get what
they want.
In contrast, many leftist intellectuals denigrate soc-
cer because it castrates the masses and derails their rev-
olutionary ardor. Bread and circus, circus without the
bread: hypnotized by the ball, which exercises a per-
verse fascination, workers' consciousness becomes
atrophied and they let themselves be led about like
sheep by their class enemies.
In the River Plate, once the English and the rich lost
possession of their sport, the first popular clubs were
organized in railway workshops and shipyards. Several
anarchist and socialist leaders soon denounced the
clubs as a maneuver by the bourgeoisie to forestall
strikes and disguise class divisions. The spread of soc-
cer throughout the world was an imperialist trick to
keep oppressed peoples in an eternal childhood, unable
to grow up.
But the club Argentinos Juniors was born with the
name Chicago Martyrs, in homage to those anarchist
workers, and May First was the day chosen to launch
the club Chacarita in a Buenos Aires anarchist library.
In those first years of the century, plenty of left-leaning
intellectuals celebrated soccer instead of repudiating it
as a sedative of consciousness. Among them, the Italian
Marxist Antonio Gramsci praised "this open-air king-
dom of human loyalty."
occer, metaphor for war, at times turns into real war.
Then "sudden death" is no longer just a dramatic
way of deciding a tied match. These days, soccer
fanaticism has come to occupy the place formerly
reserved for religious fervor, patriotic ardor and politi-
cal passion. As often occurs with religion, patriotism
and politics, soccer can bring tensions to a boil, and
many horrors are committed in its name.
Some believe men possessed by the demon of the
ball foam at the mouth, and frankly that image presents
a fairly accurate picture of the frenzied fan. But even
the most indignant of critics would concede that in
most cases violence doesn't originate in soccer, any
more than tears flow from a handkerchief.
In 1969, war broke out between Honduras and El
Salvador, two small and very poor Central American
countries that for over a century had been accumulating
reasons to distrust each other. Each had always served
as the magical explanation for the other's problems.
Hondurans don't have work? Because Salvadorans
come and take their jobs. Salvadorans are hungry?
Because Hondurans mistreat them. Each country
believed their neighbor was the enemy, and the inces-
Kids play soccer on a field in the predominately Mixtec community of Valle Verde in Tijuana, Mexico.
sant military dictatorships of each did all they could to
perpetuate the error.
This was called the Soccer War because the sparks
that set off the conflagration were struck in the stadi-
ums of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador. The trouble
began during the playoffs for the '70 World Cup.
There were tussles, a few injuries, several deaths. A
week later, the two countries broke off relations.
Honduras expelled a hundred thousand Salvadoran
peasants who had always worked in that country's
plantings and harvests; Salvadoran tanks crossed the
The war lasted a week and killed four thousand peo-
ple. The two governments, dictatorships forged at a
U.S. factory called the School of the Americas, fanned
the fires of mutual hatred. In Tegucigalpa the slogan
was, "Honduran don't sit still, grab a stick and a
Salvadoran kill." In San Salvador: "Teach those bar-
barians a lesson." The lords of land and war didn't lose
a drop of blood, while two barefoot peoples avenged
their identical misfortunes by killing each other with
patriotic fervor.
A t the victory carnival in 1970, General M6dici,
dictator of Brazil, handed out cash to the players,
posed for photographers with the trophy in his arms
and even headed a ball for the cameras. The march
composed for the team, "Forward Brazil," became the
government's anthem, while the image of Pel6 soaring
above the field was used in TV ads that proclaimed:
"No one can stop Brazil." When Argentina won the
World Cup in 1978, General Videla used the image of
Kempes, unstoppable as a hurricane, for exactly the
same purpose.
Soccer is the fatherland, soccer is power: "I am the
fatherland," these military dictatorships were saying.
Meanwhile, Chile's bigwig General Pinochet named
himself president of Colo-Colo, the most popular club in
the country, and General Garcia Meza, who had taken
over Bolivia, named himself president of Wilstermann,
a club with a multitude of fervent fans.
Soccer is the people, soccer is power: "I am the peo-
ple," these military dictatorships were saying.
P ve thousand journalists from all over the world, a
sumptuous media center, impeccable stadiums, new
airports: a model of efficiency. Veteran German
reporters confessed that the '78 World Cup in Argentina
reminded them of the '36 Olympics in Berlin for which
Hitler had pulled out all the stops.
The cost was a state secret. Many millions of dollars
were spent and lost-how many, it was never known-
so that the smiles of a happy country under military tute-
lage would be broadcast to the four corners of the earth.
Meanwhile, the top brass who organized the World Cup
carried on with their plan of extermination, for reasons
of war or just to be sure. "The final solution," as they
called it, murdered thousands of Argentines without
leaving a trace--how many, it was never known: anyone
who tried to find out was swallowed up by the earth.
Curiosity was, like dissent, like any question, absolute
proof of subversion. The president of the Argentine
Rural Society, Celedonio Pereda, declared that thanks to
soccer, "There will be no more of the defamation that
certain well-known Argentines have spread through the
Western media with the profits from their robberies and
kidnappings." You couldn't even criticize the players, not even the coach. The Argentine team stumbled a few
times in the championship, but local commentators were
obliged to do nothing but applaud.
To make over its international image, the dictator-
ship paid a U.S. public relations firm half-a-million
dollars. The report from the PR experts at Burson-
Masteller was titled: "What is True for Products, is
Also True for Countries." Admiral Carlos Alberto
Lacoste, the strongman of the World Cup, explained in
an interview: "If I go to Europe or to the United States,
what will impress me most? Large buildings, big air-
ports, terrific cars, fancy candies..."
The Admiral, an illusionist skilled at making dollars
evaporate and sudden fortunes appear, took the reins
of the World Cup after the previous officer in charge
was mysteriously assassinated. Lacoste managed
immense sums of money without any oversight and it
seems, because he wasn't paying close attention, he
ended up keeping some of the change. Even the dicta-
torship's Treasury Secretary, Juan Alemann, took note
of the squandering of public funds and asked a few
inconvenient questions. The Admiral had the habit of
warning: "Later on, don't complain if somebody
plants a bomb..."
A bomb did explode in Alemann's house at the very
moment when Argentines were celebrating their
fourth goal against Peru.
When the Cup was over, out of gratitude for his hard
work, Admiral Lacoste was named vice president of
the international soccer association, FIFA.
Soccer elevates its divinities and exposes them to
the vengeance of the believers. With the ball on his
foot and the national colors on his chest, the player
who embodies the nation marches off to win glory on
far-off battlefields. If he returns defeated, the warrior
becomes a fallen angel. At Ezeiza airport in 1958, peo-
ple threw coins at Argentina's players returning from
a poor performance at the World Cup in Sweden. In
the '82 Cup, Caszely missed a penalty kick and back
in Chile they made his life impossible. Ten years later,
several Ethiopian players asked the United Nations for
asylum after losing 6-1 to Egypt.
We are because we win. If we lose, we no longer
exist. Without question, the national uniform has
become the clearest symbol of collective identity, not
only in poor or small countries whose place on the
map depends on soccer. When England lost out in the
qualifiers for the '94 World Cup, the front page of the
Daily Mirror featured a headline in a type-size fit for
a catastrophe: "THE END OF THE WORLD."
In soccer, as in everything else, losing is not
allowed. In these times, failure is the only sin that
cannot be redeemed. During the '94 World Cup, a
handful of fanatics burned down the home of Joseph
Bell, the defeated Cameroonian goalkeeper, and
Colombian player Andr6s Escobar was gunned down
in Medellin. Escobar had had the bad luck of scoring
an own goal, an unforgivable act of treason.
Should we blame soccer? Or should we blame the
culture of success and the whole system of power that
professional soccer reflects? It is not by nature a vio-
lent sport, although at times it becomes a vehicle for
letting off steam. It was no coincidence that the mur-
der of Escobar took place in one of the most violent
countries on the planet. Violence is not in the genes of
these people who love to celebrate and are wild about
the joys of music and soccer. Colombians suffer from
violence like a disease, but they don't wear it like a
birthmark on their foreheads. The machinery of
power, on the other hand, is indeed a cause of vio-
lence: as in all of Latin America, injustice and humil-
iation poison people's souls under a system with a tra-
dition of impunity that rewards the unscrupulous,
encourages crime and helps to perpetuate it as a
national trait.
A few months before the '94 World Cup began,
Amnesty International published a report according to
which hundreds of Colombians "were executed with-
out due process by the armed forces and their para-
military allies in 1993. Most of the victims of these
extrajudicial executions were people without known
political affiliation."
The report of Amnesty International also exposed
the role of the Colombian police in "social clean-up"
operations, a euphemism for the systematic extermi-
nation of homosexuals, prostitutes, drug addicts, beg-
gars, the mentally ill and street children. Society calls
them "disposables," human garbage that ought to die.
In this world that punishes failure, they are always
the losers.
n April 1997 the guerrillas occupying the Japanese
embassy in the city of Lima were gunned down.
When commandos burst in and carried out their spec-
tacular lightning butchery, the guerrillas were playing
soccer. Their leader, N6stor Cerpa Cartolini, died
wearing the colors of Alianza, the club he loved.
Few things happen in Latin America that do not
have some direct or indirect relation with soccer.
Whether it's something we celebrate together, or a
shipwreck that takes us all down, soccer counts in
Latin America, sometimes more than anything else,
even if it is ignored by ideologues who love humanity
but can't stand people.

Tags: soccer, sports, Eduardo Galeano, institutionalization, fans

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.