The ball laughs, radiant, in the air

Eduardo Galeano meets the girls of the Blein Football Team in Hawassa, Ethiopia / Photos by Claudio Maria Lerario

Text by Eduardo Galeano — I’m attracted to soccer’s capacity for beauty. When well played, the game is a dance with a ball… Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer.

I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.

Soccer elevates its divinities and exposes them to the vengeance of the believers…

The player

Panting, he runs up the wing. On one side await the heavens of glory; on the other, ruin’s abyss. He’s the envy of the neighbourhood: the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun. He won the lottery.

And even if he does have to sweat buckets, with no right to fatigue or failure, he gets into the paper and on TV, his name is on the radio, women swoon over him and children yearn to be like him. He started out playing for pleasure in the dirt streets of the slums, and now he plays out of duty in stadiums where he has no choice but to win.

Businessmen buy him, sell him, lend him; and he lets it all happen in return for the promise of more fame and more money.

The more successful he is and the more money he makes, the more of a prisoner he becomes: forced into military discipline, he suffers the punishing daily round of training and the bombardments of painkillers and cortisone to forget his aches and fool his body; and on the eve of big games, they lock him up in a concentration camp where he does forced labour, eats tasteless food, gets drunk on water and sleeps alone.

In other human trades, decline comes with old age, but a player can be old at thirty. Muscles tire early: ‘That guy couldn’t score if the field were on a slope; Not even if they tied the goalie’s hands. Or before thirty if the ball knocks him out badly, or bad luck tears a muscle, or a kick breaks a bone so it can’t be fixed.

And one rotten day the player discovers he has bet his life on a single card and his money is gone and so is his fame. Fame, that fleeting lady, didn’t even leave him a Dear John letter.

The goalkeeper

They also call him doorman, keeper, goalie, bouncer or net minder, but he could just as well be called martyr, pay-all penitent or punching bag. They say where he walks, the grass never grows.

He’s alone, condemned to watch the game from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the three posts, he awaits his own execution by firing squad. He used to dress in black, like the referee. Now the referee doesn’t have to dress like a crow and the goalkeeper can populate his solitude with colourful fantasies.

He doesn’t score goals, he’s there to keep them from being scored. The goal is soccer’s fiesta: the striker sparks delight and the goalkeeper, a wet blanket, snuffs it out.

He wears the number one on his back. The first to be pai? No, the first to pay. It’s always the keeper’s fault. And if it isn’t, he still gets blamed. When any player commits a foul, he’s the one who gets punished: they leave him there in the immensity of the empty net, abandoned to face his executioner alone. And when the team has a bad afternoon, he’s the one who pays the bill, expiating the sins of others under a rain of flying balls.

The rest of the players can blow it once in a while, or often, the redeem themselves with a spectacular dribble, a masterful pass, a well-placed volley. Not him. The crowd never forgives the keeper. Was he drawn out by a fake? Left looking ridiculous? Did the ball skid? Did his fingers of steel turn to silk?

With a single slip-up the goalie can ruin a game or lose a championship, and the fans suddenly forget all his feats and condemn him to eternal disgrace. Damnation will follow him to the end of his days.

The idol

And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the soccer idol is born. He is born in a straw crib in a tin-roofed shack and he enters the world clinging to a ball.

From the moment he learns to walk, he knows how to play. In his early years he brings joy to the sandlots, plays like crazy in the back alleys of the slum until night falls and you can’t see the ball, and in his early manhood he takes flight and the stadiums fly with him.

His acrobatic art draws multitudes, Sunday after Sunday, from victory to victory, ovation to ovation. The ball seeks him out, knows him, needs him. She rests and rocks on the top of his foot. He caresses and makes her speak, and in that tete-a-tete millions of mutes converse.

The nobodies, those condemned to always be nobodies, feel they are somebodies for a moment by virtue of those one-two passes, those dribbles that draw Z’s on the grass, those incredible backheel goals or overhead volleys. When he plays, the team has twelve players: “Twelve ? It has fifteen! Twenty!

The ball laughs, radiant, in the air. He brings her down, puts her to sleep, showers her with compliments, dances with her, and seeing such things never before seen his admirers pity their unborn grandchildren who will never see them.

But an idol is an idol for only a moment, a human eternity, all of nothing; and when the time comes for the golden foot to become a lame duck, the star will have completed his journey from star to blackout. His body has more patches than a clown’s suit, and by now the acrobat is a cripple, the artist a beast of burden: “Not with your clodhoppers!”

The fountain of public adulation becomes the lightning rod of public rancor: “You mummy!” Sometimes the idol doesn’t fall all at once. And sometimes when he breaks people devour the pieces.”

As there were not enough shoes for everyone, the players divide their shoes, one uses the right one and the other the left one.

The referee

In Spanish he’s the arbitro and he is arbitrary by definition. An abominable tyrant who runs his dictatorship without opposition, a pompous executioner, who exercises his absolute power with an operatic flourish.

Whistle between his lips, he blows the winds of inexorable fate either to allow a goal or to disallow one. Card in hand, he raises the colors of doom: yellow to punish the sinner and oblige him to repent, and red to force him into exile.

The linesmen, who assist but do not rule, look on from the side. Only the referee steps onto the playing field, and he’s absolutely right to cross himself when he first appears before the roaring crowd. His job is to make himself hated. The only universal sentiment in soccer: everybody hates him. He always gets catcalls, never applause.

No one runs more. The only one obliged to run the entire game without pause, this interloper who pants in the ears of every player breaks his back galloping like a horse. And in return for his pains, the crowd howls for his head. From beginning to end he sweats oceans, forced to chase the white ball that skips along back and forth between the feet of everyone else.

Of course he’d love to play, but never has he been offered that privilege. When the ball hits him by accident, the entire stadium curses his mother. But even so, just to be there in that sacred green space where the ball floats and glides, he’s willing to suffer insults, catcalls, stones and damnation.

Sometimes, though rarely, his judgment coincides with the inclinations of the fans, but not even then does he emerge unscathed. The losers owe their loss to him and the winners triumph in spite of him. Scapegoat for every error, cause of every misfortune, the fans would have to invent him if he didn’t already exist. The more they hate him, the more they need him. For over a century the referee dressed in mourning. For whom? For himself. Now he wears bright colors to mask his feelings.

The manager

In the old days there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He dies without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional soccer required a technocracy to keep people in line. Then the manager was born.

His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximize the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes. The trainer used to say: “Let’s play.” The manager says: “Let’s go to work.”

Today they talk in numbers. The history of soccer in the twentieth century, a journey from daring to fear, is a trip from the 2–3–5 to the 5–4–1 by way of the 4–3–3 and the 4–2–2. Any ignoramus could translate that much with a little help, but the rest is impossible. The manager dreams up formulas as mysterious as the Immaculate Conception, and he uses them to develop tactical schemes more indecipherable than the Holy Trinity.

From the old blackboard to the electronic screen: now great plays are planned by computer and taught by video. These dream-manoeuvres are rarely seen in the broadcast version of the games. Television prefers to focus on the furrows in the manager’s brow. We see him gnawing his fists or shouting instructions that would certainly turn the game around if anyone could understand them.

The fan

Once a week, the fan flees his house and goes to the stadium. Banners wave and the air resounds with rattles, 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 scarf, gulps his saliva, swallows his bile, eats his cap, whispers prayers and curses and suddenly breaks out in an 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 fervour 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 burn, 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.

Why do people, like this fan, become so devoted to sports? Why is it that Spectators pay homage and allegiance to their favourite teams? One reason is that people desire to be affiliated with something bigger than they are. People are also attracted to the excellence at which players execute skills and want to know how to do it. People also watch sports because it is an escape from reality. Sports draw them out of their everyday existence and provide relief from daily life.

The fanatic

The fanatic is a fan in a madhouse. His mania for denying all evidence finally upended whatever once passed for his mind, and the remains of the shipwreck spin about aimlessly in waters whipped by a fury that gives no quarter.

The fanatic shows up at the stadium wrapped in the team flag, his face painted the colors of their beloved shirts prick­ling with strident and aggressive paraphernalia, and on the way he makes a lot of noise and a lot of fuss. He never comes alone. In the midst of the rowdy crowd, dangerous centipede, this cowed man will cow others, this frightened man becomes frightening, cheap soccer cleats.

Omnipotence on Sunday exorcises the obedient life he leads the rest of the week: the bed with no desire, the job with no calling or no job at all. Liberated for a day, the fanatic has much to avenge.

In an epileptic fit he watches the game but doesn’t see it His arena is the stands. They are his battleground. The mere presence of a fan of the other side constitutes an inexcusable provocation. Good isn’t violent by nature, but Evil leaves it no choice. The enemy, always in the wrong, deserves a good thrashing.

The fanatic cannot let his mind wander because the enemy is everywhere, even in that quiet spectator who at any moment might offer the opinion that the rival team is playing fair, then he’ll get what he deserves.

The goal

The goal is soccer’s orgasm. And like orgasms, goals have become an ever less frequent occurrence in modern life. Half a century ago, it was a rare thing for a game to end scoreless: 0–0, two open mouths, two yawns. Now, the eleven players spend the entire game hanging from the crossbars, trying to stop goals, and have no time to score them.

The excitement unleashed whenever the white bullet makes the net ripple might appear mysterious or crazy, but remember the miracle doesn’t happen very often.

The goal, even if it be a little one, is always a goooooooooooooooooooooal in the throat of the commentators, a “do” sung from the chest that would leave Caruso forever mute, and the crowd goes nuts and the stadium forgets that it’s made of concrete and breaks free of the earth and flies through the air.


About Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano (1940–2015) was a Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist. His best known works are Memoria del fuego (Memory of Fire Trilogy, 1986) and Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America, 1971) which have been translated into twenty languages and transcend orthodox genres: combining fiction, journalism, political analysis, and history. He has received the International Human Rights Award by Global Exchange (2006) and the Stig Dagerman Prize (2010).

Eduardo Galeano’s entire work was dedicated to the self-emancipation of the poor and oppressed. He has written about despots, dictators and revolutions  —  using his rhythmic prose in the service of explaining the injustices faced by Latin America and by all the underground voices of the world.

Galeano has written also about football: in fact the texts of this story are taken from his Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the most lyrical sports book ever written. Here, in these few lyric sketches, Galeano puts his unmatched gifts toward the sport he clearly loved with the ardor of a smitten teenager.

Galeano was aware that  – from South America to Europe, passing through Africa — football is more than a game: it’s philosophy, magic, poetry. Sometime football unites the world. Sometime it can be hope and dream. And Galeano never gave up hope: the right to dream, he used to say, should be inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Thanks to Francesca Fiorentini, Paola Imparato, Rosa Buonpane, Eugenia Trani, Stefano Antonini. Special thanks to Renato Spagnuoli and AS Roma for providing the t-shirt and short sets.