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History Lessons

20 July 06
by Dan Kaufman

“All Uruguayan babies are born crying, ‘goal’,” the Uruguayan writer and soccer aficionado Eduardo Galeano said over coffee recently. Perhaps, that’s how a country of three million or so could have won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. It also helps explain the country’s level of despair after Uruguay’s dramatic World Cup elimination at the feet of the Australian Socceroos last November in a penalty shootout. (President Tabare Vazquez told reporters after the game: “We have an obligation to continue on the task with which Uruguayan society has entrusted us.”)

For Galeano, soccer is intertwined with pretty much everything: politics, ethics, philosophy, psychology, even Uruguayan real estate. “You cannot live in the same neighborhood as a maternity in Montevideo, because all the babies are shouting, ‘goal, goal, goal’,” he explained.

Galeano, one of the most influential Latin American writers from the generation of magic realism (Isabel Allende smuggled only his Open Veins of Latin America and Neruda’s Odes with her when she fled Chile after Pinochet’s coup) was in town to read from a new book of vignettes, highlighting little-known pieces of history like the 1996 murder of a popular Brazilian mayoral candidate, a strike in Patagonia in 1921, and what kind of hats were worn at the 1930 World Cup, one of the two that Uruguay won (felt it turns out).

He shared the bill with the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, and the boisterous crowd chatted in Spanish Urdu, Hindi, and Portuguese. In fact, with the exception of Wally Shawn’s presence and some local dialects creeping into the mix (“all I see is a bunch of random Sarah Lawrence people,” a young woman lamented) the audience seemed more like they were at an Uruguay-India World Cup exhibition game in Montevideo.

Over coffee, Galeano switched from Latin American’s secret history to soccer’s. “There was a player named Omar Lorenzo Devanni,” he began. “It was in 1967, in Bogotá, the final of the Columbian championship between the two main teams, Bogotá-Santa Fe and Millionarios, the Millionaires. They hated each other, of course, and the stadium was absolutely full, everyone was there except the blind and crippled. It was a draw until almost the last minute when a penalty was awarded by the referee, because Devanni had fallen down in the area around the goal.

But it was not a penalty, because nobody had kicked him — he slipped. So Devanni went to the referee and said, ‘your wrong.’ But the match was finishing and the referee told him: ‘What do you think I can do now, with all these crowds around? I can’t go back and say well it was a mistake.’ Devanni didn’t know what to do, and the other players on the team took him like a baby, and put him on the white point to shoot the penalty kick. They had no choice. The ball, the goalkeeper waiting, and this huge crowd. It took some seconds to decide what to do. Then he kicked the ball far away from the goal. Professionally, it was the worst thing to do, but as a person he was saved.”

“All Uruguayans want to become soccer players, even I,” Galeano continued though he quickly added that he has “wooden legs.” He turned to writing when his failures as a player proved insurmountable (this was fairly early on), but he used the game as his model. (“I tried to do with the hands what I couldn’t do with the legs,” he says.) Even at sixty-six he still plays with friends though he hasn’t improved much (“I’m a disaster, still being a disaster”) and prefers to serve the sport by writing. A few years ago he came out with Soccer in Sun and Shadow, a revelatory mixture of soccer related history, memoirs, arcana, and politics as well as a self-described crusade “to convert the pagans.”

In 1973, a U.S.-backed military coup overthrew Uruguay’s civilian government and Galeano went into exile, first in Argentina then to Spain. While living in Barcelona, a friend told him, “Eduardo, there is no cure, you’ll be always on the side of the bull,” and the proverb stuck with him.

“The other final match in the last World Cup was not between Brazil and Germany but between a small island in the Caribbean called Montserrat and Bhutan,” he said. “The two worst countries, last in the world ranking, the losers among the losers. At the same time as you had Brazil and Germany in Japan, there was this other game in the Himalayan mountains. They enjoyed themselves so much. They were laughing the whole time, because they were playing for the pure pleasure of playing, a luxury you cannot give yourself except in some very exceptional cases like Ronaldinho who enjoys everything he does. Usually the player is obliged to do his duty. He’s a worker.

“Finally Bhutan won, 2-0, but it didn’t matter, nobody even cared about it, and the beautiful fact about this match was there was a huge trophy cup waiting on one side of the field. It was supposed to be received by Bhutan because they had won, but the cup was glued at the half, so they took one of the ears—pluck—and it was split in two. Each team received half of it.”

With Uruguay out of this year’s World Cup, Galeano is pulling quietly for the bulls. “I think Brazilian football is the best in the world, I enjoy looking at Ronaldinho for instance. I adore him. He’s my idol,” he said. “But, I also have this feeling inside, that perhaps if Brazil is losing against, I don’t know, Paraguay, I will feel a secret joy.”