Legendary writer Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay died of cancer on Monday at age 74. While he is most well known for his critical books on Latin American colonial history, he also wrote one of the signature books in all of sports literature: Soccer in Sun and Shadow. First published in 1998, it traces the history of soccer as a sport and, more pointedly, as an industry. It wrestles with the inherent contradictions of fandom: how manufactured spectacle can spark deep emotional realities, and how a timed-out match can become timeless.
Composed as a series of elegant vignettes, stamped by ink silhouettes of footballers, and peopled by archetypes, this is not your ordinary sports book. But that doesn’t mean Galeano doesn’t have a great deal to teach modern sports writers. Here are four lessons his rich legacy leaves us.
1) Longform isn’t the only way to write an epic sports story
Galeano wrote in short vignettes. They effectively function like shortform longform, if that makes sense—a fusion of an immediate story with a sweeping sense of historic significance. So, for example, the section of six small paragraphs titled “The Player” begins with a classic action moment: “Panting, he runs up the wing. On one side await the heavens of glory; on the other, ruin’s abyss.” Then, Galeano shifts quickly into a look at the off-field context, turning the action into a character portrait: “He’s the envy of the neighborhood: the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun. He won the lottery. … 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 or to win.” And then Galeano widens the scope yet again, looking at the industry of sports through the lens of this archetypal player: “Businessmen buy him, sell him, lend him … .”
These quick pivots show how a sports story doesn’t need the padding of rhetoric to be about large things. It is a welcome contrast to the legions of journalists who believe that the only way to go more in-depth with a sports story is to write long. No doubt that feature-length work can be extraordinary—Grantland and SB Nation Longform are two of the most welcome additions to the sports media landscape of the last decade. But too often, word count is seen as a shortcut to substance. As Galeano reveals, sports writers should take account of all their storytelling choices before automatically opting for a 4,000-word think piece.
2) You don’t have to choose between cynicism and idealism
Guileless coverage that buys into easy, feel-good narratives, without any serious wrangling with the societal context of sports, is tiresome. A taste for this sort of trope can even be journalistically dangerous, with reporters publishing stories that prove to be false or overlooking unhappy facts about particular players, teams, and leagues. But the counter to that habit isn’t straight-up cynicism—the everything-is-terrible angle that logs rampant corruption and exploitation in sports and, explicitly or implicitly, suggests that fans are fools at best and enablers at worst. That approach, too, distorts reality.
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.
Idealism and cynicism are not the sports journalist’s only choices. Like Galeano, reporters can detail problems in sports with clear-eyed rigor and revel in the extraordinary beauty of a well-played match. “And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it,” Galeano writes at the end of the “Author’s Confession” that opens the book. Then, on the very next page, the first sentences read: “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.”
It's not often you see ridiculous literal translations go across the English media this way, but it does show how far the English-speaking world is from traditional Spanish expressions. We chuckled over this one at our household and wondered if journalist can do it at this level no wonder we continue to have so many problems in our world.Let's see how a Spanish journalist will translate when an English speaking person indicates that "he broke his back" getting something done!
So what happened to Neymar? How did the face of this tournament end up in a hospital? Brazilian fans will not like to hear it, but while Zúñiga was directly responsible for causing Neymar’s injury, Neymar’s teammates — specifically Fernandinho, though there were others — as well as the referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, deserve their share of the blame, too. They did not commit the crime, but they contributed to an environment of lawlessness that led to Neymar’s being battered.
If that sounds harsh, consider that Brazil’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, made a point of saying before the game that there was no historical rivalry between Brazil and Colombia and that games between the teams were “friendly matches.” Thiago Silva, the captain, said that playing against Colombia’s considerable skill players would make for a cleaner, more fluid game.
Yet from the first minute it appeared that Brazil was determined to play the game cynically, tripping and pushing and kicking at Colombia’s players, especially James Rodríguez, the team’s wunderkind scorer. Colombia, on the other hand, seemed almost deferential at first. When Neymar went off on a spirited run six minutes into the game, the Colombian defenders did little to try to knock him off stride, let alone scythe him to the ground as previous opponents had done. He ran freely.
When Rodríguez went to claim the ball a few minutes later, however, Brazil’s Óscar ran right into Rodríguez’s back as if to make clear to him that no space on the Fortaleza field would be a safe space. Rodríguez’s teammates were understandably upset, but there was no retaliation — the feeling of violence in the game, especially early on, came almost exclusively from Brazil.
Two minutes after Óscar’s foul, Marcelo blasted the Colombian midfielder Juan Cuadrado. Three minutes after that, Fernandinho, a midfielder who often plays with an edge, slammed into Rodríguez again. Velasco Carballo blew his whistle and called a foul but did not show Fernandinho a yellow card.
This quickly became a recurrent theme. Soccer referees will often show yellow cards to players for “persistent infringement” of the rules, a phrase that generally means committing three or four serious fouls. Fernandinho was called for four fouls in just the first half of the game, three of them significant hacks at Rodríguez. But Velasco Carballo gave him no penalty.
Colombia were kicked out of the World Cup by a bruising Brazil team who committed 31 fouls and stretched the laws of the game to the limits on their way to a 2-1 quarter-final win on Friday.
Spanish referee Carlos Velasco stood by and watched as Colombia, who have delighted the world with flowing, attacking soccer were drawn into a kicking match by the hosts who were clearly intent on stopping their opponents playing by any means.
Velasco waited for 41 fouls to be committed before pulling out his first yellow card, well into the second half, and his leniency allowed Brazil carte blanche to freely use tactical fouling in midfield.
Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez, arguably the top player in the tournament, took a fearful battering as Brazil adopted a rotation system in which players took it in turns to foul him.
To add insult to injury, Rodriguez was one of four players booked in the 54-foul match.
Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar was lucky to escape a red card for a legs-first foul on Carlos Bacca which led to the penalty that Rodriguez converted for Colombia's 80th minute goal.
At times, the match looked like a bad day in the Libertadores Cup, the South American equivalent of the Champions League which has a turbulent history of violence and skullduggery.
Although Brazil were the main perpetrators, Colombia also got involved, more out of necessity than choice, and it was Neymar who came off worse, suffering a fractured vertebrae that the team doctor said had ruled him out of the World Cup.
The Brazil forward was carried off on a stretcher near the end and taken to hospital, crying in pain after receiving a knee in the back from Colombia defender Juan Camilo Zuniga who, in a sadly familiar routine, escaped without a booking.
Brazil's performance, which has set up a semi-final against Germany, bore the hallmarks of their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was criticized in the run-up to the match after his players exposed their nerves during the second round win over Chile.
Scolari has mellowed over the years but won a certain amount of notoriety during his club career in Brazil for the methods used by his teams.
During a stint with Cruzeiro, he noted that his team gave away an average of 25 fouls per match but said that was one of the lowest numbers in the Brazilian championship at the time.
When he was at Palmeiras, there was uproar after a television crew outside the changing room recorded a private team talk in which he urged his players to kick a member of the opposing team.
The man known as "Big Phil" also used other tactics such as throwing spare balls on to the field to disrupt an opposing team's attacks.
Scolari was certainly not alone and there was a period in Brazilian soccer around 10 years ago where some coaches believed that committing more fouls than the opposition was the key to winning the game.
Many of Scolari's contemporaries came to regard fouls as a tactical resource rather than an infringement of the laws of the game.
Since returning for a second stint as Brazil coach in November 2012, Scolari has once again got his team playing to the limits of the law.
When his side thrashed Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final last year, they managed to commit 26 fouls without receiving a single yellow card.
FIFA's refereeing head Massimo Busacca told Reuters in an interview in November that referees should nip the problem in the bud if they sensed a team were using tactical fouls.
"If you realize in the first 10 minutes that the coach has prepared the game (plan) in that way, you have to understand what is happening and... you have to do something," he said.
"This is what we expect from top referees... to understand how the coach prepared the game, respect the other team and say now we have to stop this type of play."
But the message clearly did not get through to Velasco and raised questions as to why FIFA picked a European referee to officiate at a game between two South American teams in conditions he did not seem to be familiar with.
When Neymar and James Rodriguez met up in Fortaleza for the quarterfinal between Brazil and Colombia, the thought was that we'd lose one of the showcase young talents of the tournament. Instead, we're now down both. Brazil won an exceptionally rugged game 2-1, continuing their inexorable march to the semifinals via goals from Thiago Silva and David Luiz, but the ruggedness of said match has also cost us Neymar, who was carted down the tunnel after a vigourous collision with Napoli's Juan Camilo Zuniga and the subject of increasingly depressing news updates.
Neymar has a fractured vertebra that will rule him out of the rest of the tournament, while the last we saw of James had the Monaco star in tears, sandwiched between Dani Alves and David Luiz for support, the latter demanding that the partisan Fortaleza crowd show the proper appreciation for one of the gems of this tournament. James has been the World Cup's best player. Neymar is Brazil's favourite son. And barring a medical miracle in Neymar's case, neither of them will be able to play again before the final.
Needless to say, nobody's very happy about this. But instead of dwelling on the sad bit, let's focus on just how incredible that duo has been. The roar of the crowd whenever Neymar touched the ball, his entire body contorting and twisting as he looked to find a way past the mountainous defenders that tended to confront him. James' cool, collected passing and deft finishing, the through ball to Carlos Bacca that won the penalty, the various brilliant finishes. That goal. That other goal. The rampant katydid. And yes, that goal too.
The duo were hardly unknowns before the tournament. James is one of the centrepieces of an expensively-assembled Monaco team and has been touted as a top prospect for as long as Neymar has (if not quite so stridently), while Neymar was the subject of a pricey and hugely controversial move to Barcelona last summer and enjoyed a solid first season in Europe. But the World Cup is where players make their names on a global stage, and it's no surprise to see the footballing world talking about James as though he had fallen, fully and perfectly formed, from the nearest tree. Neymar, meanwhile, had plenty of time to leave further marks in the semifinal and the final -- or so we thought until the grim truth of his injury came to light.
James and Neymar. This was their World Cup, their chance to break out. Hopefully it will remain so, even if it has to be in spirit. There are still blissful highs, crushing lows and general, brain-melting insanity to be had yet.
How Brazil defend James Rodriguez, and how well they do it, will likely shape the outcome of this game.
Losing Luiz Gustavo, the Selecao's primary defensive midfielder and the strongest in his position so far during this World Cup, is a big blow, but you can't pin one guy on James and hope he stops him.
Colombia play best on the counter, through transitions, and they'll let Brazil have the ball in order to create more space for themselves to work. James then pops up anywhere there's room to play, so instead of committing men on him, you work on either cutting out his options...or cutting off his supply.
Scolari has moved Neymar inside a few times this tournament because he won't track opposing wide men as well as Oscar. It could well be worth playing Oscar as a suffoco here, stopping Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar from feeding James.
Chile managed it but can their level of intensity be replicated?
2. Quickly, Behind Pablo Armero!
Brazil will have watched the tape of Colombia and realised there is no easy way to attack them; no obvious method to goals.
Despite their attacking intent, Colombia are studious in their defensive ethic and try to leave six behind the ball at all times. Sanchez and Aguilar rarely join attacks and both full-backs know exactly what's required of them.
The level of protection offered to Cristian Zapata and Mario Yepes is remarkable, but there is a way to get at them: Fill the space behind Armero when he goes forward from left-back and move the ball quickly into that area.
If you're quick enough you can get Yepes one vs. one in space and that's a disaster for los Cafeteros. Neymar from the right would not be a bad shout at all.
We have now reached that stage in a World Cup, and perhaps this wild World Cup more than most, when there are no more easy answers. The comfort of obviousness, or at least the illusion of it, is gone. It's possible to argue semi-convincingly that six of the final eight teams have a reasonable chance of victory; a seventh, Belgium, would be surprising winners; only Costa Rica would prove a shock. But of all the quarterfinals, perhaps the hardest to divine is the first: France versus Germany in Rio. What a gooseflesh combination of syllables.
"It's hard to see what tomorrow holds for us," Hugo Lloris, the French captain and goalkeeper, said less than 24 hours from one of the games of his young life. "We're fully aware of the fact that in one match, anything is possible."
Before the tournament began, the Germans would have been the favorites to win here, maybe even the heavy favorites. They have looked at times like the perfect football team, a dominant collection of talent, relentless in their attack and defense. In their opening game in Brazil, their 4-0 humiliation of Portugal, they looked unstoppable. They looked less spectacular but safely in control in their 1-0 victory against the U.S.
But between those wins, that same team also struggled to a draw in a wide-open game against Ghana. And then lightly regarded Algeria pushed the Germans to extra time in the round of 16. Together the Africans have conspired to leave hairline fractures in that once shining steel wall.
Now the French have unexpectedly emerged as the more flawless side, the erasers of fissures and unhappy memories. They've made it easy to forget just how bad and mutinous they were in South Africa four years ago, and just how close they came to failing even to qualify for Brazil. When manager Didier Deschamps was asked for the key to his team's renewal, he answered, simply and beautifully: "November 19." That's when the French, needing to beat Ukraine by three goals in Paris, somehow managed it, the first European team to overcome a 2-0 first-leg deficit to reach the World Cup.
The funny thing about this game was the lack of early changes from the bench, despite USA being so open and Belgium being so frustrating in the final third. Both managers seemed happy enough with the situation of the game. The tempo slowed after half-time and this probably suited Klinsmann’s side, but the broad pattern of the first half continued.
Substitutions played a key role, though, in the closing stages and extra-time. Klinsmann throwing on Chris Wondolowski in place of Zusi was a staggeringly bold move in such an open game, although the striker did get himself into a great goalscoring position shortly before the end of normal time. Still, it further opened up the pitch for Belgian counter-attacks, and through some high-profile replacements, Wilmots finally got his side ahead. Belgium have continually struck late throughout this World Cup.
Kevin Mirallas had already replaced Dries Mertens to introduce sheer speed, and in extra-time Lukaku added even more pace upfront, in place of Origi. Wilmots also switched De Bruyne and Hazard, which was probably just an attempt to try something different rather than a calculated tactical switch.
Either way, Belgium finally made the breakthrough with Lukaku teeing up De Bruyne on the break, before De Bruyne returned the favour for Lukaku ten minutes later. The opportunities hadn’t been any more presentable than in the first half, Belgium were simply more efficient in front of goal.
Then came an inspired USA fightback. Substitute Julian Green, on for Bedoya, scored a consolation goal and his side rallied. Those final 13 minutes were extremely impressive, with the goal seemingly giving the USA another gear and simultaneously making Belgium even more tired.
Bradley, Jones and Cameron, so frustrating in the first half because of their collective insistence on running high up the pitch and leaving space in behind, were now perfect for the situation – a desperate fightback. Witsel and Marouane Fellaini looked exhausted, and Wilmots’ refusal to bring on another midfielder, or even strengthen his defence, was remarkable. He left his side open to constant attacks, and few other sides have exited the competition with such an impressive late rally as this from the United States.
Belgium made hard work of this – USA afforded them so many counter-attacking opportunities, that it’s difficult to work out how they needed 120 minutes to win. It’s worrying that a side took so long to score against an opposition that completely played into their hands.
Perhaps the major lesson from today, with Di Maria and then De Bruyne making the breakthrough in their sides’ victories, is that teams are much better off with a heavily involved but constantly frustrating player, than someone struggling to get into the game. Both Di Maria and De Bruyne made some very poor decisions over the course of 120 minutes, but eventually got one right.
However, they’re rather fortunate to exit this competition as battling, narrowly defeated heroes – they should have been at least 2-0 down by half-time, and Klinsmann’s tactics would have been much more heavily criticised. The decision to drop Beckerman seemed strange on paper, turned out to be counter-productive on the pitch, and there was no attempt to solve the problem. Howard was absolutely fantastic, but if your goalkeeper has to make a record-breaking number of saves, something has gone wrong higher up the pitch.