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.”