Monday, April 20, 2009

Galeano, Obama, and the Politics of Football

Perhaps every bookish football supporter has heard of/read the writings of Uruguayan journalist and poet, Eduardo Galeano. Judging how often his name is dropped among left-wing academic armchair football "fans" (see SWPL on the subject), he's also becoming the face of football for the growing body of mostly North American academes who deem football the one acceptable spectacle sport, in contrast with those "brute expressions of masculine oppression," American gridiron and hockey. For them, and for their shadow faculty on the angry right, soccer is merely code for "leftist sport."

This week, controversial left-wing president (demagoguish, but hardly Pinochet-ean) Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a book by Galeano titled, The Open Veins of Latin America. Of course, the populist voices on the American right instantly labeled the book a "socialist" tract, rather than what it is: a condensed history of European and, later, American oppression on the Southern continent, hardly matters of great historical debate among voices worth listening to. When I read news that Open Veins had hit the heights of the Amazon best-seller list, I felt myself wondering what Chavez might have started had he given Obama Sun and Shadow instead.

Long ago I watched the amazing series, History of Football: The Beautiful Game, and in the second episode Galeano remarks on how the history of football is not merely a Sunday diversion or a specialized concern for unserious academics, but right at the heart of politics and culture. Yet Galeano is careful to point out there is no inherent good or bad in the game (hence, Sun and Shadow); for every heartwarming story of family fans banding peacefully together to take ownership of their club, there are stories of money, blood, and injustice...just read his chapter on the 1978 World Cup.

The sport of football is no exception in this regard, except in light of American Exceptionalism. Obama has taken a lot of flak this week for breaking the Golden Rule of US foreign policy; never be on equal footing, never admit past mistakes. To do otherwise is to put America on level playing field, thereby threating its "unique" status as a "beacon on the hill." Sport is very important in this regard. Soccer represents for many American exceptionalists a stand-in for the socialistic intrusions from the outside—Europe, South America, Asia. This symbolism has been unwittingly helped along by several soccer tourists on the American left (see Franklin Foer), who, rather than delve into the complex and tangled workings of the global game, instead draw a simplistic line between "good" soccer cultures and "bad" soccer cultures, those with racist chants and violent histories and those with family-friendly, grassroots support (ie Barca), one good, one bad, one right, one left. Just pick the "good" soccer culture and you're in left-wing sports fan paradise.

Galeano is at least more nuanced than that, and I think had millions of Americans bought Soccer in Sun and Shadow, with stories of Bettega, Archie Gemmill, Maradona, Bobby Charlton, Paolo Rossi, the corruption of FIFA, the coverups in Argentina, the generals of Brazil, they'd of learned a lot more about the world than the history of oppression in South American; they'd have learned something about the world with whom some in the halls of power in Washington are considering equal partnership. And maybe if enough curious, everyday readers had placed their order on Amazon for Sun and Shadow, Galeano might have moved away from his caricature drawn by those North Americans who've never followed a club, or seen a cup final, but love "all those flags" every four years when FIFA's money men put on their party.


Jamie said...

Excellent commentary! I'll be adding Sun and Shadow to my wishlist rather than Open Veins.
Your post reminds me that soccer seems to hold an awkward place in the Excited States of America. It is the sport of the collective in a land where the invididual is elevated. Baseball puts man against man; pitcher against batter. Football (read: soccer) puts the team tactics and talents against one another (to use a simplified description of things).

Your framing of the politics associated with footie in the USA, and the polarities of so-called American exceptionalists as compared with football tourists, makes for a meaty topic. I clearly want to hear more.

From your Canadian outpost, what inroads do you see soccer having made into standard American culture since its revitalization (post '94 World Cup and since the steady growth in the MLS)?

I understand that Footie is no Nascar, but can one paint a picture of the representative American Footie aficionado? Are they Red, White (and)or Blue?

Nate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nate said...

it was a pleasure to read your post! i agree with you about everything seeming black and white and no in between. your post is a true gem amoungst pale blog posts. i agree with jamie: "I'll be adding Sun and Shadow to my wishlist rather than Open Veins."

rimpletide said...

i felt this one, hard, friend. "you've still got it".