The story goes that every four years, the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano hung a sign on his door that said “Closed for Soccer,” and didn’t emerge for a month—a month he spent watching the World Cup in his favorite chair and writing about it. Galeano, often called the poet laureate of football, wrote Soccer in Sun and Shadow as both a fanboy and a social critic of the game. Published in 1995, the book raised the bar for literary writing about soccer; it is Galeano’s homage to the sport, replete with politics, pageantry, corruption, and catharsis.
At the 2018 World Cup, which began in Russia this week, the United States will be absent, as will Italy—and as will Galeano, who died of lung cancer in 2015. But he lives through his writing on the sport. To read Soccer in Sun and Shadow today is to commune with Galeano’s spirit, to hear his fierce, tender voice alive with passion and indignation about the beautiful game. “I wanted fans of reading to lose their fear of soccer,” Galeano wrote for The Washington Post in 2009, “and fans of soccer to lose their fear of books.”
As a boy, Galeano loved football, but he didn’t play well. “By writing,” he explained in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, “I was going to do with my hands what I never could accomplish with my feet.” And so he drew political cartoons as a teenager and went on to become a journalist, a newspaper editor, and a celebrated social critic. His pioneering 1971 book, the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, implausibly landed on Amazon’s bestseller list in 2009 after Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, gave President Barack Obama a copy, calling it “a monument in our Latin American history.” (Despite its influence, Galeano appeared to renounce the book later in his life.) In the 1970s and ’80s, Galeano was forced into exile in Argentina and then Spain by Uruguay’s right-wing military regime. During that period, he wrote most of his ingenious historical trilogy, Memory of Fire, an epic retelling of 500 years of conquest, myth, and rebellion flecked with humor and invective.