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Eduardo Galeano: The World Cup and the Corporatization of Soccer

Just as the World Cup is about to begin in strife-torn Brazil...
 
 
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The Stadium

Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.

At Wembley, shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely you can hear groans from 1953 when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. At Bombonera in Buenos Aires, drums boom from half a century ago. From the depths of Azteca Stadium, you can hear the ceremonial chants of the ancient Mexican ball game. The concrete terraces of Camp Nou in Barcelona speak Catalan, and the stands of San Mamés in Bilbao talk in Basque. In Milan, the ghost of Giuseppe Meazza scores goals that shake the stadium bearing his name. The final match of the 1974 World Cup, won by Germany, is played day after day and night after night at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or much of anything to say.

The English Invasions

Outside a madhouse, in an empty lot in Buenos Aires, several blond boys were kicking a ball around.

“Who are they?” asked a child.

“Crazy people,” answered his father. “Crazy English.”

Journalist Juan José de Soiza Reilly remembers this from his childhood. At first, soccer seemed like a crazy man’s game in the River Plate. But as the empire expanded, soccer became an export as typically British as Manchester cloth, railroads, loans from Barings, or the doctrine of free trade. It arrived on the feet of sailors who played by the dikes of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, while Her Majesty’s ships unloaded blankets, boots, and flour, and took on wool, hides, and wheat to make more blankets, boots, and flour on the other side of the world. English citizens -- diplomats, and managers of railroad and gas companies -- formed the first local teams. The English of Montevideo and Buenos Aires staged Uruguay’s first international competition in 1889, under a gigantic portrait of Queen Victoria, her eyes lowered in a mask of disdain. Another portrait of the queen of the seas watched over the first Brazilian soccer match in 1895, played between the British subjects of the Gas Company and the São Paulo Railway.

Old photographs show these pioneers in sepia tones. They were warriors trained for battle. Cotton and wool armor covered their entire bodies so as not to offend the ladies in attendance, who unfurled silk parasols and waved lace handkerchiefs. The only flesh the players exposed were their serious faces peering out from behind wax-twirled mustaches below caps or hats. Their feet were shod with heavy Mansfield shoes.

It did not take long for the contagion to spread. Sooner rather than later, the native-born gentlemen of local society started playing that crazy English game. From London they imported the shirts, shoes, thick ankle socks, and pants that reached from the chest to below the knee. Balls no longer confounded customs officers, who at first had not known how to classify the species. Ships also brought rulebooks to these far-off coasts of southern America, and with them came words that remained for many years to come: field, score, goal, goalkeeper, back, half, forward, out ball, penalty, offside. A “foul” merited punishment by the “referee,” but the aggrieved player could accept an apology from the guilty party “as long as his apology was sincere and was expressed in proper English,” according to the first soccer rulebook that circulated in the River Plate.

 
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