At first it was to have been different
luminous circles choirs and degrees of abstraction
but they were not able to separate exactly
the soul from the flesh and so it would come here
with a drop of fat a thread of muscle
it was necessary to face the consequences
to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay
one more departure from doctrine the last departure
only John foresaw it: you will be resurrected in the flesh
—Zbigniew Herbert, from Report from Paradise (translated by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott)
The history of football 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. In this fin de siècle world, professional football condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a cat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he's playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.
—Eduardo Galeano, Football in Sun and Shadow (translated by Mark Fried)
Deprivation was for Larkin what daffodils were for Wordsworth what freedom—in this book, at any rate—is for Galeano. I think want to go along with Galeano. Further on in the same passage, he celebrates the player who supposedly goes against the structures imposed on the game, the "insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom." Reading that, the cells in your brain in which are stored the immortal memories of the great players you've seen light up like rows of LEDs. I was going to avoid mentioning Lionel Messi here, fearing the cliché klaxon, but he's precisely the type of player Galeano means. When Messi really gets going, it's the vanquishing of the destructive scheming of coaches and the pre-emptive revenge fantasies of his opponents. He's a kid again.
(I would say that Chelsea fans have permission to laugh out loud at this stage, but they've been laughing non-stop since the Champions League semi-final anyway, so let's leave them to it.)
I think I want to go along with Galeano in the way that a part of me wants to believe in heaven. His vision is simple and clear. It is to side with the Messis of this world (if they are of this world) against the lead-weighted props he turns his opponents into. Whose heart ever beat faster at the thought of the lamppost Gene Kelly danced around, anyway?
For Galeano, football may be either be in sun or shadow, but the weather's more changeable round our way. Football (sport in general, I suppose, but let's stick to the particular) is opaque, and it gets that way pretty early in life. Sure, when you start playing sport, it's simple: when as a baby you make the progression from grasping objects to throwing them; when you're old enough to stand unaided, and you figure out (with a bit of encouragement from a grown-up with a dream, very often) that instead of bending down to pick up a ball, you can swing a leg at it and propel it and not fall on your arse; when you get good enough to send the ball cutting through the air instead of scuttling along the ground.
But there already you're starting to realise that there's more to this than you could have imagined. It feels good to be able to control the ball, but it feels better to be able to control it better. At some point, you are confronted with your own fallibility. You want to improve, but the ball resists your commands, and it becomes a struggle: a pleasant struggle, probably, and maybe a worthwhile one too, but a struggle nonetheless. Soon, you start playing against other people, informally and perhaps formally, and they too want their freedom, which is your freedom; there's only so much of it to go around. You find yourself inexorably pushed forwards—by the demands of your employer, if you find yourself being paid to play. But there are also those opponents to contend with, shrinking the space around you and making the clock speed up. And there is your sense of responsibility to your colleagues and to your team's fans (if applicable). It's no longer so simple as you playing a game; it's grown beyond what you can contain all by yourself.
Yet you keep doing it. You do it because your mind now vibrates in a variety of frequencies at once. You do it because that freedom is all the freer when you sneak up on it—or when it sneaks up on you.
In Galeano's vision of football, the architecture of the professional game checks the free run of play; it's an adulteration. But although that architecture gets at once more ornate and rigid the higher up you go, it goes all the way down. The difference is one of degree, not type. If it is an adulteration, it's one that happens so early in life that to think of it as such is pointless. Tactics, training, discipline, organisation: these are all ways of trying to make sense of a world in which childlike freedom isn't something just lying around in clumps.
If modern football exaggerates the negativity, it's only because it exaggerates everything. It heightens the beauty because it heightens the anxiety, and vice versa. (And the beauty is still there. By Christ, is it ever still there, as messy and tangled as ever.) The urge for freedom and the urge for order merge and conflict; they dart into and out of each other's paths. Think of Barney Ronay's description of Barcelona's as a "managed, frictionless excellence". And then scratch the surface and see the neurosis behind it: the pitiless pressing; the urge to become the possessingest team in history; Xavi's hawk eyes surveying all; the way they fling themselves headfirst against a wall of blue bricks; that great Guardiola quote, "There's nothing more dangerous than not taking risks", bespeaking the team's sense of safety on the edge. There's friction there, alright, even if it is shown most explicitly in the facial contortions and frantic gestures of Guardiola on the touchline.
The play of the greats who Galeano eulogises is the result of the spirit of play being mediated by the desire to marshal that spirit. It is the spirit of play channelled through a contest with the player's own ambition and frailties, and with the caprice of the football; Galeano quotes Didi on the "affection" the Brazilian had for the ball, but the talk is really of control and domination: "When she'd come, I'd take charge and she'd obey." The beauty takes on greater depth because it emerges from the anxieties; the anxieties cannot be discarded, because they are the manifestation of our attempts to reconcile ourselves to the tension between our default rootedness and our desire (and occasional ability) to fly.
Without the anxiety, the grand mythology that football has become, and which Galeano delights in (especially when it comes to talking about the players who pre-date him), wouldn't be there. Were the anxiety to be expunged, the game would be desiccated, infinitely smaller, its mythologies individual and evanescent. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing; there would still surely be some fine poetry to be written about it, like there is about thatching. It would become a fine, perfumed mist, instead of the shuddering, frightening, irresistible behemoth it is. Galeano is on the side of the angels, and they are up there in heaven, basking in each other's mercy and boring each other witless. Down here, we have to make-do with sport.