The Magic Kingdom

Pacho Maturana, Colombian, a man of vast experience in these matters, says that football is a magic kingdom, where anything can happen.  The recent World Cup confirmed his words: it was a strange World Cup.

Strange were the ten stadiums where the matches were held, beautiful, immense, which cost a fortune.  No one knows what South Africa will do to keep these cement giants in operation, a multimillion-dollar waste that is easy to explain but difficult to justify in one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Strange was the Adidas ball, half mad, which kept slipping out of hands like a soap and disobeying feet.  The so-called Jabulani was imposed on the players, who didn’t like it in the least.  From their castle in Zurich, the masters of football impose, rather than propose.  Such is their custom.

Strange it was that, at last, the all-powerful bureaucracy of the FIFA recognized, at least, after so many years, that it was necessary to study how to help referees in decisive judgments.  That is not much, but it is still something.  It was about time.  Even these voluntary deaf men had to hear the cries let loose by some referees’ errors, which in the last match became horrendous.  Why do we have to see on television screens what the referees didn’t and perhaps couldn’t see?  Clamors of common sense: just about all sports — basketball, tennis, baseball, and even fencing and auto racing — regularly use modern technology just to be doubly sure.  Football?  No.

Referees are authorized to consult an ancient invention called the watch, to measure the duration of matches and to make an allowance for lost time, but it is prohibited to go beyond that.  The official justification might seem comical, if not downright suspicious: errors are part of the game, they say, leaving us speechless in awe of the discovery that to err is human.

Strange it was that, in the first World Cup in Africa in the history of football, African countries, including the host, were eliminated in the first stages.  Only Ghana survived, till its team was defeated by Uruguay in the most exciting match in the entire tournament.

Strange it was that, though a majority of African teams kept their agility, they lost their audacity and fantasy.  A lot of running, but little dancing.  There are those who believe that the teams’ technical coaches, almost all Europeans, contributed to this cooling.  If that is so, they did little favor to the style of football which promised so much joy.  Africa sacrificed its virtues in the name of efficacy, and efficacy was conspicuous by its absence.

Strange it was that some African players were able to shine, yes they did, but in European teams.  When Ghana played against Germany, the Boateng brothers, Black brothers, faced each other: one wore a Ghanaian shirt, and the other a German shirt.

Of the players of the Ghanaian team, none played in the local championship in Ghana.  All the players of the German team played in the local championship in Germany.  Like Latin America, Africa exports the hands and feet of labor.

Strange was the best save of the tournament.  It wasn’t the work of a goalkeeper, but of a striker.  The Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez stopped with both hands, inside the goal line, a ball that would have eliminated his country from the World Cup.  And, thanks to this act of patriotic madness, he was sent off but Uruguay wasn’t.

Strange was the journey of Uruguay, from down below to high above.

Our country, which had barely taken the last spot in the World Cup after a tough qualification, played the game with dignity, never giving up, and became one of the best.  Some cardiologists warned us, in the press, that too much happiness can be dangerous for health.  Numerous Uruguayans, myself included, who had seemed doomed to death by boredom, welcomed this risk, and the streets of the country became a fiesta.  After all is said and done, the right to celebrate the merits of our own is always preferable to the pleasure that some feel at others’ misfortune.

We ended up in fourth place, which isn’t so bad for the only country which made it possible to prevent this World Cup from becoming nothing but a European Cup.  And it was no accident that Diego Forlán was chosen as the best player of the tournament.

Strange it was that the champion and the runner-up of the previous World Cup went home without even opening their suitcases.  In 2006, Italy and France went toe-to-toe in the final match.  Now they met again at the departure gate of the airport.  In Italy, voices critical of the style of football played to prevent the rival team from playing multiplied.

In France, the disaster provoked a political crisis and inflamed racist furies, for nearly all players who sang la Marseillaise in South Africa were Black.  Other favorites, like England, didn’t last long.  Brazil and Argentina suffered cruel baths of humiliation.  Half a century ago, the Argentinean team was pelted with a barrage of coins when they came back from a disastrous World Cup, but this time the team was welcomed by an embrace of the multitude who believe in more important things than victory or defeat.

Strange it was that the best known and most anticipated superstars hardly stood out.  Lionel Messi wanted to, he did what he could, and we saw something of him.  It is said that Cristiano Ronaldo was there, but no one saw him: perhaps he was too busy trying to find himself.

Strange it was that a new star, unexpected, emerged from the depth of seas and rose to the highest firmament of football.  It is an octopus who lives in an aquarium in Germany, from where he issued his oracles.  His name is Paul, but he may as well be called Octadamus.

Before each match of the World Cup, he was given mussels, each of them bearing the flag of one of the rival teams.  He ate the winning team’s mussels, unerringly.

The octoped oracle had a decisive influence on bets, his oracles were awaited around the world with religious reverence, he was loved and hated and even calumniated by some upset people, like myself, who came to suspect, albeit without proof, that the octopus was corrupt.

Strange it was that at the end of the tournament justice was done, which rarely happens in football or life.  Spain won, for the first time, the world championship of football.  After almost a century of expectation.

The octopus had foretold it, and Spain refuted my suspicions: it won fair and square, it was the best team of the tournament, for the works and grace of its solidarity football, one for all, all for one, and also for the astonishing skills of this tiny wizard called Andrés Iniesta.  He proves that sometimes, in the kingdom of football, justice exists.

When the World Cup began, at the entrance of my home I hanged a sign that said “Closed for Football.”  By the time I took it down, one month later, I had played 64 matches, my beer in hand, without getting off my favorite armchair.

That heroic feat left me spent, with painful muscles and sore throat; but I’m already feeling nostalgia.

I’m already beginning to miss the unbearable litany of vuvuzelas, the excitement of goals not recommended for heart health, the beauty of the best plays replayed in slow motion.  And also the celebration, and the mourning, for sometimes football is a joy that hurts, and the music that celebrates a victory of those who can make the dead dance, near the resounding silence of an empty stadium, where, after the nightfall, some defeated man continues to sit, alone, unable to move, in the middle of the vast deserted stands.

Eduardo Galeano is a writer.  The original article “El reino mágico” was published in Pú among other publications on 13 July 2010.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]

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