4 things sports writers can learn from Eduardo Galeano

Legendary writer Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay died of cancer on Monday at age 74. While he is most well known for his critical books on Latin American colonial history, he also wrote one of the signature books in all of sports literature: Soccer in Sun and Shadow. First published in 1998, it traces the history of soccer as a sport and, more pointedly, as an industry. It wrestles with the inherent contradictions of fandom: how manufactured spectacle can spark deep emotional realities, and how a timed-out match can become timeless.

Composed as a series of elegant vignettes, stamped by ink silhouettes of footballers, and peopled by archetypes, this is not your ordinary sports book. But that doesn’t mean Galeano doesn’t have a great deal to teach modern sports writers. Here are four lessons his rich legacy leaves us.

1) Longform isn’t the only way to write an epic sports story

Galeano wrote in short vignettes. They effectively function like shortform longform, if that makes sense—a fusion of an immediate story with a sweeping sense of historic significance. So, for example, the section of six small paragraphs titled “The Player” begins with a classic action moment: “Panting, he runs up the wing. On one side await the heavens of glory; on the other, ruin’s abyss.” Then, Galeano shifts quickly into a look at the off-field context, turning the action into a character portrait: “He’s the envy of the neighborhood: the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun. He won the lottery. … He started out playing for pleasure in the dirt streets of the slums, and now he plays out of duty in stadiums where he has no choice but to win or to win.” And then Galeano widens the scope yet again, looking at the industry of sports through the lens of this archetypal player: “Businessmen buy him, sell him, lend him … .”

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These quick pivots show how a sports story doesn’t need the padding of rhetoric to be about large things. It is a welcome contrast to the legions of journalists who believe that the only way to go more in-depth with a sports story is to write long. No doubt that feature-length work can be extraordinary—Grantland and SB Nation Longform are two of the most welcome additions to the sports media landscape of the last decade. But too often, word count is seen as a shortcut to substance. As Galeano reveals, sports writers should take account of all their storytelling choices before automatically opting for a 4,000-word think piece.

2) You don’t have to choose between cynicism and idealism

Guileless coverage that buys into easy, feel-good narratives, without any serious wrangling with the societal context of sports, is tiresome. A taste for this sort of trope can even be journalistically dangerous, with reporters publishing stories that prove to be false or overlooking unhappy facts about particular players, teams, and leagues. But the counter to that habit isn’t straight-up cynicism—the everything-is-terrible angle that logs rampant corruption and exploitation in sports and, explicitly or implicitly, suggests that fans are fools at best and enablers at worst. That approach, too, distorts reality.

The history of soccer 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.

Idealism and cynicism are not the sports journalist’s only choices. Like Galeano, reporters can detail problems in sports with clear-eyed rigor and revel in the extraordinary beauty of a well-played match. “And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it,” Galeano writes at the end of the “Author’s Confession” that opens the book. Then, on the very next page, the first sentences read: “The history of soccer 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.”

This is disarming prose that gets at the true, dissonant heart of sports as well as the role it plays in our culture. “How is soccer like God? Each inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals,” Galeano writes. Interestingly, one of the best iterations of this style of sports journalism comes not from a traditional reporter but from John Oliver on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” His explainer on FIFA on the World Cup also refused to choose between cynicism and idealism–and the resulting segment has been viewed nearly 10 million times on YouTube.

3) Be transparent about what you don’t know

Especially in pundit-style sports media, there is a tendency for broadcasters to go on at length about things they aren’t certain about–speculation about the outcome of a game or a player’s injury is delivered with all the costuming of fact. “This is how it is,” they say, when “it” is unknown to everyone, including the journalist. As Galeano shows, speculation for its own sake can be riveting; not only is it more honest, which creates a more substantial form of credibility for the journalist than the pomposity of pundit-ism, but it also creates a kind of intimacy with the audience: “We all don’t know.” By turning the singular first-person style into plural first-person, the journalist builds connection with those on the other end of the words. The uncertainty also hints at suspense, an unfolding story, which is what makes sports so compelling in the first place.

For Galeano, transparent uncertainty in Soccer in Sun and Shadow takes the form of white space between the dozens of vignettes. He doesn’t drill down on any one point: He makes gestures of suggestion, he points to curiosities, he mines his own memory. Provoking points go unresolved, or explained. And it still works.

4) Don’t be afraid of deep history

One of the best things about the sports industry is that it celebrates its history in such a vibrant and constant way, even as it is constantly propelled into the next season, the next year, the next market. Jerseys are retired. Championship banners are hung. Old stars are given standing ovations and the chance to throw an opening pitch. Reporters, in kind, put modern sports stories in a historic context—notching meaningful anniversaries and chronicling how today’s athletes stack up with those of the past.

But that historic context is limited to the modern era, when today’s sports leagues and their immediate predecessors took shape. That makes sense because we have the statistics to put today’s sports news in conversation with the past, and some sports, like basketball, are relatively young.

Still, why not go further? Deep history can bring meaningful context to today’s games. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Galeano doesn’t limit his discussion of the beautiful game to FIFA and World Cups.

In soccer, as in almost everything else, the Chinese were first. Five thousand years ago, Chinese jugglers had balls dancing on their feet, and it wasn’t long before they organized the first games. The net was in the center of the field and the players had to keep the ball from touching the ground without using their hands. Their sport continued from dynasty to dynasty, as can be seen on certain bas-relief monuments from long before Christ, and later in the Ming Dynasty engravings which show people playing with a ball that could have been made by Adidas.

That backdrop makes Galeano’s writing about the newsier elements of soccer more vivid. It also puts today’s sports leagues—with their massive influence and resources—in important perspective. They are businesses. They do not own the sport they play, after all. They didn’t invent it, either. Though, as Galeano writes, you might not know that from much of today’s modern sports writing:

At the end of the century, soccer reporters write less about player’s abilities and more about the prices they command. Club presidents, businessmen, contractors, and related fishmongers crowd the soccer columns. Until a few years ago “pass” referred to the movement of the ball from one player to another. Now it alludes more to the movement of a player from one club to another, or one country to another. What’s the return on investment in the stars? Soccer columnists bombard us with the vocabulary of the times: offer, buyout, option to buy, sale, foreclosure, appreciation, depreciation.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow provides an important corrective to that truncated vocabulary. Galeano’s expansive and unconventional approach to sports writing offers today’s practitioners a chance to peek into a more expansive and graceful approach to their craft.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.