JUST A GAME: THE FOOTBALL CRÓNICAS, edited by Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven
The Football Crónicas, edited by Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven (Ragpicker Press, 2014)
Artwork by Ernesto Muñiz, used with permission of the publisher.
by Rebecca DeWald and Mark West
Knowing that I am a Borges aficionado and probably not quite knowing how I feel about football, a few people shared an article with me the other week about Borges’s difficult relationship with Argentina’s national sport. While his statement “Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular” (in Shaj Matthew’s translation) is arguable, he is right in pointing out the necessary link between football and nationalism, certainly in international tournaments. The current World Cup is undeniably, and maybe more prominently than ever before, linked with national politics, money and power struggles (perfectly summarised by John Oliver here). The publication of The Football Crónicas is then more appropriate than ever.
In his foreword to the collection, BBC football correspondent Tim Vickery calls football a “universal language that we speak with different accents.” But accents are often what distinguishes one national language from another nation’s tongue, particularly in the case of South American Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. In short, every football nation prides itself on a distinct feature and while Borges calls “soccer one of England’s biggest crimes,” Vickery calls South American football a reinterpretation of “the straight-line running, muscular Christianity of the British with something more sinuous and balletic.” We Europeans got to enjoy this balletic game that is South American football in an abundance of pairings of Copa América teams, apparently as many as in the last 14 years of World Cup history (according to one of the commentators, maybe of the Brazil-Chile match; I’ve seen way too many matches commented on by way to many commentators to in any way be able to distinguish them from each other). This way of playing “soccer,” while having different “accents” within Latin America, is certainly on the whole quite different from, say, European football (one might have wanted to name Spain as an exception until a month ago, and can maybe, on a good day, call the current German team less stiff than the average) in its quick dribbling and sharp passes. As such, it is fairly remote from the game the English introduced (as the Scots are credited with one of the first refinements of the game, the “short passing style”), though is still one of its “accents”: “The truth, perhaps, lies not in accuracy but in artful interpretation – especially when it comes to South American football.” And here lies its resemblance with the crónica:
a hybrid form, sufficiently flexible to play host to a delicious row between myth and reality, truth and fiction, opinion and fact, the personal and the collective. The football crónica is a chunk of literature to be discussed and debated in a café or bar
— or in the Glasgow Review of Books (if that is any different). The collection offers so vast a choice of half journalistic, half literary reports of football, its popular interstices and impact on the football nations that I will limit myself to looking at the ones about Argentina (the South American country I know best) and by Argentine writers, and the two contributions by women writers (a rather meagre statistic which unfortunately reflects the stereotypes about football writership and general interest).
Pablo Corso’s contribution ‘The Team That’s Always Robbed’, translated by Jonathan Blitzer (known as a member of the editorial board for The New Yorker and the online translation journal Words Without Borders), is about — the clue is in the title — the Pioneros, the first prison football team to play in the Argentine Football Association (AFA). The team is made up of inmates, former prisoners, prison guards and former staff and does rather badly in comparison with other teams in the league. Yet, being a player for the team has many advantages for the inmates: they receive nicer food, are treated better and get to see their families at games, for an entire five minutes. Although being part of the general AFA, the footballers are clearly not equal to the other teams, as Corso shows in his depiction of a match against Everton: “The team’s arrival at Villa Dálmine triggers a commotion that lasts nearly fifteen minutes. Police dogs lick their lips. Policemen surround the players. There’s an officer stationed at every corner flag, as well as behind both goals.” It shows clearly that Vickery’s observation in the Foreword that football “permits a pawn to become a king” is a rather optimistic view, as some players are just more equal than others and the birth of a rising star in football only becomes reality for a slim minority. The end to the crónica is unlike a Hollywood film, but much more like a football tournament: the Pioneros lose the match heavily just to go back to their cells, hoping not to lose contact with the outside world completely.
After leaving the changing room, the team has five minutes to spend with their families. Under the attentive watch of policemen, disappointment at losing the game mixes with appreciation for contact with the outside world, as well as for the stealthy food parcels and plans for romantic rendezvous. Without their Pioneros shirts on, they’re just kids anxious for the chance to pick up their lives, prisoners desperate for a change of scenery.
The polar opposite to this account is Hernán Iglesias Illa’s ‘San Martín de Brooklyn Eye the Play-Offs’, though it is not less critical of social conditions. San Martín de Brooklyn are an American football team in the Greenpoint Soccer League which was founded by mainly (legal and illegal) Peruvian immigrants to New York. The first person narrator/journalist (a classic crónica-esque twist, blurring the boundaries between personal account and journalistic reporting) is Argentine, though well settled in the US, and as such his team is the odd one out in the Greenpoint Soccer League. All teams share a Latino heritage, necessarily linked with the love for football, though San Martín’s players are more integrated into gringo society, which builds up the tension
middle class versus working class, legal immigrant versus illegal immigrant, fluent English versus stuttering English, eating in restaurants versus working in restaurants
The account, in Montague Kobbé’s witty translation (a translator whose blurb reads like a crónica itself, half fact, half fiction, reflecting the cheek in the story he translates in the volume) talks about different stages of immigration and settlement, and the struggles between the various new settlers. The account is often funny, due to the storyteller’s awkward middle-class stance (when a bank holiday game is cancelled last minute he is “furious, […] deprived of my working-class football and my bourgeois holiday”) and the misunderstandings between the different social groups of players. It becomes clear that football signifies so much more than a game and offers bittersweet benefits:
To some of the Latin Americans who play in the league, the park is among the most impressive benefits afforded them by the gringo state, a state that will not allow them the right to work, but will afford them the right to play football on a pitch that would be out of reach to them back home.
Crónicas continuously remind you of the reality behind the story. Surya Lecona Moctezuma’s report of football in Costa Rica, for example, is much more of a social critique than a story about a popular game. Both writer and translator Ruth Clarke show an interest in human rights issues, with Clarke having participated in the crowd-sourced translation of Enoh Meyomesse’s poetry collection Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison organised by PEN. The Mexican writer’s crónica about Costa Rica mentions many social issues in the country: the football team of Heredia, in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, is the “nation’s pride and joy” but has not received any payment in months, due to corruption, and relies on illegal ticket sales; Heredia’s women, apparently the most beautiful in the country, “suffer the effects of machismo just as keenly as women in Mexico”. Moctezuma is concerned with the paradoxes in Costa Rica, a “mixed-up place” with “European aspirations” and “almost no indigenous population.” Statistics like these, however, are worth nothing in the shanty towns or precarios Carpio and León XIII on the outskirts of San José, lawless places where neither police nor ambulances or fire brigades set foot. The crónica hits again, in just one sentence:
All the youngsters in León XIII are big football fans and most play mejenga, or street football, while others fashion home-made shotguns, known as chizas.
Football, then, enters all aspects of social life: prisoners, middle-class immigrants, street kids in shanty towns, and also politicians. Clara Becker’s contribution follows former football star and now Brazilian Congressman Romário in his change of career and commitment to social equality. The former forward and Brazil’s third highest goal scorer was elected for the Brazilian Socialist Party in 2010. Romário, whose youngest daughter has Down’s syndrome, is particularly concerned with the equality of people with disabilities. Besides drafting bills, his commitment to the cause is expressed in his participation in the Senate’s Solidarity Games between federal and state legislators who play regularly to raise money for charities. The most topical aspect of ‘Congressman Romário: Big Fish in the Aquarium’ is Romário’s protests against the FIFA World Cup in his home country, which turned out to be scarily accurate:
Romário’s assessment of the whole thing: “On PowerPoint everything looks amazing. I know exactly what’s going to happen – they’ll dress everything up for when we visit. But some of the stadiums aren’t going to be ready in time.” Wherever he goes, he talks about the excessive expenditure and the lack of an enduring social legacy.
I had never heard of Robin Patterson before, who translated the crónica, though I should have come across the winner of the British Centre for Literary Translation mentorship scheme 2013, who was mentored by now OBE Margaret Jull Costa. Part of the legacy of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil is the increased demand for Brazilian translations into English, as new translations of young Brazilian writers such as Daniel Hahn’s translation of Paulo Scott (Nowhere People, And Other Stories, 2014) and the special attention writer Daniel Galera receives, testify (ignoring the inconsiderate and shallow second review of Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard which has been much discussed in the comments and many translation forums as a worst practice example of translation reviews).
Crónicas are not “real” as such: they tell stories, not entirely made-up stories, but certainly narrations. While the question of fact and fiction comes up in this respect, the prevailing effect is that crónicas appeal on a more emotional than logical level; they take into account how we hear, understand and process information, what accounts we find interesting or even shocking and what reports we read merely for the facts. Crónicas go deeper. Maybe they are like football then, which is “stupid” because it does not entirely appeal to logic but to emotion. And that is exactly what hits you watching a game, hoping the pawn (Costa Rica) will become a king (Netherlands) only to be crushed by a penalty.
How do I feel about football then? Interested, overwhelmed, euphoric (when Germany scores) and then saturated. Though not when it comes to true social legacy, not when football leaves a lasting memory like The Football Crónicas.
Football gives us stories, and we make stories out of it. They seem to reveal universal truths about human existence, but those stories are always, irreducibly, contingent. They depend on things like last minute winners, as in Bolivian Mario Murillo’s ’The Goal in the Back of Beyond,’ which opens the collection. Snatching victories from the jaws of useless draws or apocalyptic defeats are occasions when joy is revealed to us as real and possible, but they are also times when we understand that the margins between winning and losing are often small and the ultimate outcome of a game is due as much to chance as to skill or determination. This precariousness ensures football’s eternal fascination and it also means that the crónica is a good literary form to deal with the game: neither fiction nor non-fiction, not fully objective nor solely subjective, the form seems also to acknowledge the improvised nature of existence, of its potential for change, chance, and contradiction.
Part of this collection’s intent, it seems, is to show the universality of football’s attraction, and the range of people involved in it here is remarkable. We see this reach in Peruvian Marco Avilés’ excellent ‘The Goal-Begetting Women of the Andes,’ which is perhaps my favourite in the collection. Churubamba is “a village located five hours south of Cusco, with a population of 250.” While “there is no police station, no church — not even a cross” there are “two wooden goals, hammered in at either end of the large town-square-cum-marketplace-cum-football-pitch.” As Avilés puts it, “football, the universal language of leisure, has reached Churubamba ahead of Spanish, books and medicine.” It is one thing to say that football is universal, though, and quite another to show the ways it touches on so many lives, and how it offers certain pleasures consistently: camaraderie, a sense of belonging, collective expression, and the possibility of glory. This is something this collection does wonderfully. Football is both a tool with which to say something and provides the arena in which to shout it. An example is Alberto Salcedo Ramos’ ‘Queens Football’ about a team of Colombian transvestites, in which the administrator of an LGBT organisation says:
When we fags play football […] we’re making a statement about the lack of tolerance in society: if we’re not allowed to play with the men, we’ll form our own team.
The game, then, doesn’t merely offer up possibilities for change but is a way for people to enact it. Football is both metaphor and action, microcosm of society and society itself; if it is a smaller, more bounded version of the ecstasies and agonies that accompany our daily lives, it is also a way to act and to contribute. It’s not just a way of reflecting on life. Russell Williams is right when, in a post on Straight off the Beach a while ago, he suggested that “The Football Crónicas is about more than using football as a tool or to tell us about life in Chile, Bolivia or, say, Peru from where some if it writers hail. It is also a celebration of the capacity of football itself to do just that.”
The Football Crónicas offer a particular version of football’s universality. It is not (just) universal because everyone plays it, or because over half the globe watch the World Cup. It is universal because it is so deeply embedded in cultures and societies. In Avilés’ story, football is a way to talk about gender roles and poverty: some say the women of Churubamba started playing the game after a campaign to reduce rural poverty started forcibly sterilising women. The thinking was that it would reduce the population and thus reduce poverty. Avilés writes of
a community in which the women’s role is to have children, the children’s role to work the land. The women suddenly had in abundance the one thing all games need: free time. According to the teacher, they began to play simply because they unexpectedly had the leisure to do so. But it’s hard to know whether this is quite true, to separate fact from fiction.
Avilés seems attuned to the particular ways football is embedded in this community, and his piece is only about football to the extent that it is also about the community’s characteristics. So while the women and men never play each other, the husbands of the team’s players all come to watch; while “households in the mountains are generally matriarchal,” there is still domestic violence: “Do the men hit the women? Yes. What do the women do about it? Hit back.” The football pitch in Churubamba is in the centre of the village, and village life remains at the centre of the game, too: “The ball flies off the pitch and a child lets out a wail from the stands. His mother abandons her midfield position to console him.” When the game ends 0-0 and penalties are quickly improvised as a method of securing a winner, that is more for form’s sake: “The prize for the winners is bread and cheese, with oranges for dessert, courtesy of the mayor of Andahuaylillas. The losing team gets the same. Everything in the town is communal, prizes and the thrill of competition included.”
Indeed football here is so embedded that one wonders whether it is the true subject of Avilés’ piece at all. He himself seems to acknowledge this in the piece itself, when he offers a series of questions about the game:
Is football a microscope through which to examine social differences? Is it the sport that best allows us to understand our world? Is the game capable of bridging the extremes of human experience, ironing out disparities and turning them into goal tallies?
He’s alert though to the wonderful tension of football, of any game — that, while it does possess this ability to reflect social differences and help us understand our world, it is also simultaneously, absolutely, separate from that world: “Attempting any such evaluation is like trying to predict the score of a game you’ve yet to watch. It will just be a game. Eleven skirts against eleven skirts.” “Just a game” here is not pejorative but a way of accommodating the kickabout in the park and “civilisation’s fastest-growing cultural industry.” If football has reached this remote village before the Spanish language, literature, and modern medicine, that is both a sign of football’s strange and mysterious attraction but also a mark of its enlistment in the advancement of capitalism. The joy of the game is shadowed here by the spectre of globalisation, and when one of the local priests says that “What we hope football can achieve here is the integration of two worlds: the city and the mountain villages,” one wonders what the world of the city brings.
Avilés’ eyes are always on both the kickabout and the culture industry. As are those of the editors, Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven, who in this collection show us not just a way to read the game, but provide a space in which the game itself shows us to ourselves.
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