'Golazo!' chronicles soccer's impact on Latin America

With World Cup–level prowess, a soccer fanatic delves into the beautiful game's Latin American heart.

Golazo!: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America, by Andreas Campomar, Penguin Group 496 pp.

Is soccer the most sociologically resonant of sports? I don't pose that question lightly. As anyone following the protests currently underway in Brazil related to the 2014 World Cup (or, for that matter, the debate over whether awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was a tragic mistake that should be corrected) can attest, the sport's populist appeal and global revenue can sometimes clash. The space between them allows for a number of stories to be told, whether about impoverished players achieving archetypal fame and fortune, watching how issues of race and class can emerge on the field, or the ways in which concepts of national identity can be reshaped.

Enter Golazo! by Andreas Campomar (publishing director for the British publishing house Constable & Robinson), an extensive history of soccer's impact upon its long-flourishing stronghold in Latin America.

Campomar here joins a laudable group. In 2006's "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization," editor of The New Republic Franklin Foer used phenomena from the world of soccer to elucidate numerous points about international relations. Simon Kuper has written a host of books, including "Ajax: The Dutch, the War and Soccer against the Enemy," which find larger political resonances in clashes of club and national teams. David Wangerin's "Soccer in a Football World" makes the case that soccer's history in the United States goes back to long before the late-1970s heyday of the North American Soccer League, and uncovers personalities and histories that cry out for a spotlight of their own.

In "Golazo!," Campomar quickly establishes his knowledge of the game with a prologue that finds him visiting his father in Uruguay and cheering on the Diego Forlán/Luis Suárez–led national team that made it to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup. For this book, Campomar has found a style that allows him to juxtapose literary references with observations on the sport. Authors referenced include Eduardo Galeano (author of the poetically rendered "Soccer in Sun and Shadow"), Christopher Hitchens, Octavio Paz, and noted nonfan Jorge Luis Borges.

Though the book's subtitle references Latin America, Campomar's focus is primarily on Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Given the prominence of those nations in the sport, it's a logical choice: Campomar finds the longest and richest history of the game in those nations. He begins in the time of the Aztecs, citing historical records of ullamaliztli, a game played with a rubber ball on a court with two goals.

It is here that Campomar finds parallels in soccer, both in the style of play and in the way that it captivated audiences centuries before "the beautiful game" made its debut. Campomar notes that soccer as we currently know it came to Latin America via the British colonial presence there in the 19th century. He proceeds to document its ties to British social clubs and the growing establishment of teams, which often reflected societal divisions. (It would be years – decades, for some – before these clubs featured players who were not of European descent.)

Play across continents also factors into Campomar's account: he notes a 1909 tour that found Tottenham Hotspur and Everton crossing the Atlantic to play a series of matches in South America.

Campomar charts how the sport's handling of race shifted over time, as boundaries within different nations gradually wore down. He examines the effects of Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas's brasilidade policy on the sport: "Football was also seen as an important prop of national identity, and the country's unique mix of Amerindian, African, and European cultures was wholly encouraged."

It's in the moments where Campomar finds the places where the cultural ramifications of nations struggling with questions of national identity and a mania for soccer collide that this book becomes most intriguing. There's a brief section detailing a number of Argentinean soccer films from the late 1940s that served as nationalistic propaganda while still hitting the appropriate sports movie clichés.

Throughout "Golazo!," Campomar carefully walks the line between observing national characteristics and deconstructing them. He seems most at home when delving into Uruguay's history of soccer: After their upset victory over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, leaving the host nation reeling, Uruguay's captain, Obdulio Varela, went out drinking with Brazilian supporters. Campomar describes this as "a very Uruguayan victory: triumph shot through with an innate sadness."

(For an alternative perspective on some of the same events, 2014's "Why Soccer Matters," by Brazilian legend Pelé, offers a player's-eye-view of several decades' worth of Brazilian soccer. Structured around a series of World Cups, the book charts the evolution of the Brazilian National Team over time, from their loss in 1950 to the team that would dominate the sport in the 1960s.)

As the history recounted in "Golazo!" moves closer to the present day, certain arcs take hold, sometimes spanning across nations. In the 1960s and '70s, it's the progression of various governments toward authoritarianism; Campomar's account of a match between Chile and the Soviet Union scheduled to be played after the coup that brought Pinochet to power is one of the book's most wrenching sections. For the 1980s, he focuses on the larger-than-life figures of star midfielder Diego Maradona, whose journeyman moves in and out of various European clubs and struggles with drug addiction on the international stage contain redemption narrative after redemption narrative. While "Golazo!" focuses more on teams than individuals, the spotlight on Maradona is a welcome one.

"Latin America remains the continent to which the rest of the world looks for the romanticism and the lyricism of the game," Campomar writes towards the end of the book. He makes this case throughout, always keeping an eye on the global context of the sport. The scale of this book is essentially high level: I suspect that books can and will be written about national and club teams that inhabit each chapter in more minute depth. But "Golazo!" is an enlightening, lively work, one that never shortchanges the sport or the nations at its heart.

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