Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes
http://www.efdeportes.com/ · revista digital

Joseph L. Arbena

María Laura San Martín

In brief, the works cited above suggest that modern sports were transported from their source areas to their new homes by a variety of carriers, that the recipient cultures accepted these new activities for numerous reasons, that the host societies not only adopted these sports but also adapted them to fit their needs and pleasures, and that over time such diffusion has merged into the larger process of internationalization, even globalization, of which sport is only one element.

Yet, through all of this, several writers whom I have labeled romantic skeptics and most of whom are thinking about soccer advise a degree of caution in our rush to construct theories and elaborate sophisticated interpretations. Peruvian writer and failed politician Mario Vargas Llosa warns that the problem in trying to intellectualize soccer is that "reality overtakes theory." For while theories are rational and logical, "in society and individual behaviour, unreason, the unconscious and pure spontaneity will always play a part." In short, soccer "offers people something that they can scarcely ever have: an opportunity to have fun, to enjoy themselves, to get excited, worked up, to feel certain intense emotions that daily routine rarely offers them."26 Similarly, former Argentine national soccer team member and now a writer resident in Spain, Jorge Valdano, asserts that "a trip by the intelligence through the surroundings of soccer proves most pleasant, so long as we do not try to understand it," for it is a world of dreams and illusions where one faces "seduction by the sphere."27 Later, he begs God to "free us from the pseudo-scientists (cientifistas) who still don't understand that soccer is a cultural fact and that . . . 'you can't interrupt emotion.'. . . Soccer attacked by the hyperrealist virus will have a sad destiny. Goodbye seduction." He also predicts that "if someday soccer dies, it will be from seriousness."28 Such sentiments are shared by another lover of Latin American soccer who maintains that "In the end, football [soccer] cannot be reduced to socio-cultural explanations; too much depends on the game itself. . . . Like a literary text, the football match cannot simply be understood in terms of its social context: something always spills over the edge of such an analysis." Therefore, attempts to master the sport intellectually could have "disastrous consequences."29

Mexican historian Enrique Krauze takes a similar stance. While acknowledging that soccer has social, political, economic, and collective psychological dimensions, he advises that soccer "above all is a game. . . . Its utility is ludic. . . . In soccer there is something that carries us back to our infancy, that makes us permanently young, and for that we like it."30 Krauze here echoes to a degree the Ecuadorian who found in soccer "a human drama in which people see themselves and their complex existence reflected in the struggles, triumphs, failures, pains, of their daily lives. Not always fun, nostalgia, or escape, but an expression of what is inside them and their personal world."31 Consider, also, the words of a North American recently enamored of soccer: "Soccer was not meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to be experienced. . . . There is, after all, something familiar about a contest in which nobody wins and nobody pots a goal. Nil-nil is the score of life . . . soccer is not meant to be an escape from life. It is life, in all its injustice and tedium . . . . Accepting the eventual certainty of defeat in turn liberates you to take real joy in any small victory-that one good kick."32

Even the mildly Marxist and at times pessimistic Galeano boasts that he watched every match of the 1998 World Cup and believes that "soccer retains its capacity for beauty."33 He also insists that what makes it such is "its stubborn capacity for surprise. The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs . . . "34 That is why Galeano is, by his own admission, a "beggar for good soccer" who goes "about the world, hand outstretched," pleading: "A pretty move, for the love of God. And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."35 And he denounces those "intellectuals" of both the right and the left who do not share his enthusiasm for the "sphere," those who fail to acknowledge the sentiments, experience the joy, or appreciate the beauty and meaning of the game. The scorn on the right comes from a "belief that soccer-worship is exactly the religion people [the proles] deserve," while leftists denigrate soccer because it allegedly "castrates the masses and derails their revolutionary ardor."36 In other words, they take it too seriously and read into it things that aren't there.

My contention is that what these mainly soccer fans say about their favorite sport may be applicable to the analysis of other sports as well. Recently journalist Bill Plaschke observed that what makes baseball so good is that "It's not about figuring and factoring, it's about feeling."37 And critic Jonathan Yardley, reviewing an academic book devoted to beach culture, lamented that "As with so much else committed by academics these days in the name of 'popular culture,' [this book] makes too much of too little. The assumption that everything is blessed (or cursed) with Larger Meaning is fundamental to cultural commentary, and practitioners of such always look for meanings even when they are not there. . . . The best counsel is to read through this malarky and concentrate on the author's research . . . ."38


In conclusion, sports in Latin America and elsewhere may well be "things we love [just because] they make us feel alive, arouse our deepest sentiments, and make us laugh and cry."39 Sports, allowing some literary and romantic exaggeration, may be like people about whom Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho observed that "One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving."40 By this I am not suggesting that we cease seeking explanations or building theories, and certainly not that we ignore the cultural and historical contexts in which sports evolve; the works cited above provide some exciting possibilities for new interpretive perspectives. What I do suggest is that we not fail to distinguish between the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of sports,41 that we not lose sight of the irrational and emotional dimensions of the human spirit, those things that can make life at times so ugly but at times so beautiful, often for reasons that exceed our comprehension.42


  1. Paper prepared for presentation at the Sports and Cultural Distinctiveness Symposium, The University of Iowa, May 28-30, 1999.
  2. Joseph L. Arbena, "Sport in Latin America and the Caribbean," pp. 463-466 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, eds. Simon Collier, et al. (2nd ed.; Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) and "Sports," pp. 171-175 in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, V, ed. Barbara A. Tenenbaum (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996).
  3. Joseph L. Arbena, An Annotated Bibliography of Latin American Sport: Pre-Conquest to the Present (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989); Patrícia Falco Genovez, "El desafío de Clio: el deporte como objeto de estudio de la historia," Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes, 3:9 (March 1998).
  4. Joseph L. Arbena, Latin American Sport: An Annotated Bibliography, 1988-1998 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999) and "Dimensions of Latin American Soccer On and Off the Field," Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 17 (1998), 265-274.
  5. Allen Guttmann, Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
  6. In Colombia, by contrast, soccer arrived less directly from Britain than from other parts of Latin America.
  7. Eduardo A. Olivera, Orígenes de los deportes británicos en el Río de la Plata (Buenos Aires: Talleres Gráficos Argentinos L.J. Rosso, 1932); Bill Murray, The World's Game: A History of Soccer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Tony Mason, Passion of the People? Football in South America (London: Verso, 1995).
  8. Julio D. Frydenberg, "Redefinición del fútbol aficionado y del fútbol oficial. Buenos Aires, 1912," pp. 51-65 in Deporte y Sociedad, eds. Pablo Alabarces, Roberto Di Giano, and Julio Frydenberg (Buenos Aires: Eudeba. 1998) and "Espacio urbano y práctica del fútbol, Buenos Aires 1900-1915" Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes, 4:13 (1999); Roberto Di Giano, "El fenómeno inmigratario y el fútbol," Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes, 4:13 (1999).
  9. On violence related to soccer in Argentina, see Amílcar G. Romero, Muerte en la cancha (1958-1985) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Nueva América, 1986).
  10. For a sampling of Archetti's arguments, consult "Argentina and the World Cup: In Search of National Identity," pp. 37-63 in Hosts and Champions: Soccer Cultures, National Identities and the U.S.A. World Cup, eds. John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson (Aldershot, England: Arena, 1994); "Fútbol, violencia y afirmación masculina," Debates en la Sociedad y la Cultura, 2:3 (1985), 38-44; "El potrero y el pibe: territorio y pertenencia en el imaginario del fútbol argentino," Nueva Sociedad, 154 (1999), 101-119; "Masculinity and Football: The Formation of National Identity in Argentina," pp. 225-243 in Game Without Frontiers: Football, Identity and Modernity, eds. Richard Giulianotti and John Williams (Aldershot, England: Arena, 1994).
  11. Jeffrey P. Tobin, "Manly Acts: Buenos Aires, 24 March 1996" (Unpublihsed Ph.D. thesis, Rice University, 1998).
  12. Louis A. Pérez, Jr., "Between Baseball and Bullfighting: The Quest for Nationality in Cuba, 1868-1898," The Journal of American History, 81:2 (September 1994), 493-517.
  13. Roberto González Echevarría, "Literature, Dance, and Baseball in the Last Cuban Fin de Siecle," The South Atlantic Quarterly, 95:2 (Spring 1996), 365-384. González Echevarría's ideas on the evolution and meaning of Cuban baseball are developed more fully in his new book The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Peter C. Bjarkman, who contributes regularly on Cuban baseball to International Baseball Rundown, is also currently at work on a book-length study; for Bjarkman's earlier introduction to some Latin baseball history, including references to Cuban players, see his Baseball with a Latin Beat: A History of the Latin American Game (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1994). For a recent discussion of the place of Latino players, including many Cubans, in Major League baseball, see Samuel O. Regalado, Viva Baseball! Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).
  14. On the Yucatán story see Gilbert M. Joseph, "Documenting a Regional Pastime: Baseball in Yucatán," pp. 76-89 in Windows on Latin America: Understanding Society Through Photographs, ed. Robert M. Levine (Coral Gables, FL: North-South Center, University of Miami, 1987) and "Forging the Regional Pastime: Baseball and Class in Yucatán," pp. 29-61 in Sport and Society in Latin America: Diffusion, Dependency, and the Rise of Mass Culture, ed. Joseph L. Arbena (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988).
  15. Carlos Fuentes, The Crystal Frontier, trans. Alfred Mac Adam (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998 [1995]).
  16. Alan M. Klein, Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991).
  17. Alan M. Klein, Baseball on the Border: A Tale of Two Laredos (Prinecton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
  18. C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1963); reprinted by Pantheon Books in 1983 and by Duke University Press in 1993.
  19. Michael Manley, A History of West Indian Cricket (Rev. ed.; London: André Deutsch, 1995 [1988]); Hilary McD. Beckles and Brian Stoddart, eds., Liberation Cricket: West Indies Cricket Culture (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995).
  20. Richard D. E. Burton, Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the Caribbean (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).
  21. Kenneth L. Shropshire, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America (New York: New York University Press, 1996); José Sérgio Leite Lopes, "Successes and Contradictions in 'Multiracial' Brazilian Football," pp. 53-86 in Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, eds. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (Oxford, UK: Berg, 1997); Sergio Levinsky, Maradona: rebelde con causa (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 1996). Even in Revolutionary Cuba, where much has been done to reduce the plague of racism, evidence remains of its persistence in the sporting world; see John Sugden, Boxing and Society: An International Analysis (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996).
  22. In addition to numerous articles, they have published two related books; see Jay R. and Joan D. Mandle, Grass Roots Commitment: Basketball and Society in Trinidad and Tobago (Parkersburg, IA: Caribbean Books, 1988) and Caribbean Hoops: The Development of West Indian Basketball (Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1994).
  23. See relevant chapters in John Bale and Joseph Maguire, eds., The Global Sports Arena: Athletic Talent Migration in an Interdependent World (London: Frank Cass, 1994). Also see Sergio Levinsky, El negocio del fútbol (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 1995).
  24. Hugo Batalla, et al., ¿Nunca más campeón mundial? (Montevideo: LOGOS, 1991); Eduardo Santa Cruz A., "Hacia dónde va nuestro fútbol?" Nueva Sociedad, 154 (1998), 157-167; Klein, Sugarball.
  25. Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, trans. Mark Fried (London: Verso, 1998 [1995]), p. 209.
  26. Mario Vargas Llosa, Making Waves, ed. & trans. John King (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), pp. 167-168.
  27. Jorge Valdano, Cuentos de fútbol (Madrid: Extra Alfaguara, 1995), pp. 13-17.
  28. Jorge Valdano, Los cuadernos de Valdano (Madrid: Aguilar, 1997), pp. 23-24.
  29. Maurice Boriotti Del Burgo, "Don't Stop the Carnival: Football in the Societies of Latin America," in Giving the Game Away: Football, Politics and Culture on Five Continents, ed. Stephan Wagg (London: Leicester University Press, 1995), p. 71.
  30. Quoted in Jesús Yáñez Orozco, Política y mafias del futbol (México, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Planeta, 1994), p. 230.
  31. Miguel Donoso Pareja, ed., Area chica (Quito: Editorial El Conejo, 1982).
  32. Adam Gopnik, "Endgame," The New Yorker, LXXIV:19 (July 13, 1998), 33..
  33. "All the World's a Ball," The Nation, 267:5 (August 10/17, 1998), 41-42.
  34. Soccer in Sun and Shadow, p. 209.
  35. Ibid., p. 2.
  36. Ibid., pp. 33-34. An earlier expression of Galeano's love of soccer and his lament for the failure of intellectuals to capture its meaning in writing are found in his edited volume Su majestad el fútbol (Montevideo: Arca Editorial, 1968).
  37. Bill Plaschke, "Belly Up to the Ballgame," The Sporting News, 223:16 (April 19, 1999), 22.
  38. Jonathan Yardley, "Wet and Wonderful," The Washington Post Book World, XXVII:23 (June 7, 1998), 3.
  39. Juan Sasturain, "Desde el túnel," in El día del arquero (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1986), p. 5.
  40. The Alchemist: A Story About Following Your Dream, trans. Alan R. Clarke (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998 [1988, 1993]), p. 123.
  41. Guttmann, Games and Empires, pp. 171-188..
  42. Another warning against relying on over-simplified abstractions to avoid dealing with complexity is found in Carol Tavris, "Biology Is Not Destiny," The Washington Post Book World (March 7, 1999), 13.

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Picture: María Laura San Martín (Arg.), Las olímpicas. 150 x 120, 1999.
Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes · http://www.efdeportes.com/  
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· Año 4 · Nº 15 | Buenos Aires, 08/99