World Cup Spirituality and Environmentalism? Of Course!

In the heat of the 2014 World Cup, I’ve been rereading parts of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano’s poetically subjective history of “the beautiful game.” The team of Galeano’s home country, Uruguay, will face Italy on Tuesday, in each team’s third game of the first round — a more or less winner-take-all match. In honor of his great book, I’d like to take a Galeano-esque, EdenKeeper-centric look back in history to the last time these two storied teams faced each other in the World Cup.

Photo available, June 25, 1990. The Italians were led by the football fairytale goal-scoring threat of Salvatore Schillaci and a young Roberto Baggio. Baggio, who Galeano describes as a “big horsetail that flicks away opponents as he flows forward in an elegant wave,” would later go on to become one of the greatest players in the history of his sport. He accomplished this as also perhaps one of the most notable practicing Buddhists in the world of soccer. Galeano continues:

Opponents harass him, they bite, they punch him hard. Baggio has Buddhist sayings written under his captain’s armband. Buddha doesn’t ward off the blows but he does help suffer them. From his infinite serenity, he also helps Baggio discover the silence that lies beyond the din of cheers and whistles.

While Italy’s Baggio took inspiration from Buddhism, Uruguay’s coach, Oscar Tabarez, took it from Che Guevara. Supposedly, “El Maestro,” as Tabarez is known from his teaching days, has a version of the Argentine revolutionary’s quote — “One has to grow hard but without ever losing tenderness” — hanging up on the wall in his Montevideo home. A commentator in a recent match claims that El Maestro begins every 14th of June, Guevara’s birthday, with a prayer for Che.

Uruguay Team 1990

Thus, his prayer would have been given eleven days prior to the World Cup match in 1990. Uruguay had had the first great South American soccer team, winning two Olympic gold medals during the lead-up to the inaugural World Cup in 1930, which they both hosted and won. In the ’70s and ’80s, however, they had lost the spark, failing to even qualify for a majority of World Cups. And so, Tabarez had accomplished a fair feat in bringing the team back to the Round of 16. But alas, La Celeste, as Uruguay is known in its sky blue uniform, were unable to defeat Baggio and the Italians. Schillaci scored in the 65th minute, and Aldo Serena finished off the Uruguayans in the 85th. Italy went on to the semi-finals, Uruguay’s Cup was over, and El Maestro moved on to coach the Argentine club Boca Juniors.

Fast forward 24 years, almost to the day. Baggio is long gone from the soccer pitch, but has gone on to win not only great accolades in soccer, but in the rest of life as well; he even received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. And El Maestro. . . is back at the helm of La Celeste. To be sure, he’s been back since 2006, and has been managing some of the best soccer that Uruguay’s been responsible for in decades.

Natal Brazil At least 25 houses were completely destroyed by a landslide in Natalafter a record amount of rain fall in 48 hours. Read more:

The 1990 match took place in the sweltering heat of a Roman stadium. In 2014, the two teams will square off in Natal, Brazil, the site of considerable flooding leading up to the U.S. team’s first match (in which they beat Ghana 2-1). Now the city is looking at a sinkhole four miles from the stadium. Naturally, this should raise concern over climate change.

In an era when World Cup hype overshadows alarm towards global environmental practices, when advertising and commerce dominate sport (as Galeano so superbly demonstrates in his book), and when hundreds or thousands of workers may die to build stadiums, it can be easy to forget the beauty in the beautiful game.

But perhaps this era could benefit from a sort of synthesis of philosophies, a melding of inspirations gleaned from some of its legendary leaders.

Baggio used to meditate for a half hour before every match; it gave him the balance and composure needed to play so joyously in the presence of such on-field adversity and off-the-field interference (see advertising and corporate interest). When Tabarez looks at his wall, he can think of ways to both reign in and encourage his group of players, but he can also summon tenderness toward migrant workers and the global environment while growing tough in the face of corrupt national interests and greedy naysayers.

As we watch the beautiful game played on Tuesday, we can bear in mind these philosophies of balance, and not forget the world in which it’s played.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.