Friday, August 1, 2014

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Frustration Edition

I've just completed the book Golazo!: The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America, by Andres Campomar. It came out in May, which means it came out prior to the World Cup. I bought it during, at Books and Company in Oconomowoc. As the full title indicates, Campomar explores the history of soccer in the region ranging from South America up towards Mexico, and how it interacted with life off the field. It needs to be noted, though, that South America gets the bulk of the attention; Mexico and especially Central America get rather light coverage. It also must be noted that, in the book, it's called 'football'; Campomar lives in London and didn't go through and change it to 'soccer' for the American edition.

That would be a minor issue. A much more major issue is that Campomar clearly assumes too much regarding what you already know going in. There are a lot of good stories crammed into the book. Quantity is not the concern here, though. The concern is quality. Campomar tells stories, and the flow through the narrative is fine and all, but there are critical points at which I found him to just plain whiff.

First off, I know some of these stories already, as does anyone with a decent amount of knowledge about the game. And using those known stories as a benchmark, some of his details are at the very least off and at most plain wrong. For example, take Andres Escobar, the unfortunate Colombian defenseman who scored an own goal against the United States in the 1994 World Cup, contributing heavily to Colombia's elimination, and was shot soon after outside a Medellin nightclub because of it. Every time I've heard the story, when the assassin fired, he punctuated each shot by yelling 'gol!', the Spanish word for goal. In Campomar's telling, though, the assassin yells 'autogol!', the Spanish word for 'own goal'. It's a small difference, but noticeable if you've always heard the story told one way. I'm not saying for sure he's wrong, but if you're going to go that far against conventional wisdom, it's customary to flag it as such. Say 'contrary to popular belief' or something like that.

In another instance, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, a storyline going into the Cup revolved around host city Naples, which sits in Italy's south, lagging economically and in cultural reputation behind the north. It was also the then-club home of Diego Maradona of Argentina, who was playing for Napoli. Maradona attempted to fan the flames, urging Naples to back Argentina in the Cup instead of Italy. In the vast, vast majority of tellings I've seen- and the way Google autocompletes it if you type it in- Napoli fans responded to him with a banner reading (in Italian, of course), "Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland." Campomar, though, goes with a minority translation, "Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our country." Which I can this time tell you for sure is wrong, because here is the banner in question. The word in dispute is 'patria', at the end of the banner. Patria is Italian for homeland. The Italian word for country is paese.

Given that Campomar makes Spanish-to-English translations all over the book, this one sticks out.

However, a particularly galling incident comes when Campomar tells about the time when FIFA attempted to ban matches played above 2,500 meters altitude, a ruling that was essentially aimed at La Paz, Bolivia, aka Bolivia's capital city and the place they put most of their nice things. (High altitude means low oxygen means you tire out faster.) This was a campaign headed up by Brazil, and Brazil alone, as evidenced by the fact that when the ban was announced, nine of the ten members of COMNEBOL, South America's confederation, signed a declaration of support for Bolivia, saying that they would just ignore the ruling. The holdout? Brazil. Maradona, in fact, played an hour-long game in La Paz at age 47, saying that if he could do it at his age, so could players in their prime. He and a team of Argentinians played a team of Bolivians headed by Bolivian president Evo Morales. But in the book, Campomar barely mentions Brazil, pinning the whole brouhaha on Argentina. He mentions Morales playing a match, but not the one featuring Maradona: he picks one Morales played at Nevado Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia. (He also misses mentioning that Morales, who does in fact play soccer, scored the only goal of the game on Nevado Sajama.)

These were the stories I already knew about. What did he mess up in the stories I didn't know about?

This is the first problem. The second problem is with names. Specifically, Campomar doesn't like to use all of them. Or index them. Soccer is a vast, vast sport. There are legions of players who have made themselves noticable in some soccer story or other over the years, even if only as a footnote. It's a ridiculous ask of a hardcore fan to keep them all straight. It's downright sociopathic to ask it of a casual fan just wanting to learn some soccer history. The least you could do is give full names, first as well as last. Maybe describe who they are a bit. It was infuriating to go through this book and read story after story where Campomar would just toss out the last name of a player who was involved in some game or other and never mention their first name, who they were, or anything else about them... and then never bring them up again the entire rest of the book even in the index. If you're indexing names, these guys need to be in there too. If you're only mentioning them once, say their full name for God's sake.

One sample sentence from page 327, telling of a group-stage match in the 1974 World Cup between the Netherlands and Uruguay: "Pablo Forlan, a tall defender who played for Sao Paulo, should have been sent off for kicking Neeskens." Forlan's description is the kind of thing I'm looking for here. A basic description. That's all I ask. We have his body frame, his position, the club he was playing for. "Neeskens", though, is never mentioned again, in the book or in the index, which is why it took me way longer than it ever should have taken to look the anecdote up for reference here. "Neeskens" is Johan Neeskens, one of the greatest players the Netherlands has ever produced and Johan Cruyff's right-hand man on the Dutch squads of the 70's. Don't you think a guy like that deserves a first freaking name? There might be some people out there who don't know who Johan Neeskens is.

Let's not even get started on the fact that Brazilian players commonly go by only one name, which only serves to amplify the frustration when I couldn't stop wondering if the single name of the latest newly-mentioned Brazilian player unfamiliar to me was really a single name or if he had a first name and it was just left out.

I wanted to recommend Golazo!. I really did. But there's just way, way too much wrong here, things that could have been fixed if only Campomar had cared to do so. It would be nothing to add on a first name. It would be nothing to run Google Image Search and then Google Translate on one lousy word. It wouldn't be nothing, but it would be basic recordkeeping to track the names you're tossing out there. But as it stands in front of me, there are far better books out there to learn the history of the sport. You don't need to wrestle with this one.

No comments: