The Books: “The Soccer War” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

History Bookshelf:

51RXMPFKZGL.jpgNext book on this shelf is called The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Often referred to as a classic of this type of journalism, The Soccer War is a compilation of many of Kapuscinski’s essays, all of them having to do with the revolutions and civil wars that happened from 1958 – 1976.

It starts in Africa. Kapuscinski lived in Africa, off and on, for about 20 years and his most recent book, The Shadow of the Sun is entirely about that continent. In The Soccer War, he writes about Lumamba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ben Bella. He drives through burning roadblocks in Nigeria, he gets malaria, he drives right into the middle of civil wars. Algeria, Nigeria, etc.

In the second half of the book we leave Africa and go to Latin America. More revolutions. That’s what Kapuscinski is interested in. And here, in this section, is the title essay of the book “The Soccer War”. I’ll post an excerpt from it.

It’s a famous essay to journalists. People look to it as inspiration, as “how” to tell a story. He’s a master at his craft. You can tell when people try to imitate Kapuscinski – Mark Bowden tried in his big long piece in The Atlantic about Saddam Hussein (which was very good, but he had drastically changed his style from Black Hawk Down, and I think it’s because he re-read Kapuscinski’s stuff and decided to ‘try’ it. It’s not entirely successful – he’s not as big a thinker, but Bowden is right on one point: that style IS more appropriate to his topic at hand. It has a more meandering feel to it, it is completely unafraid to go off into psychological tangents. Kapuscinski is not obsessed with driving a narrative forward. He is much more sensoral. He is contemplative. He will be writing about one thing … and then stop and contemplate the meaning of life. Literally. Bowden is too much of a working journalist, a career journalist, to let himself go that far … but he gives it a good try in the Saddam piece. But it’s not quiiiiite a good fit. Bowden is too practical.)

There’s one essay in Soccer War where Kapuscinski is recalled from the field as a foreign correspondent and has to go back to Poland and work behind a desk. Kapuscinski writes a 4 page essay about what it is that bothers him about desks: desks create barriers between men, desks create a hierarchy that Kapuscinski finds disgusting, desks diminish one person and raises another person up. The long story short is that Kapuscinski is saying, “A desk job is NOT for me” but like Elias Canetti, and Robert Kaplan, and Herodotus, and other great big-picture thinkers, he tries to describe WHY. Bowden could never go there to that degree. It would be too embarrassing for that practical-minded man.

A great example of that kind of Kapuscinski writing (the philosophical contemplations) is here. When the huge train crash happened in North Korea, I wrote a post about the lack of information we were receiving about it and it made me think of one of Kapuscinski’s essays. Now THAT is good writing. It sticks with you. It contextualizes the world. You reference it.


The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Luis Suarez said there was going to be a war, and I believed whatever Luis said. We were staying together in Mexico. Luis was giving me a lesson in Latin America: what it is and how to understand it. He could foresee many events. In his time he had predicted the fall of Goulart in Brazil, the fall of Bosch in the Dominican Republic and of Jiminez in Venezuela. Long before the return of Peron he believed that the old caudillo would again become president of Argentina; he foretold the sudden death of the Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier at a time when everybody said Papa Doc had many years left. Luis knew how to pick his way through Latin politics, in which amateurs like me got bogged down and blundered helplessly with each step.

This time Luis announced his belief that there would be a war after putting down the newspaper in which he had read a report on the soccer match between the Honduran and Salvadoran national teams. The two countries were playing for the right to take part in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

The first match was held on Sunday 8 June 1969, in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

Nobody in the world paid any attention.

The Salvadoran team arrived in Tegucigalpa on Saturday and spent a sleepless night in their hotel. The team could not sleep because it was the target of psychological warfare waged by the Honduran fans. A swarm of people encircled the hotel. The crowd threw stones at the windows and beat sheets of tin and empty barrels with sticks. They set off one string of firecrackers after another. They leaned on the horns of cars parked in front of the hotel. The fans whistled, screamed and sent up hostile chants. This went on all night. The idea was that a sleepy, edgy, exhausted team would be bound to lose. In Latin America these are common practices.

The next day Honduras defeated the sleepless El Salvador squad one-nil.

Eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanios was sitting in front of the television in El Salvador when the Hondruan striker Roberto Cardona scored the winning goal in the final minute. She got up and ran to the desk which contained her father’s pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart. “The young girl could not bear to see her fatherland brought to its knees,” wrote the Salvadoran newspaper El Nacional the next day. The whole capital took part in the televised funeral of Amelia Bolanios. An army honour guard marched with a flag at the head of the procession. The president of the republic and his ministers walked behind the flag-draped coffin. behind the government came the Salvadoran soccer eleven who, booed, laughed at, and spat on at the Tegucigalpa airport, had returned to El Salvador on a special flight that morning.

But the return match of the series took place in San Salvador, the beautifully named Flor Blanca stadium, a week later. This time it was the Honduran team that spent a sleepless night. The screaming crowd of fans broke all the windows in the hotel and threw rotten eggs, dead rats, and stinking rags inside. The players were taken to the match in armored cars of the First Salvadoran Mechanized Division — which saved them from revenge and bloodshed at the hands of the mob that lined the route, holding up portraits of the national heroine Amelia Bolanios.

The army surrounded the ground. On the pitch stood a cordon of soldiers from a crack regiment of the Guardian Nacional, armed with sub-machine-guns. During the playing of the Honduran national anthem the crowd roared and whistled. Next, instead of the Honduran flag — which had been burnt before the eyes of the spectators, driving them mad with joy — the hosts ran a dirty, tattered dishrag up the flag-pole. Under such conditions the players from Tegucigalpa did not, understandably, have their minds on the game. They had their minds on getting out alive. “We’re awfully lucky that we lost,” said the visiting coach, Mario Griffin, with relief.

El Salvador prevailed, three-nil.

The same armored cars carried the Honduran team straight from the playing field to the airport. A worse fate awaited the visiting fans. Kicked and beaten, they fled towards the border. Two of them died. Scores landed in hospital. One hundred and fifty of the visitors’ cars were burned. The border between the two states was closed a few hours later.

Luis read about all of this in the newspaper and said that there was going to be a war. He had been a reporter for a long time and he knew his beat.

In Latin America, he said, the border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team. Players on the losing team are denounced in the press as traitors. When Brazil won the World Cup in Mexico, an exiled Brazilian colleague of mine was heartbroken: “The military right wing,” he said, “can be assured of at least five more years of peaceful rule.” On the way to the title, Brazil beat England. In an article with the headline ‘Jesus Defends Brazil’, the Rio de Janeiro paper Jornal dos Sportes explained the victory thus: “Whenever the ball flew towards our goal and a score seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out of the clouds and cleared the ball.” Drawings accompanied the article, illustrating the supernatural intervention.

Anyone at the stadium can lose his life. Take the match that Mexico lost to Peru, two-one. An embittered Mexican fan shouted in an ironic tone, “Viva Mexico!” A moment later he was dead, massacred by the crowd. But sometimes the heightened emotions find an outlet in other ways. After Mexico beat Belgium one-nil, Augusto Mariaga, the warden of a maximum-security prison in Chilpancingo (Guerrero State, Mexico) became delirious with joy and ran around firing a pistol into the air and shouting, “Viva Mexico!” He opened all the cells, releasing 142 dangerous hardened criminals. A court acquitted him later, as, according to the verdict, he had “acted in patriotic exaltation.”

“Do you think it’s worth going to Honduras?” I asked Luis, who was then editing the serious and influential weekly Siempre.

“I think it’s worth it,” he answered. “Something’s bound to happen.”

I was in Tegucigalpa the next morning.

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4 Responses to The Books: “The Soccer War” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

  1. Dave E says:

    I agree with you on Kapuscinski’s writing. For me, I think the word that describes reading his work is smooth. Even when he goes off on a tangent it’s easy to go along for the ride.

    As far as the topic of the excerpt goes, like many things he writes about, it’s sort of, reality…..you just can’t make this stuff up.

  2. red says:

    Dave – I know, right? I wish I knew someone like Luis who could sense seismic events coming before they occurred. Well … maybe you and I already do. CW strikes me a bit like that type, no?

    yeah, and Kapuscinski is definitely smooth. Good word. There’s a section in Imperium where he goes off on this “tangent” about how cognac is made in Georgia – it has nothing to do with the fall of communism, or evil warlords or what have you … But it’s just a beautiful piece of writing, one of my favorite parts of the book.

  3. Dave E says:

    Yes, CW strikes me that way too. I think most of us have the inherent ability to discern or sense those things like Luis did, but information overload, or our prejudices, or some other factor interferes with the message. Have you read Gladwell’s book Blink? He gets into how people get those kinds of insights.

  4. red says:

    Dave E – yeah, you definitely need to have a mixture of CONTEXT and … sensitivity to small changes in the atmosphere (politically, socially, whatever) – to be able to predict what might be coming. Context is really important.

    Haven’t read Blink yet!!! DAMN – it’s on my must-read list! He just did a piece on pit bulls in The New Yorker which was really something else. Love him.

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