World Cup: 'Golazo!' author on soccer passion in Latin America

The London-based, Uruguayan-raised writer Andreas Campomar has a new book out on the history of soccer in Latin America. “Golazo!” (Riverhead: 496 pp., $16) is named after the famous cry (meaning "fantastic goal") heard in Spanish-speaking stadiums and covers the evolution of Latin American “football,” as soccer is known in the rest of the world. We talked to Campomar by telephone from London in the final days before the 2014 World Cup got underway in Brazil. We discussed the history of the sport and the hold it has on the popular imagination in South America.

In my Guatemalan American family, soccer is such an obsession that "gol!" was my daughter's first word. Are there any soccer obsession stories in your family?


My great-grandfather helped bring the first World Cup to Uruguay. Most of my family are fans of Nacional [one of the two dominant teams in Uruguay]. I’m a fan of Peñarol [Nacional’s bitter rival]. That’s because when I was a kid, my uncle bought me the shirt of this fantastic player called Fernando Morena. He once scored seven goals in one match. He was also known as “El Pajama,” because he was only good playing at home. We’ve always been obsessed with football. Being Uruguayan, it’s something that defines us, more so than any other country on the continent. 

Uruguay has some of the highest rates of literacy in the world. For much of its history, it's been a country with a stable middle class. How is it that a sport is so tied up with its national identity?

We have a mythology about the game. We won the 1924 Olympic gold medal for football -- in Paris, a city with a special place in the Latin American imagination. And then we won it again in 1928 in Amsterdam. We hosted the first World Cup in 1930 and won that too. By then, the golden age of Uruguay was starting to come to the end. But in the 1950 World Cup, we beat Brazil in the Maracana [the stadium in Rio de Janeiro]. That victory cemented our sense of exceptionalism. We are a fairly small country, and yet we were able to beat the world. If we can be champions of football, we can be champions in everything. That is unbelievably important to the Uruguayans.
Uruguay’s neighbor to the north, Brazil, is now believed by many to play the most beautiful football in the world, the “jogo bonito.” Why is that?

For most of the first half of the 20th century, the quality of football in Brazil was below that of Argentina and Uruguay. By 1950, Brazil was hosting the World Cup. By all rights, they should have won that tournament, but of course they lost. After that, they left nothing to chance. When they won the World Cup in 1958, in Sweden, it was with a team of white, black and mixed-race players that included Pelé. Brazil had only abolished slavery in 1888 -- but the writer Nelson Rodriguez said a certain kind of racism was put to bed the day Brazil first won the World Cup. Thereafter, in quick succession, they won in 1962 and 1970, which was the moment when the sport reached its apex. They won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City playing this wonderful, free-flowing football. Watch Uruguay-Brazil in the semifinals of that World Cup. Pelé “dummies” [a soccer term for a misdirection or feint] Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, the Uruguayan goalkeeper. He missed the goal. But it didn’t matter. The way he went around the keeper epitomizes a wonderful style of play. From then on, football has become a game of diminishing returns. As football has become more professionalized, it’s become less romantic.

Who is the greatest South American player of all time: Pelé, Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi?

That’s a tough one. What it comes down to is Pelé’s career. He wins the World Cup in 1958 at the age of 17. Then he wins it four years later. Then he wins it eight years after that. Maradona doesn’t make the World Cup team in 1978 (when he was 17 and Argentina won the tournament). He has to wait until 1986 to win it. And then the 1994 World Cup is a disaster. [Maradona failed a drug test and was kicked out of the tournament]. Messi has done everything he can at a club level, at Barcelona. The problem with Messi is that he was born in Latin America -- but all of his club football has been played in Spain. He doesn’t have that barrio allegiance that other players have. I still hope that this is Messi’s World Cup.  But Pelé was an extraordinary player and an extraordinary figure.

Who's going to win this World Cup?

I think it may be Argentina. I don’t think that any European country can do it. Spain is good, and Belgium will have a strong team that can punch above its weight. But I think the winner will be a Latin American team, because they will know the territory. There’s a psychological element involved. Who can take on Brazil in Brazil? Who has the history? A lot of European teams will think trying to win in Brazil is a step too far. A Brazil-Argentina final would be superb. We need a final that raises the curtain on Latin American football. That’s the reason I wrote this book. Most North Americans fundamentally don’t understand us South Americans and our heritage. But once every four years the world looks to us to provide some spectacular football. I know it’s a slightly romantic way of looking at things -- but it’s the one moment every four years we come to the fore and put our best foot forward. We have a sport of which we can be really proud. We’ve brought this joy to the world. We have a great panache for playing the game. We need a free-flowing final that brings out the best of the sport. Brazil and Argentina play very different styles of football. It would make for a great show.