The place: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. The scene: a mother with her teenage son, having a conversation all of us have had at one time or another.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks. “I enjoy football, literature and music,” he replies.
“Yes, that’s lovely,” says the mother, clearly unconvinced. “But how are you really going to earn a living?”
Daniel Baldi laughed heartily as he recalled that very chat, his voice light and jovial on the other end of the phone line. He talked freely and enthusiastically about his two professions because, yes, Baldi has indeed managed to earn a living from two of his passions: football and literature. As a pro footballer, the Uruguayan striker pulled on the shirts of clubs including homeland outfits Penarol, Cerro and Bella Vista, while he also tasted the game in Mexico (with Cruz Azul), Argentina, Italy and even Saudi Arabia.
Nor has he done badly with his literary exploits, to which he has been able to dedicate himself more fully since hanging up his boots. Still just 34, he has enjoyed success with 12 published novels, including one he wrote at the tender age of 16 – when he was still trying to decide whether to opt for football, music or the written word.
“That’s the only one of my novels with no mention of the word ‘football’!” he joked, in conversation with FIFA.com. That is because Baldi’s other novels share a common denominator, in the form of the beautiful game. “But they’re not pure football books. I’d get very bored writing that kind of book.”
Instead, Baldi uses football, a world he is so familiar with, to send a message he is passionate about and dearly wants to get across to his readers – many of whom are children who dream of being footballers. “The message to society is ‘don’t bet everything on making it in football, study too, that’s more important’. You have to make players well-rounded,” insisted Baldi, who is able to put his ideology into practice as a youth coach at Racing Club de Montevideo. “The education they get off the pitch is just as important as the one they get on it.
“First of all because the stats show, at least in Uruguay, that fewer than one per cent of boys who play football reach the professional game,” he went on. “And if you do get there, you might suddenly find yourself earning a lot of money, with friends who are often not real friends, with an agent who sees you as a business opportunity… It saddens me to see players who represented very big clubs and now don’t have any cash left. When you’ve had an education, you can watch out for that."
The message to society is ‘don’t bet everything on making it in football, study too, that’s more important’
Baldi speaks from first-hand experience, having also come close to sacrificing his studies for the sake of furthering his football. “At 16 I got a call from Penarol. I was full of teenage exuberance and I managed to convince my parents to let me to take a couple of years off secondary school,” he explained. “I was able to realise on my own that I’d made a mistake. All I did was train, and I felt like I was wasting my free time. After two years I felt disheartened, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be a footballer any more.”
It was during that time that he forged a bond with another young player in similar circumstances, a certain Diego Lugano. “We met when training with my hometown club, Plaza Colonia, and we decided to finish our studies together. We’d go to training and then we’d go to night school.
“Players want to play, but when they’re not playing they want to clear their heads too,” continued Baldi, who has very fond memories of that pivotal period. “We’d go to class and they’d talk to us about philosophy, literature… We were like, ‘how cool is it that they’re not talking to us about banks of four, or about marking this player or that.’ We really enjoyed it. We’d even stay for a mate (a popular herbal infusion) with the teachers!” Friends ever since, former Uruguay captain Lugano did not hesitate to supply the prologue for one of Baldi’s most successful novels, Mi Mundial (My World Cup), a book that proved very popular in several South American countries.
Another of his collaborators is Celeste boss Oscar Washington Tabarez. “He’s spectacular,” said Baldi, a fervent admirer of the man known as El Maestro. “He’s done so much good for our football. For example, youth players that don’t study aren’t allowed to play.” And it was alongside Tabarez that Baldi began one of the projects that is dearest to his heart: a network of libraries in the club-houses where players spend time in between training and matches.
“The first one I set up was at the national-team training complex,” said Baldi. “He was there, preparing to head to the 2010 World Cup, under all the stress that entails, and he still found the ability and awareness to set up that library.”
Baldi too is not free of pressure, with his devoted young readership already waiting expectantly for the two novels he intends to release over the course of 2016. Not that only youngsters read his books, with even the celebrated Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who recently passed away, proclaiming himself a fan.
“With him being such a football-mad guy, I think he found the whole football-player-who-writes-books thing really different – I don’t think it was my writing style that wowed him!” said Baldi, laughing.
“We met at an awards ceremony and then one day somebody rang the doorbell at my house and it was him. He’d brought me some signed copies of his books. I didn’t know how to react… He gave me some advice and encouraged me to keep writing,” he added, a hint of pride and perhaps self-consciousness coming through in his voice.
Another source of pride for the former front-man is the part his books play in encouraging reading. “Football is so massive, that even kids who never read are drawn to my books,” he concluded. “That’s really lovely because, over and above what the books are about, you’re getting kids reading.”