The World Cup of Politics in Latin America

The Soccer World Cup is already at the center of sports politics, but especially in Latin America (with a record team of teams passing to the next round) it is also at the center of politics as such, write Pablo Piccato and Federico Finchelstein in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and New York.

The Soccer World Cup is already at the center of sports politics, but especially in Latin America (with a record team of teams passing to the next round) it is also at the center of politics as such, write Pablo Piccato and Federico Finchelstein in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and New York.

Despite assertive predictions that the World Cup was going to be interrupted by strikes and demonstrations so far (after two weeks) this has not been the case. However, politics still has the center stage.

In the United States, a Republican pundit like Ann Coulter  stated “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.” Similar arguments in right-wing media present soccer as yet another nativist way to discriminate against Latinos and other minorities. It is dubious, that these arguments will help Republicans in the next presidential elections.

But Soccer has also been used by the left. In Brazil, the host country, the building of stadiums and the shoddy finishing of some aspects of the organization already remind of the times of outsized national optimism under former President Lula, while smaller urban protests and graffiti still use the copa as a negative theme to remind Brazilians about persisting inequality, corruption and police brutality. In Argentina, President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner has linked the World Cup to many things, including Latin American integration (which she calls the “great fatherland”) but also anti-imperialism and the nationalist memory of the South Atlantic war against Britain for the islands known in Argentina as Malvinas and in England as Falklands. Surprisingly, while talking many times about the World Cup she has not talked about the “other big news” in Argentina: her Vice President Amado Boudou is being investigated for corruption and abuse of power. An Argentine Federal Judge ruled that there was significant evidence to order Boudou to appear in court for questioning.  Some government officials have suggested that there was a suspicious timing about the Vice-President being ordered to testify just before the World Cup while others argue that an Argentine win in the World Cup might displace or even silence the news about governmental abuse of power. In neighboring Bolivia President Evo Morales has announced a new part time job to complement the presidency, professional soccer player. His contract allows him to play 20 minutes per week. Uruguay's president José Mujica threw his support behind Luis Suárez, the striker accused of biting an Italian defender in a recent game. Mujica  complained that  "fascist sanctions"  were applied against Suárez and concluded that the people at  "FIFA are a crew of old SOBS."  Do Latin Americans, including politicians, live in planet football? Or is the sport central to the fabric of the political in the region, perhaps more so that in other parts of the world? In a way, the answer for both questions is yes. Soccer is a central element in the region’s history and politics.

The centrality of global football and the World Cup, its ultimate event held every four years, is now taken for granted. In Spanish America, the World Cup is simply called the “Mundial”, perhaps literally translated as worldly. Few analysts will deny the significance of its broad social, cultural and political implications, especially for the host countries and, as it is already the case with Brazil, where the World Cup has been a symbol of both the aspirations and the frustrations of an entire emerging nation. Soccer is dominating the world scene this month. But was this always the case? Soccer started in Europe as a game but the World Cup started in Latin America. Argentina and Uruguay played a final ignored by most European teams. Uruguay won that first World Cup. And then in 1934, as a revenge, Uruguay did not attend the Italian World Cup. This second tournament was the first to openly conflate football and politics. Mussolini, then fascist ruler of Italy, manipulated the event as a propaganda opportunity for his dictatorship. By providing the fascist dictatorship with such an opportunity, FIFA showed a clear willingness to link World Cup football with notorious dictatorships. It will be not the last time.

The productive linking of non democratic regimes and the World Cup has been recognized by the current leaders of the organization, itself a totalitarian and corrupt international organization, if there is such a thing. Authoritarian governments are good at organizing world cups and often benefit politically from them. Just to take a few Latin American examples: the Brazilian dictatorship rode a wave of popularity after the country’s national team victory in Mexico 1970--itself a regime that was actively repressing students and engaging in its own dirty war; the same success, hosting and winning the cup, benefitted the Argentine dictatorship in 1978 at the time of a campaign of state terrorism with many thousands of victims; Colombia could not host the cup in 1986 because of the violence raging in the country (provoked and funded by the US prohibitionist stance on drug trafficking) so Mexico did it again, claiming organizational (if not soccer) success just a year after an earthquake had leveled hundreds of buildings in the capital and exposed the ineptitude and corruption of a regime engaged in a neoliberal attack on wages, unions and electoral opposition. The problem with the current world cup is precisely the fact that it is organized by a democratic government, that is, one which is not willing to completely erase protests, will recognize federal authorities, and will take the abusive chants from the VIP section against its president without engaging in a witch hunt. 

Every aspect of the World Cup can be invested with metaphorical and political meaning (after all, didn’t Spain lose in the first round because the king abdicated?). Recent Latin American history suggests, however, that there are concrete connections between politics and soccer. It would be a mistake to think that these connections can be reduced to a positive correlation between authoritarianism and soccer success. There is still some joy and artistry going on in the pitch, and that is what most viewers look for. Meaningful politics still takes place outside the stadium.

 

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Pablo Piccato is a professor of History at Columbia University and the author of several books. The most recent is The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere. Federico Finchelstein is  Chair of the history Department  at the New School for Social Research and the author of several books. The most recent is The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War.

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