Football would be the most important afterthought in the world. But isn’t it more than that? In South America, yes: you should not underestimate the political significance of the sport. For more than a hundred years, football and politics have been doing one-twos. You can find heated-up football matches on hesgoal, but not like this. There are several examples of this. Because did you know that …
… football is often used as a soft power tool?
For example, by the British, who introduced the sport to South America at the end of the 19th century. They traded intensively with countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and used football to smuggle British values and norms into South American society. After all, football was the sport par excellence that embodied values such as order and discipline. At the time, the sport also radiated the ideal image of the modern European man. The perfect instrument for the British to try to influence the culture of what they considered to be a more ‘frivolous’ trading partner.
As soon as football had become unprecedentedly popular on almost the entire continent, South American politicians also saw its potential of it. Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, did not miss an opportunity to highlight his friendship with footballer Diego Maradona. His goal: to surf on the popularity of the latter, who is still considered a saint in Latin America today. Does that seem like an exaggeration? What about the Church of Maradona in Argentina, where the birthday of the football star is celebrated as the birth of Jesus …
… football is the ideal springboard for a political career?
Without a link with football, as a – especially populist – politician, you are soon sidelined in South America. To score later in elections, you first have to show yourself on or off the football field. Mauricio Macri, for example, was the first president of the football club Boca Juniors and later became president of Argentina. Also in Paraguay (Horacio Cartes), Chile (Sebastián Piñera), and Uruguay (Tabaré Vázquez) there are examples of club presidents who became president later in their careers.
Another notable transfer is that of Ecuadorian goalkeeper José Cevallos. He swapped the goal lines of his national team for the highest echelons of politics. From 2011 to 2015 he was Minister of Sports in Ecuador. The most beloved footballer ever in that country, Alberto Spencer, made a similar move. He became consul in Uruguay after his football career.
That football and politics are so intertwined in South America are due to the immense popularity of the sport. A chairman or footballer who can mobilize the supporters of his club in elections immediately has a large electoral base. In our country, for example, this is different. Here a politician will not easily win more votes by committing himself to a certain football team.
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… you can sometimes take ‘football is war’ literally?
In 1969, a war broke out between Honduras and El Salvador following a football match: la Guerra del fútbol. A qualifying match for the World Cup in 1970 got so out of hand that both countries took up arms against each other after the whistle. Although of course there was more to it. The countries had been at loggerheads for some time over migration, the economy, and other issues. The match, won by El Salvador 3-2 in extra time, lit the fuse. The war eventually lasted four days and triggered a large flow of refugees.
Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ goal during the Argentina-England match at the 1986 World Cup also illustrates the link between football and war. Four years earlier, the United Kingdom had defeated Argentina in a conflict over the Falkland Islands off the Argentine coast. During the World Cup match in Mexico, Maradona provided an act of symbolic revenge, by tapping the ball in with his first goal in his hand. The goal was not disallowed and Argentina won the match.
… football is used to do nation-building?
Perhaps few competitive sports can generate such an us-them feeling as football. Certainly in South America, populist politicians make good use of this to create a sense of community among the population. Usually at the expense of another country or a political opponent.
For example, the Ecuador-Peru match, two countries that historically do not match well, is always accompanied by strong nationalist sentiment. Even within a country, communities are sometimes played off against each other through football. Especially if a club with a ‘left’ tradition is confronted with a club with a ‘right’ tradition. In the city of Quito in Ecuador, for example, you have the popular football team Aucas and the more elite team Liga de Quito. The derby between those football clubs invariably has a political charge.
… football can surprisingly come out of the corner in the emancipation struggle of women?
As early as 1968, there was a female referee in Ecuador who whistled men’s matches: Shirley Veintimilla. That was very exceptional at the time, not only in South America but all over the world. In Belgium, for example, the first female referees only performed in men’s football in the 90s. On the field, Shirley Veintimilla felt respected by the players. It was especially off the field that she had to endure it hard: the press only paid attention to her appearance and ignored her performance. Yet she lasted five years as a referee.