An old article, but still relevant.
The world cup is here. Until July 9th, 32 national teams will play for the Word Cup title. It is estimated that the World cup will draw five billion viewers world wide. Argentina is no exception to the frenzy. South Americans are the wildest about their soccer, with the highest TV ratings. Argentina’s passion for soccer is a cultural mainstay and part of national identity regardless of class backgrounds.
This year’s World cup tournament has brought back a wave of fervor for Argentina’s national soccer team. Argentina is expected to have a good chance at the World Cup title with super stars like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, young soccer magicians leading the offense.
I just returned to Argentina in the height of this year’s World Cup fever. Fans’ passion for the sport has inspired even sports nerds like myself. During the recent matches, the streets of Buenos Aires have looked like a western ghost town with everyone shut in their homes or workplaces watching the game. International and national companies like Pepsi, Quilmes beer, Adidas have featured Messi and Tevez marketing their products. Local stores, bars and citizens have been plastered with Argentina’s national colors, sky blue and white. Every news broadcast (morning, noon, evening and nightly newscasts) feature special reports on the world cup. National politics and local events seem to have been frozen in time until the world cup ends and Argentina takes home the cup. With nothing else seemingly happening in the country, it seems logical to write about what Argentine’s know best, their soccer.
Soccer as socialism
At the turn of the 20th century, Anarchists and Socialists founded many of Argentina’s first soccer clubs. They sought the need to use soccer as a social and political tool for organizing. Anarchist historian Osvaldo Bayer has written extensively on anarchism and soccer. Argentina’s large Anarchist movements in the 20th century, influenced by the influx of European immigrants, were alarmed by the working class’ drive to go to the soccer stadium on weekends rather than ideological picnics or other cultural events. The movement’s daily anarchist newspaper La Protesta wrote in 1917 compared the effects of soccer with religion, writing “church and soccer balls: the worst drug for the people.” However, anarchists soccer ideology changed quickly.
One of the first teams Chacarita Juniors was founded on May 1, 1906 in an Anarchist library in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Chacarita. Anarchists had a clear vision. “Soccer is a socialist game. Everyone plays together with the objective of making it to the goal line, that is the triumph, that is the revolution. In soccer you learn how to act in solidarity. You can’t play alone, when someone is in a better position you have to pass them the ball.” They even discussed what would happen when the sport would become professionalized. When the anarchists would win a championship, all the prizes would go toward forming schools for children to learn the sport. Other clubs followed including the “Martyrs of Chicago,” a homage to the American workers hung for fighting for a 8 hour workday. In the 30's the clubs became appropriated by capitalist interests. The “Martyrs of Chicago” later became Argentinos Juniors: “We are Argentines, not anarchists” became the new nationalist slogan erasing the team’s proletariat history. Chacarita still sports red and black uniforms even though the club is run as a commercial team.
Soccer as nationalism
Until the 60's South America’s soccer teams remained inferior to Western European teams. With the upsurge of military dictatorships in the region, Latin America also emerged as leaders in soccer. Argentina won its first World Cup championship in 1978, in the height of the military brutal dictatorship (1976-1983). The coup’s first dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla hosted the 1978 World Cup as a media stunt to show the world that the military had popular support.
The 1976-1983 military dictatorship ushered in unimaginable methods of terror–drugging dissidents and dropping them from planes into the Atlantic Ocean in the “vuelos del muerte,” using electric prods or “picana”on the genitals of men and women who entered the clandestine detention centers, raping women and forcing husbands, wives, parents, brothers, and companeros to listen tot he screams of their loved ones who were being tortured. The dictatorship disappeared 30,000 men and women to wipe out working class resistance and implement the neoliberal economic model.
By 1978, the international community had heard the accounts of the dictatorship’s human right’s violations. An international campaign gained steam thanks to the determination of groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. In the midst of criticism, the dictatorship decided to host the World Cup. Anyone who opposed the dictatorship risked being disappeared themselves. The dictatorship justified the tortures, kidnaping and executions as a “dirty war” against anti-nationalist, communist opponents. The mothers of Plaza de Mayo suffered the most aggression leading up to the World Cup. Three of the founding members were disappeared and murdered following the infiltration by Adolfo Astiz, a military officer, in 1977.
The 1978 World Cup cost Videla several hundred million dollars. Business tycoons who benefitted from the dictatorship’s neoliberal policies joined in the World Cup frenzy. The BAUEN hotel (currently under worker self-management) was constructed in 1978 for the World Cup, with government loans and subsidies.
Many ex-detainees held at the ESMA (Navy Mechanics School), one of the 400 clandestine detention centers, said they could hear the cheers as Argentina won the world cup while being tortured. The River Plate Stadium is less than a kilometer away from Argentina’s infamous and largest clandestine detention center. Some detainees gave accounts that they too cheered for Argentina while tied and blindfolded.
Home players beat Holland 3-1 in the final. Holland along with many nations threatened to boycott Argentina’s World Cup, saying “you can’t play soccer a thousand meters from a torture center.” The Holland players said openly they would not accept the World Cup trophy from hands of dictator Videla. The military coup used the World Cup to launch its own counter-human rights campaign with the slogan “Argentineans are right and human.” The dictatorship’s national pride campaign overshadowed any international criticism of human rights violations.
Soccer and image
Diego Armando Maradona, by far the best soccer player in history, led Argentina in taking the title again in 1986 during the World Cup in Mexico. Maradona from the working class neighborhood Fiorito, a shanty town in a southern Buenos Aires suburb continues as a soccer god for many worldwide. During the 90's Maradona began to slip in the midst of the golden neoliberal era of former president Carlos Menem. Maradona left the soccer world in 1994 with a drug addiction and weight problem.
As part of Argentina’s image recovery from the 2001 financial and political crisis, Maradona cleaned up his act and had gastric bypass surgery to lose weight. Once again, Maradona is Argentina’s national pride. The best soccer player in history has a tattoo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara on his arm and another of Fidel Castro on his calve. Maradona hosted a weekly national talk show, which broke tv rating records in 2005. Fidel Castro gave Maradona an exclusive interview in which the best soccer player in history pridefully showed the ‘comandante’ his tattoo. During the interview Maradona also promised the ‘comandante’ that he would protest against George W. Bush’s visit to Argentina during last year’s Summit of the Americas.
In popular culture, almost noone makes reference to the 1978 World Cup victory. Fans generally cheer, “we’re going to win just like in 1986!” Soccer, like any sport can be used to uphold authoritarianism and nationalism. The political punk rock band, Las Manos de Fillippi, wrote a song about the 1978 World Cup “La Selecion Nazzional.” The lyrics go: “The World Cup is another state ministry, while the education ministry makes you stupid, the World Cup nationalizes you.” Universally, the state has coopted the World Cup for national interests.
However, sports can also bring people together. It’s no wonder that bosses often ban employees from forming sports clubs or other leisure activities. The workers from the Zanon ceramics factory, occupied and managed by its workers since 2001, launched an interesting campaign during the World Cup. They printed a special ceramics title with the slogan: “Together we are playing for the world cup, together we fight for the expropriation of Zanon.” When the former boss at Zanon prohibited the workers from talking in groups of three or more, the workers began to organize against exploitive conditions in the plant by getting together and playing soccer. Today, the Zanon workers have organized their own soccer tournament inside their factory to create a recreation space and to create unity among the workers.
Marie Trigona forms part of Grupo Alavío. She can be reached at email@example.com. For more information visit, www.agoratv.org