Football Is Both Carnival And Nirvana For Latinos
There is a common saying that “the most popular sport in Brazil is not football, but volleyball, since football is not a sport, but rather a religion for the Brazilians.”
Brazil is a land of samba, carnival and football. Carnival in Brazil is all-encompassing libertarian festivity where one can strip off the everyday self in order to become what one would like to be. Football, like carnival, turns the world upside down, creating happiness, freedom and, above all, equality of race and class.
Football and passion are one and the same not just in Brazil but in entire in Latin America. But Brazil is of course Brazil. Think Brazil, think beaches, music, carnival and football. Rio de Janeiro is the Mecca of football. It is a city of huge economic disparity, where its most affluent inhabitants live side by side with sprawling hillside favelas (slums). But football is a great leveler. Some would say, it isn’t a game; it is an obsession. To others it is the nirvana.
How did soccer travel to Latin America? It took the train. From 1865 onwards, Latin Americans wanted what Europe and the US had—a railroad system. So they had British firms come out and build for them. This caused an influx of thousands of British immigrants who came for the jobs. And they brought football with them.
The immigrants played the game in schools and colleges they set up, taught the locals how to play and the locals liked it. In fact, the first leagues in Argentina and Chile were founded in 1893, earlier than some of the famous European clubs—Juventus (1897), Barcelona (1899) and Real Madrid (1902). When the train system was up and running, international games were played regularly between South American nations.
Today, football is popular in Europe, Latin America, Africa and large parts of Asia including the Arab world. It is more popular than other sports in the US among the young people. The game is catching up in China. It is in India where cricket scores over soccer. Every nation will keep its focus on the World Cup. But in Latin America where this beautiful game is the working class’s ballet, people will live, eat and drink football. In spite of the attempts to make it more middle class game, football remains the outlet for working class and often oppressed people.
To some extent, South Africa falls in the same league. Football has turned out to be the game of liberation for South Africa’s majority blacks. The Afrikaners still prefer rugby, the English cricket and the blacks football. In Brazil, football is also the game of street children.
It is football’s simplicity that attracts. A ball and a wall, a bit of road, a couple of shirts for goalposts. No surprise, then, that an entire folklore grows up around the game. A game it may be, but its traditions, eccentricities and caprices have made it most successful game ever devised by humans.
Football in Latin America is a
national pastime. Latin Americans often use soccer as a cultural and sociological window. To a great extent soccer shapes up national identities. Latin American migrants in the US also uses soccer as a marker of identity.
See the advantages of soccer. North American sports seldom appeal to mass audiences outside the US and Canada. Baseball has pockets in the Caribbean and Latin America, hockey has slices of Scandinavia and Central Europe, basketball exists in a handful of European states and American football nowhere at all. Track and field and athletics are universal but have severely limited mass following. The only genuinely international sporting obsession is soccer.
Many Brazilians say they worship football which helps them escape from the social conditions of their country. Brazilians cool themselves off by watching football matches just as religious worshippers cool off with hymns and other rituals.
I was in Rio a few weeks ago. Rio is the perfect location for a party. The sports culture here reflects this passion. Having been selected for the next World Cup football in 2014 and the Olympic Summer Games in 2016, Brazil is enjoying a new moment of pride. Brazil is of course a football crazy country. Rio plays a key role in the madness. The iconic stadium Maracana sits in the middle of the city and acts as the focal point of sports activity. It will play host to the final of the 2014 World Cup. Rio is home to Flamengo, the biggest club in the entire world. The stadium rocks during the matches attended to full capacity.
It is impossible to be in Rio and not notice the slums. There are some interesting development projects in the slums that use sport as a means for social change.
One of the greatest stars of modern football, Diego Maradona of Argentina was raised in the slums. He entered professional football at 15 in 1976, the year Argentina succumbed to a military regime. Then he said, he had no time for politics. But politics had time for him. The military junta embraced him.
But in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands, there was no soldier Maradona. He was busy preparing for the World Cup. Four years later, while playing against England, Maradona first scored a goal with the hand of God and later with a divine left feet. It was as if he took revenge against England for the Falklands war.
When George Bush showed up in Argentina in 2005, Maradona asked Argentines to march against the ‘human garbage’ Bush; many followed? Such was his power that every time he touched the ball, the malnourished little boy from the slums incarnated the little man fighting great powers. He even once accused FIFA of conspiring against Argentina.
In Latin America, the border between soccer and politics is vague. In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought a 100-hour-long football war. It was caused by political conflict on the issue of immigration from El Salvador to Honduras. However, the immediate cause was Honduras’ 3-0 defeat at the hands of El Salvador which was the qualifying match for 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Some governments have even been thrown out after the defeat in football.
Honduras may not be playing great in South Africa, but its participation has healed the national crisis over the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya last year that had engulfed the tiny Central American nation into a circle of violence.
Latin American teams are doing great in South Africa. Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico have shown the Latino power. Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina has scored the first hat trick of the 2010 World Cup. Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina had done the same in 1998 against Jamaica. The star-studded Latinos have always left their mark. In India, Pele, Maradona, Batistuta, Messi are almost becoming household names. Indians overwhelmingly support Latinos, despite the geographical distance and language barrier. In the past few years, India and Brazil have moved closer. Many big Indian companies have set up offices in Latin America. Several Latin artistes have come to Bollywood like Barbara Mori of Mexico and Giselle Monteiro of Brazil. Recently, an India based TV serial, Caminho das India made a great success in Brazil. Several smaller countries from Latin America have opened up diplomatic missions in Delhi. Football may not as yet become a rage in this cricket-crazy nation. But it will make a lot of sense to cultivate ties with Latin America.
By Ash Narain Roy
The author is specialist in Latin American affairs