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Friday, April 19, 2024

Latin Americanisms: Divine Game

It’s no secret that football (soccer for you Yanks) holds a privileged position in the pantheon of Latin American culture. The beautiful game nears an almost religious significance for many in the region — I include myself in this group.

The commandments of the faith are beautiful in their simplicity: ‘stand by your side through thick and thin, through promotion, relegation, and be forever wary of the darkened figure with the whistle lest he lead your team astray.’

These are dictums not intended for the fickle and faint of heart. But for those who revel in the ecstasy of a well-placed slide tackle, acknowledge the exquisiteness of a goalless draw, and contemplate the mysteries of catenaccio, the pain and frustration of a lost, trophyless decade — a lost century if you happen to be an Everton supporter — is but a bump in the road on the path to salvation and silverware.

While the link between football and faith requires no metaphysical proof, in many ways the sport occupies a space that neither religion nor politics can hope to intrude on. This fact is brought out by some rather overstated but nevertheless telling incidents in football history.

Who hasn’t heard of the famed “Football War” — quite a few people actually judging from the responses I get when I bring it up — the armed conflict between El Salvador and Honduras touched off by their heated rivalry in the run-up to the 1970 World Cup? Or the more recent act of football-inspired peace brought about in Cote d’Ivoire’s Civil War by the return of their most beloved prodigal son, striker Didier Drogba. These are stories meant to provide if only a glimpse of the game’s true power to an uninitiated outsider.

This coming June will see the footballing world’s eyes turn towards what might rightly be termed the mecca of the game: Brazil. The heralds of ‘joga bonito’ will be hosting the 2014 World Cup hoping to add a sixth win to their already historic haul in past tournaments.

However, the path to the grandest spectacle in sports (hate to break it to you Super Bowl) has not been devoid of controversy. The same cities which are set to host the World Cup were embroiled this past summer in mass protests against the Brazilian government and the apparent contradictions posed by hosting a high-expenditure event in the face of persistent poverty and inequality.

The protests touched off a much needed reflection among football’s elite. A number of well-known Brazilian and non-Brazilian players expressed solidarity with a Brazilian people suspicious of the national image being sold to them. The suspicions are well founded in a world where football is increasingly commodified and encircled by interests alien to the game as many know it.

The idea that football can cure all social ills is not a new one. Many an aficionado would offer up personal testimony of its healing powers and its almost magical prowess which can serve to dispel the all-too familiar distinctions of race and class in a region which still struggles to come to terms with both. But the question that such an uncritical stance ignores is one that should be at the forefront of contemporary football — and all popular sports for that matter —  what is left when football is no longer a game for the people, but one reserved exclusively for the rich and powerful?

The popularity of the game is deeply rooted in its ascetic simplicity, a certain philosophical poverty which requires nothing more than a ball and a space to play in. The two gods of football, Maradona and Pele — Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Platini can be seen as demi-gods (think of Messi as a young, slightly smaller Hercules) — are arguably the greatest exemplars of this now often-ignored cosmology.

Maradona, on the one hand, rising from the roughest of Buenos Aires neighborhoods to conquer the world with both foot and hand (he is infamously known for his Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup), Pele emerging as a symbol of black accomplishment in a world maintained by the legacy of anti-blackness. This is the sacred corpus we as devoted fans risk losing in a world of multi-million dollar contracts and corporate takeovers.

If you would care to engage in some friendly banter with JORGE JUAREZ regarding Inter’s recent run of bad form you can poke fun at jnjuarez@ucdavis.edu.

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