Populism and sports in Latin America: Old and new ways of narrating the nation

Pablo Alabarces

From conservative protection to popular practice

In 1912, Argentine President Roque Sáenz Peña sent former President Julio Argentino Roca (1880-1886 and 1898-1904) on a diplomatic mission to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Roca took advantage of the simultaneous visit of an Argentine football (soccer) team to Brazil and accompanied the players in two friendly matches against squads from Rio de Janeiro (Carioca) and from Sao Paulo (Paulista); the Brazilian national team had yet to be invented. The former president had already taken the Argentine squad on a diplomatic visit in 1908: in the match between the national team and a combined Carioca-Paulista side, the Argentines won 3-2. The two new matches in 1912 were held in both Brazilian cities, allowing Paulista (who lost 6-2) to play at home in Sao Paulo and Carioca (who lost 4-0) in Rio de Janeiro.

Evidently, the former President was also a football fan, since in 1904 he had already been the first Latin American President to attend an international football match - the 3-0 defeat of Argentine club Alumni to Southampton of England, the first international match in the history of football in Argentina and possibly the entire continent of Latin America. On the day of the second match in Rio de Janeiro, another legend was born. At the end of the first half, with goals from Ernesto Brown, Alberto Ohaco, and two from Harry Hayes, Argentina was already leading 4-0. Roca went to the Argentine changing room and asked the players to: “let themselves be beat for the homeland.” As the numbers confirm, the match ended with the same four goal difference; it is worth wondering if the political influence of Roca -military officer and politician who dominated the Argentine scene over thirty years from 1879 until his death in 1914 - was inversely proportional to his footballing influence. On the other hand, a parallel legend claims that the captain of the Argentine squad, the mythical Juan Brown, star of Alumni, responded to Roca’s request: “General, politics are politics and football is football.” Beyond the legend, the matches did actually exist, and there are photographs of Roca at Das Laranjeiras stadium alongside Brazilian

President Marshall Hermes Rodrigues da Fonseca and Minister Manuel Ferraz de Campo Sales, the senior politicians of both nations.

During the first years of the twentieth century, the presence of Latin American heads of state at sporting events was persistent: inaugurating stadiums, attending important matches, including football in school curricula, intervening to solve institutional crises within the football associations as in the simultaneous Argentine and Uruguayan cases in 1926. From the very beginning of the 20th century, and especially once the processes of popularisation were advanced, leading to football’s transformation into a mass phenomenon, politicians of every ideology and, in reality, all conservatives immersed themselves in football avatars. They imagined, suspected, or understood that popular desires had found in football a fertile field to grow, and they decided to apply the old saying panem et circenses (bread and circuses) to the (fallacious) idea that football entertainment would protect them from other risks such as strikes and rebellions.

Of course, this is a field of opposing opinions, which has never settled the discussion one way or the other. A quick look at Latin American history reveals that despite the vain attempts of the political use of football to avoid or prevent, or at least impede, them, strikes and rebellions spread throughout the entire continent; even revolutions in some cases. In general, political history has not paid much attention to the greater or lesser presence of football in a society to explain the causes or consequences of political, economic, and social phenomena; no one has ever dared to affirm that some popular insurrection or protest was halted because the subjects were too busy watching Pele’s matches.

Nevertheless, the discussion regarding the political efficacy of power’s instrumentation of football “smokescreens” does concur on one thing: Latin American leaders believed and believe without a doubt that this efficacy is indisputable. The more football they offer the masses, the less these will tend toward riots or protests; the more sporting successes accredited to a politician during his term, the greater his chances to be eternalised in history, or at least in the popular memory. In other words, this relationship does not exist and it has never been verified, but the dominant groups believe in it as though it were an indisputable truth. Sporting efforts to consolidate political power are discussed in a Greek context in Chapter 6 by Jacob Bustad, in an Italian context in Chapter 7 by Simon Martin, and in Brazilian contexts by Renata Toledo and Bryan Clift in Chapters 8 and 9, respectively.

It is difficult to find cases in which political attention toward sporting phenomena stems from a popular and democratic vocation, a sports policy that posits the need to expand the practice and consumption of sport simply as a popular right, for example. Perhaps, some exceptions have been the sport policies implemented during the first Argentine Peronism or, more drastically, in the case of Cuba after the 1959 Revolution, or even its Sandinista Nicaraguan imitation in 1979 (Alabarces, 2009; Sugden et al., 1990).

Nonetheless, in each case, football was not involved. Then again, football had become a mass phenomenon very early on and, consequently, also had become a spectacle, or commodity, which national governments had very little opportunity to appropriate and even less intentions of distributing democratically. It is possible that the most noteworthy example was the very recent nationalisation of the television broadcasting rights of football in Argentina between 2009 and 2016, but even this initiative, the most notorious advance on the “private” property of the television monopoly on the continent’s football narratives, was much closer related to the Peronist government’s goal of attacking the multimedia conglomerate Clarin — the holder and beneficial owner of the broadcasting rights - than with the alleged “démocratisation” they proclaimed (Alabarces, 2014). Anyway, we return to this case later.

Nevertheless, even until today the presence of government leaders and state policies has accompanied the whole process we are narrating. If mere match attendance was already an indicator - Argentine President Alejo Julio Argentino Roca Paz’s presence at the fixture between Alumni and Southampton in 1904 shared, at the very least, a spectacle of his own social class put on for itself - after 1930 this would become procedure during the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas in Brazil through to the subsequent democratic government, according to German historian Stefan Rinke (Rinke, 2007). Until then, a more or less active, or merely honorary intervention, such as the presentation of an award, existed at the school or institutional level. Since the 1930s, active involvement appeared in the construction of stadiums throughout the entire continent, in some cases the property of local government. Nacional of Lima was inaugurated by the dictator Augusto Leguia as early as 1923 and re-inaugurated in 1952 by the dictator Manuel Odria. Nacional of Santiago de Chile was inaugurated by Arturo Alessandri in 1938 and re-inaugurated (for the football World Cup) by his son, also President, Jorge Alessandrini in 1962. Nonetheless, this also occurred with club stadiums: both the Monumental Stadium of River Plate (1938) and the Bombonera of Boca Juniors (1940) were constructed in the same decade. Both projects were made possible thanks to the concession of cheap loans from the national government presided by General Justo, who rose to power through the conservative fraud of that era. As a “colourful” aside, River Plate’s stadium was later remodelled and re-inaugurated in 1978 by General Jorge Rafael Videla’s dictatorial regime to be the headquarters of that year’s football World Cup.

The period of Brazilian political history from 1930 until Vargas’s suicide in 1954, known as Varguism, was the first successful populism in Latin America (see also Chapter 8 this volume for further discussion of Vargas’s populism). Its significant interest in sport could only be emulated by the second great populism; Argentine Peronism between 1945 and 1955, with various returns to power (1973-1976, 1989-1999, and 2002-2015). This interest was manifested in the construction of stadiums like the Pacaembú in Sao Paulo, inaugurated in 1940, though the Maracaná was not built by Vargas but rather by his successor, Gaspar Dutra. We can also see this attention to sport in the creation of the Conselho Nacional de Desportos (National Council on Sport) in 1941, the first political institution dedicated to developing specific athletic programmes on a national level. Brazil was, until those years, a poorly integrated nation due to its geographic expanse as well as its social economic, political, and cultural disparities. Furthermore, the coverage provided by the newly founded National Radio, created by Vargas in 1936, based out of Rio de Janeiro but with a national reach, contributed to the diffusion of football across the whole country.

On a wider scale, what Varguism deployed was an operation through which the great popular culture formations were captured - samba, football, carnival, capoeira. These were transformed into national symbols proposed by the central state, according to the Brazilian anthropologist, Renato Ortiz (1991). The footballing triumphs from 1938 onwards, on a continental and eventually international level, contributed to this operation: they allowed for the suppression of racial inequalities with the myth of a footballing racial democracy and aided in the fight against the “complexo de vira-lata” (an approximate translation would be “stray-dog complex”), an expression coined by journalist and dramaturge Nelson Rodrigues to label a supposed Brazilian “inferiority complex,” which would be debunked by the footballing triumphs between 1958 and 1970. The sports journalist and devout Varguist Mario Filho, a great proponent of the football World Cup in 1950, as well as the construction of the Maracaná stadium, would invent the first samba school parade at the Carioca Carnival. His journal, Mundo Esportivo (Sporting World), invented the parade in 1932 to cover the slow sporting months due to a lack of competitions. Soon after, as we know, carnivals would become one of the greatest tourist attractions of the city and another national symbol.

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