August 24, 2009
Football Nationalism: Understanding Argentine Identity through Sport
The introduction of football to the natives of Argentina was one of many imperialistic changes brought about by the European colonists. While football may appear to be only a ninety-minute distraction from reality, the game, in fact, has deep cultural and socioeconomic implications. Since its presentation to the continent, upper-class elites and politicians used football as a means to control the masses. As the game has developed so have the players, the techniques, and the media coverage surrounding the game. Magazines such as El Gráfico, and La Nación were founded in the early parts of the twentieth century as a testament to this newfound national passion, publications dedicated solely to football. The media as well as the clubs of the country would continue to be political and socioeconomic tools throughout the rest of the century. By studying the cultural insinuations of football through media and politics, this paper will demonstrate how football has been a key factor in the development of the Argentine nation and the idea of Argentine nationalism.
In order to understand the connections between media, politics, football and national identity, one must first understand the myth formed around the idea of nationalism. Benedict Anderson, a scholar of international studies, argues that nations are fables humanity fictitiously construes in his novel, Imagined Communities. In the case of Argentina, Anderson would ask why residents of Buenos Aires and Jujuy, two states separated by hundreds of miles, would share a connection. Ernest Gellner, in his article “Nations and Nationalism,” echoes this sentiment of commonalities that create falsified connections between people. As Gellner points out, these unities can be religion or language; however, in the case of Argentina, as this paper will show, one of the strongest amalgamating bonds was football. Both scholars agree with the importance of communication and media throughout this process as well. Gellner arguing that familiar language and the ability to understand one another are essential in the formation of communities and consequently is where media begins to play a role. Modern states need a communication system to survive because the powers that be rely on communication as a medium for control. Anderson concurs with Gellner’s point by stating that media is therefore important for understanding this imagined connection. As Anderson articulates, the media is the medium that connects people, not just religion or language. The advent of print capitalism allows for growing numbers of people to connect with each other while realizing a shared national identity. The development of Argentina was no different. The media and communication played a significant role in the growth of the myth of nation; yet, it was not only the daily newspapers that contributed to this illusion, but also the media surrounding football that influenced said myth greatly.
Studying the history of mankind’s existence, the idea of nation is an exceptionally new thought. With that being said, we must also consider that not all nations were formed in the same way. The country in question, Argentina, was introduced to the idea of nation by their European colonizers. The reoccurring theme of commonalities in the development of nations reappears here again with the idea of anti-colonialism bringing together the natives of what would eventually become Argentina. Partha Chatterjee studies this correlation between imperialism, colonization and national identity. The mission of imperialistic ventures was to expand growing empires, part of which included imposing one’s culture and ideas on the newly found colonies. Mirroring the thoughts of Anderson in regard to sociological conditions not contributing to nations, she does point out that the imperialistic nature of colonies did bring a fictive yet familiar national identity along with its sociological values to these new regions of the world. With this another commonality arose throughout the colonies, an anti-colonial resistance felt amongst the indigenous people, which translated to a universal bond. The Spanish oppression upon the founding of Argentina followed by the large influx of English immigrants created a very anti-colonial and xenophobic feeling amongst the natives. In response, they created their own Creole identity that separated them from their European occupants. This Creole identity translated directly to football when, as will be explained in more detail later, a Creole style of football was created in response to the more traditional European technique of playing the game.
Understanding theories surrounding the formation of national identities as well as the specific anti-colonial feeling that was momentous in the configuration of Argentina’s identity are crucial in perceiving football’s role throughout this process. In 1870 half of the population of Argentina was first generation immigrants, the majority of who were from England (Goldblatt 135). While the English were not the first Europeans in Argentina, the English’s wealth and European roots allowed them to quickly rise to the top of the social hierarchy. Goldblatt conveys this factor by stating that “Argentina can seem like a former British colony, a Spanish-speaking version of Australia or India” (229). This is important because the colonial and imperialistic sentiments are still expressed by the Argentine natives in regard to the British, even though they were not the original colonizers. The British immigrants brought many aspects of English upper-class life to the new continent, including football. It is important to identify the history of Argentine football in the scheme of understanding Argentine nationalism because, as Gellner argues, history is contingent because the past determines the future, while the present carries their actions in such a way because of the past.
At first the game was reserved for the wealthy elites, the British immigrants; however, as time continued, the British saw the game as a way to convey their values, imperialistically, upon the Argentine natives through sport. This was not a unique phenomenon specific to the British occupation of Argentina. Arjun Appadurai, who studies the correlation between the British rule in India and cricket, makes very similar connections in other English colonies. Much like football in Argentina, cricket in India was used to convey a certain set of values subliminally through sport, “The values it represents are, at their heart, puritan ones, in which rigid adherence to external codes is part of the discipline of internal moral development…To some extent, all rule governed sport has some of this hard quality, but it is arguably more present in those competitive forms that come to encapsulate the core moral values of the society in which they are born” (Appadurai 90). The game was a condensation of Victorian elite values such as “sportsmanship, a sense of fair play, subordination of personal sentiments and interests to those of the group, unquestioned loyalty to the team” (Appadurai 92). It is important to understand that the rules governing the games, both cricket in India and football in Argentina, were used to set social norms and set social boundaries.
Cricket was seen as an ideal way to socialize natives into new modes of intergroup
conduct and new standards of public behavior…It evolved into an unofficial instrument of state cultural policy. This was largely due to the cultural commitments of those members of the Victorian elite who occupied key positions in Indian administration, education, and journalism, and who regarded cricket as the ideal way to transmit Victorian ideals of character and fitness to the colony (Appadurai 93).
The situation in Argentina was no different. Football, as the English played the game, was a very structured sport. The style was sophisticated, patient. One played as a unit and there were no individual stars. As Goldblatt argues, by introducing the game to the natives of Argentina the British hoped to create a norm of subordination and structure to control the social hierarchy in the country; however, the end result was drastically different from what the British intended.
As mentioned earlier, in response to the immigration of the British and the encroachment of tradition values by new English Victorian ideals, the natives of Argentina formed a new identity. This Creole identity extended to football as well. Instead of playing the structured, team style of English football, the Argentines developed Creole football. Based on the beliefs of individuality and creativity, this new style of football was created in rebellion to English imperialistic maneuvers to control the Argentine public (Foer 137). This Creole technique took hold as the flair and inventiveness that marked Argentine football during the introduction of the game are still trademarks of modern day Argentine and South American football. In 1893 the first professional fixture took place, and unbeknownst to the public of Argentina this new leisure activity would have deep rooted political and socioeconomic implications in the development of the country over the next century.
Two of Argentina’s main newspapers were formed during the onset of the twentieth century, both of which covered the sport of football extensively. La Nación and Clarin would continue to cover the sport as well as slowly take political sides. The former has always supported the more conservative positions while the latter would constantly support the more liberal, left side of the spectrum. Consequently, as local club teams began to form with political and socioeconomic ties themselves, the two newspapers began bias approaches to supporting certain teams (Foer 134). The two most popular clubs were River Plate and Boca Juniors. River derives its nickname, “Los Millionarios” (the millionaires), from the upper-class aristocrats who support them while Boca has traditionally been the team of the working class. As the political climate shifted throughout the century, the two newspapers did not shy away from using the teams as political propaganda (Foer 135).
Aside from the two main newspapers, there was another mainstream publication, El Gráfico. Created as a testament to the Creole style of football, El Gráfico was dedicated solely to football; however, at times the magazine would occasionally convey political or socioeconomic messages (Goldblatt 130). It was through this publication that the authors reemphasized a myth of national identity, “football’s organic intellectuals, who transformed the raw material of porteño (another Spanish term for Creole) football into an entire national mythology were primarily the staff of the magazine El Gráfico” (Goldblatt 203). Creole style was Argentina, and the media of Argentine football helped to convey that message. The term Creole itself was used to describe the indigenous people of South America, those that had no European roots. As mentioned before this style of football contradicted the European attempt to control the natives of what would one day become Argentina. While the Europeans preached structure, patience, team efforts, the Creole style rebelled by promoting an individual, fast paced game. Creole focused on the beauty of the game instead of the strategy their English occupants condoned. The game epitomized the Creole movement as an example of Argentine identity and it was “through the hands of the new popular press, like El Gráfico and the newspaper Clarin, a working mythology of a unique national playing style and identity had been articulated” (Goldblatt 267).
By understanding the history and implications of the colonization of Argentina, the introduction and significance of football in the country, as well as the new media that was formed in response to the sport, we can begin to study the specific events of the twentieth century that, through football, reinforced and bolstered what is today the myth of Argentine national identity. As David Goldblatt notes in “The Road to El Dorado: Latin American Football,” the cultural links between football and politics were forged from below in Argentina (265). Juan Peron was one of the most influential leaders of Argentina in the twentieth century. Elected President of the country on three separate occasions, his working class politics lead to the creation of the Peronist Party, which still thrives today over thirty years after his death (Turner 19). Peron wanted to appeal to the poor and his politics advocated modernization and nationality (Turner 23). As Goldblatt points out in his article “Demons and Angels: Latin American Football 1955-1974,” Peron was very vocal about his support of Boca, the working class team because his “supporters often demonstrated the ingrained cultural significance and popularity of football” (Goldblatt 384). After a successful first term, Peron was reelected in 1951 to a second stint in office; however, he was only three years into his second eight year term when controversial economic and religious changes forced Peron out of office (Turner 89). Yet there is still a connection to football. That same year, after years of success on the national level, the Argentine National Selection was embarrassed by a three to one loss in Halsingborg, Germany (Goldblatt 383). He continues to note that it is the “almost universal conclusion of political press and the football world was that Halsingborg was a failure of Modernization…shortly thereafter there was a subsequent defenestration of Peronista power” (383). As Argentina began to undergo drastic political and social changes, the football magazine El Gráfico continued to play an influential role in Argentine society.
Hidden in the texts of El Gráfico and the mainstream press is a metaphorical record of the deep social changes transforming Argentine youth. Old generational hierarchies, conservative forms of etiquette and cultural tastes had begun to dissolve the moment they encountered the egalitarian hedonism of the new pop cultures (Goldblatt 390-1).
Peron would be exiled from the country from 1955 until he returned to office for a brief term in 1973 (Turner 191). Conveniently coinciding with the downfall of the national football team, Peron’s loss of power and how Argentine identity was formed in the middle of the century cannot help but be explained by the football media.
The successors of Peron were not immune to the association between football and politics. A governor by the name of Carlos Menem, who in tried to oust Peron from his seat during his third term in a 1973 military coup, was a very conservative leader with visions of the presidency (Turner 218). In an attempt to gain a better grasp of the aristocratic vote he made his affiliation for the team nicknamed “the Millionaires” quite public. Unlike Peron, whose relationship with working class Boca was seen as a direct connection to the working class, Goldblatt argues that this move was actually political suicide. Shortly after magazines like El Gráfico denounced this tie as a forced falsification, Menem tried to save his own name and “to make up for his own folly, Menem ordered his daughter to be a Boca fan” (Goldblatt 229). Mistake aside, Menem maintained his seat in office until the military junta in 1976 and regained it with the termination of said junta in 1983 until his election to the Presidential office in 1989. Although not playing as significant a role as with Peron, football clearly still played a prevalent role within Menem’s discourse and therefore a ubiquitous role within Argentine politics.
The years following Peron’s exile were filled with political strife and turmoil. Over the course of those years, 1955-1982, five different presidents, none of whom served a full eight year term, as well as numerous military juntas ruled the country (Goldblatt 614). As the human rights violations and authoritarian power grew and began to dominate the political landscape of the country, the history and the records of events that occurred throughout the country became alarming. Between twenty and thirty thousand people suspected of subversive activities “disappeared” between 1964 and 1982(Goldblatt 617). Censorship within the country amongst journalists prevented the outside world from gaining a full understanding of the social and political events occurring daily throughout Argentina. It was in the midst of this disorder that Argentina was commissioned to host the 1978 World Cup, the most identifiable monumental international event outside of the Olympics. While there wasDespite censorship and every attempts was made by the ruling generals to keep prevent international knowledge of the localinternal travesties from reaching the outside world, news slowly began to leak. “A smashing Mundial (World Cup) won by Argentina, they reasoned, would make up for the occasional death at home. It was their chance to reunite the nation” (Goldblatt 610). Nationalism was fading as the country faced constant political stress and the harsh rule of the authoritarian military junta, who ich continued to violate human rights.
The World Cup was the generals’ chance to gain legitimacy in the world and reestablish their rule over the Argentine people. “The generals wanted to impress the world and quell any poor rumors via foreign journalists,”; they saw the sporting event as an opportunity the World Cup would be just the occasion to show their perception of Argentina , as they perceived it, to the world (Goldblatt 212). The juntaIt was made very clear to the Argentine journalists that they were not to criticize the Argentine team or the current socioeconomic or /political state of the country. One journalist remarked, “FFootball had become the center of everything. One couldn’t, because wasn’t allowed to, talk or write about anything else” (Signes 112). The generals had attained what they desired: ; the world’san international attention, focused on football audience, distracteding from the other atrocities occurring within the borders of the countryArgentina. The Argentine World Cup victory was not only a feat of athleticism, but also of nationalism
When Once the smoke had cleared and the world’s temporary occupation offascination with the country had ended, there were very dogmatic opinions of the event bothevent from both domestic and international standpointsdomestically and abroad. Argentina had accomplished their goal of winning the cup and national pride was at its highest since the days of Peron, states Goldblatt (624). So much soIn fact, sentiments were so strong that the Argentine generals almost attempted to parlayed the people’s feelings into action, specifically, an immediate war with England. With England still controlling the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) off the Ssouthern coast of Argentina, the generals planned to strike within months of their rousing World Cup victory, using the nationalistic fervorm created by said victory to gain public support. ; howeverHowever, extenuating circumstances arose and the invasion was delayed until 1982. Due to athletic victory accomplishments, Waning waning public opinions were overmatched by the new sense of national pride, and produced through the World Cup victory; enough that tthe dictators of the military junta dictators were able to stay in power for fivethe subsequent years. The public wholly embraced the fictive myth of national identity through a football team’s unanticipated triumph.by allowing the public to believe this fictive myth of national identity through a football team’s triumph (Kuper 224).
The results of the 1978 World Cup were not, however, all positive for the junta. The advent of foreign journalists as a portal to the outside world was not limited to the propaganda of the junta. As mentioned before, many of the details behind what exactly happened to the “disappeared” during those years had gone unexplained; when people went missing their families noticed and some decided to take action. One group was called the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The Plaza de Mayo is the main square in Buenos Aires where the house of the president, the Casa Rosada, sits. Every week at the same time, mothers of the disappeared would gather and protest to no avail, but as Kuper points out, they were not seen as a prominent risk as the journalists, so the mothers were usually left to themselves. When the foreign press arrived for the World Cup they were shown only the best of Argentina. Walls were built to hide the slums and visitors were given pampered treatment, which led many to write rave reviews of the country and its preparation for the world’s tournament, dispelling any troublesome rumors notes Kuper in his interviews with New York Times journalists who covered the event. In the end it was not the foreign press nor the rouge Argentine journalists risking death to inform the world of the travesties occurring throughout the country, but in fact, it was the protesting mothers, who took advantage of the influx of media coverage to expose the world to the real Argentina. “Ruling generals were subverted, however, by the leaders of the women’s group Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The women turned the media presence during the World Cup to their advantage, walking in protest throughout the city” (Bonafin 195). It was not just media, but football media, that brought about such political and social economic change throughout the country. International embargos were imposed on Argentina following the world’s education on the horrific events going on inside the country, forcing the country to limit its business with nations under other dictatorships, like Chile, Peru and Cuba (Bonafin 198). However, internally, a new fictive national identity was created through the sport of football that allowed these same dictators to remain in power for years to come.
While the stabilization of the Argentine government, creation of Peronism and modernization under Peron as well as the political turmoil, military coups and juntas that followed were the two most significant political periods in Argentina in the twentieth century, it does not mean that the implications of football, the media and politics does not still exist. El Gráfico did a comprehensive study in 1995 that showed a direct correlation between the national football team and the economy; when the Argentine Selection (if this a national team, say so = we unsoccer moms aren’t sure) is thriving so too is the economy (Goldblatt 800). It is also true that the socioeconomic connotations of one’s fan affiliation still continue to be River Plate for the upper class, while the working class still supports Boca Juniors. This is epitomized by the rise in politics of Mauricio Macri, the former boss of Boca and now Mayor of Buenos Aires (Keyes 3). “In 2005, after his success at Boca, Macri made his political debut when he ran for Head of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires with his neo-liberal party “Compromiso para el Cambio” (Commitment to Change)” (Ferrand 4). Playing the liberal side which appealed very much to the lower working class community, Marci was elected mayor in 2007 (Ferrand 4). Coincidentally, Ferrand argues though, that his politics did not change in 2005 when he lost the election to 2007; however, one key difference may have been the Boca victory in the South American Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious trophy a club team can win in the Americas. Ferrand points out that this theory was not his alone but shared amongst Argentine publications such as the newspaper press and El Gráfico. David Keyes’ article, “From Soccer to Politics,” which compares and contrasts other notable football figureheads now in prominent political office, that Marci has performed well and is actually favored to run for president. Arguing he may be the change that the country, now in its second recession in less than a decade, may need to right its proverbial ship. Even today, after over a hundred years after the game’s official beginning in Argentina, football continues to play a significant role in the socioeconomic and political cultures of the nation all while creating a national identity formed through the sport.
The idea of a national identity being a fictive entity constantly being created and developed through different mediums was established at the beginning of this paper. In the case of Argentina, the sport of football can begin to explain the formation of the Argentine national identity. As a colonized land, the implications and significance of said colonies plays a crucial role in understanding the basis of how imperialism plays into structuring this identity. And by studying the inference of sport as a means of imperialism in other parts of the world we were able to establish that this is not a rare phenomenon either. The Creole style of football developed as a rebellion to the imperialistic attempts of the European colonizers as a means to controlling the native population and instilling their values became a national identity. The idea to be Creole, to be different was to be Argentinean, was founded partially through football. Media was developed as a testament to it and throughout the twentieth century this mantra of Creole Argentine identity continued to define the fictive myth of Argentine nationalism. Football, media and politics began to entwine and become dependent on each other through both times of political stability and modernization, Peron, and political turmoil as was seen during the twenty years of military junta rule. Regardless of the time, football’s role and importance has remained constant. The belief of nationalism was used, through football, in tumultuous economic, political and social times as a pawn to unite and uplift the people. Even today, the founding principles behind Creole football and the Creole identity continue to exist in modern day Argentina through the current connections between football, politics, the media and the stories they tell. So when debating what created and continues to generate this myth of Argentine nationalism, one does not need to venture much farther than football to understand how this national identity was formed.