MEXICO CITY — Every four years, the world offers us a respite from our personal and national problems, a month of immersion in the fantasy of vicarious, ritual confrontation known as the World Cup.
But sometimes the game is not an innocuous ritual. It can encourage repugnant surges of extreme nationalism, local chauvinism and racism, and serve as a smokescreen for underlying horrors. This happened in the Argentine triumph of 1978, when critical World Cup games were being played on a field while in an underground prison nearby people kidnapped by the military junta were being tortured, raped and eventually murdered. In 1969, rioting after a qualifying round between Honduras and El Salvador helped trigger the so-called Soccer War. Economic tensions may have been the real cause, but soccer provided the fuse.
There’s little doubt that entrusting the destiny of a nation to 11 young men chasing a ball can fuel ridiculous illusions. (“Why not give each one a ball and there will be no more problems,” Jorge Luis Borges famously asked.) Nevertheless, in this world of violence and discord, the World Cup can provide a welcome parenthesis, a chance to meditate on the beautiful game, and how it reflects relations between people, cultures and nations.
In my country, Mexico, soccer was imported by English miners at the end of the 19th century, but its extraordinary rise in popularity began in the 1950s and ’60s. Before then, baseball was its strongest rival, a sport imported by American oil, mining and railroad companies, mostly located along the northern border, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast. Baseball’s popularity, however, was tarnished by America’s less-benign intentions. In Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama and elsewhere in Central America, it was fostered after the various incursions (beginning in 1914) of the U.S. Marines, and came to represent — at least partially — the ambiguous relation of these countries with Washington. Their people came to love the game, but hated the U.S. military presence.
In South America, there were never any U.S. Marines, nor was there any interest in baseball (except for in Venezuela). As the major enclave of English commercial penetration into Latin America, Argentina and its neighbor Uruguay imported English football near the turn of the 20th century. Both countries practiced the game with great success, imprinting it with a new emphasis on dribbling the ball, a pattern of cleverness and movement that somewhat resembled the tango and had nothing to do with the austere and rather rough-house style of the English. The Britannic origins of the sport showed in the names of some of the major teams: Boca Juniors, Racing, Newell’s Old Boys, River Plate (instead of the Spanish Río de la Plata.)
Tiny Uruguay organized the World Cup in 1930, and in 1950 defeated Brazil 2-1, a loss remembered in Brazil as “the tragedy of Maracanã.” The defeat at the stadium in Rio set off a wave of suicides in Brazil, where soccer had become thoroughly integrated into popular culture, alongside the samba and the Carnival. But with the arrival of Pelé in 1958, the Brazilians — with their incomparable rhythms and magical play-making — won several World Cups.
Some Andean countries — Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia — came much later to soccer, but they played it well. The same was true for Chile and Paraguay, where the lingering influence of ancient indigenous cultures may have lent a quality of vigor and stoicism to their style. Colombia resembled Brazil, in that its players seemed to dance their classic cumbia with the ball, though less extravagantly than the Brazilians. Venezuela remained fundamentally a baseball country, although in recent years it has produced good national soccer teams. But where baseball rules in Latin America, it can be difficult to displace it. We should remember that before his vision of becoming a leader of the new Third World, Hugo Chávez dreamed of becoming a major league pitcher in the United States.
In Mexico today, all other sports and spectacles (baseball, boxing, American football, bullfights and cockfights) pale before the popularity of fútbol. Every devotee treasures his memories of the World Cup. I remember as a child listening on a transistor radio to Mexico’s first World Cup goal in Sweden (1958), and later witnessing some of our victories and heartbreaking defeats. And I remember — during the 2006 World Cup — my sons sitting in a stadium in Nuremberg, where 25,000 of the 40,000 spectators were Mexicans who cried “Olé” every time our national team passed the ball ahead.
Among the various reasons for the popularity of soccer in Mexico, there is one that may stem from our history. Before the Spanish Conquest, indigenous peoples in various regions of the country played a game in which the objective was to strike a very hard ball of rubber through a small stone ring inserted vertically into a wall. The body (mainly the hip) was used as a striking surface but never the hands. Just as now, the game was cheered on by spectators, but it often ended with the ritual sacrifice of one of the teams. The game was seen as a metaphor for a cosmic battle among the sun and the moon and the stars.
Centuries have passed and, fortunately, death is no longer a sequel to the game. But fútbol’s great importance in Mexico shows in our reactions to victory or defeat: joy and exultation, or despair to the degree of collective depression.
All through Mexico, Sunday after Sunday, pick-up or semi-professional teams use vacant spaces (called llanos) to play fútbol llanero, the equivalent of American sandlot football. It is a kind of social blessing, in which time and troubles seem to be forgotten.
At the international level, Mexico has not scored enough goals. But there is always hope for the future. And even if Mexico doesn’t do well, we can draw consolation from the possible victory of Brazil (a team we have adored since the days of Pelé) or Spain (whose national leagues we closely follow) or even Argentina (which has sent so many star players to Mexico and Europe).
But Mexicans would not celebrate a triumph by the United States team. The North American Free Trade Agreement may have brought the two countries closer together, but sympathy has its limits. And yet a rather brilliant idea has been suggested. As South Korea and Japan jointly sponsored the World Cup in 2002, why don’t we — the United States and Mexico — jointly organize the Mundial of 2026?