BAS editor Stephen M. Hart
In this essay I intend to draw on some of the initial ideas expressed in my powerpoint presentation on Latin American football and its connections with the communications industry, via the leitmotif of Maradona’s famous dictum “La pelota no se mancha” (“El fútbol y el cine: un parentesco íntimo”, BAS 3.1 [November 2019]), while focussing on the question of colonialism in Latin American football.
It should be said that my approach differs from that adopted by Matthew Brown in his excellent book, From Frontiers to Football: An Alternative History of Latin America since 1800 (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), in which he intersperses narratives about the growth of football in the countries of Latin America with stories about how different countries achieved independence. But I do draw on his identification of football’s role in the construction of cultural identity, as suggested in the following quote from the book:
Football prospered as the dominant sport in most South American countries. The reason often given is that it was cheap to play and easy to organise an informal match in public spaces, unlike more complicated games or those which required specialized equipment. The arrival of international sport in Latin America, and the rapid increases in speed of communication technology (especially railways and steamships), enabled the establishment of national leagues and, soon after, international tournaments. In Latin America these changes took place at the same time as the growth of nationalism and the spread of urbanization, so sport acquired a special, central place in the construction of national identities and in the ways that Latin American countries represented themselves to the world. (Brown, p. 108)
My essay is inspired by the outburst of enthusiasm and fandom that occurred in Latin America and across the world when the news of Pelé’s death broke on 29 December 2022. He was called the ‘King of Football’ by Globo (https://g1.globo.com/sp/sao-paulo/noticia/2022/12/29/pele-atleta-do-seculo-morre-em-sao-paulo-aos-82-anos.ghtml) and ‘arguably the greatest player ever’ by the BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/42751517).
I want to focus on football as a cipher through which Europe and Latin America continue to re-fashion their respective cultural identities. Just 11 days before Pelé’s death we saw the giants of Latin America, Argentina, led by Lionel Messi, take on the giants of Europe, France, in a World Cup Final which many have called the greatest game of all time. Argentina beat France with a 3-3 (4-2 penalty) final score and, no doubt as a result of this match, Qatar 2022 was selected as the best FIFA World Cup this century in a BBC poll, winning a mind-blowing 78% of the vote (Qatar 2022 voted best FIFA World Cup of 21st century | Mint (livemint.com)).
Can we see December 2022 as the time when Latin America finally blew the whistle on European dominance? If so, what were the ingredients that led to Latin America’s “freedom”?
A key ingredient of Latin America’s “freedom”, of course, was its exploitation of football’s informality. Football is, of course, a relatively informal game, in that it has fewer rules than, say, cricket, bridge or chess. The most complex thing it deals with is the off-side rule, followed closely by whether a foul merits a yellow card or a red card. That’s about it. To clarify things still further, VAR has been introduced, although the jury is out as to whether VAR really has simplified things (see https://mastersoccermind.com/pros-and-cons-of-var-use-of-technology-in-soccer/).
This informality – when it arrived in Latin America, via Argentina, in the 1880s – led to what has become known as, for want of a better term, the “creolization” of European football, a process that most historians see as occurring during the 1910s-1920s. Eduardo Galeano describes this process in poetic terms. Creolization was
… a home-grown way of playing soccer, like the home-grown way of dancing which was being invented in the milonga clubs. Dancers drew filigrees on a single floor tile, and soccer players created their own language in that tiny space where they chose to retain and possess the ball rather than kick it, as if their feet were hands braiding the leather. On the feet of the first creole virtuosos el toque, the touch, was born. The ball was strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music. (Soccer in Sun and Shadow, translated by Mark Fried (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 30-31)
Football was wrenched from English hands, where it had simply been a game based on disciplined exercise, and was transformed into an art-form. The “touch”, as Galeano suggests, was born. The expression “cuidar la pelota” came into being, suggesting almost a caressing of the ball, playing with it, rather than using it to win the game. Winning, indeed, would come later on for the Latin Americans.
This informality led to some innovations, such as the “chilena”. This technique, known in English as the “overhead kick” or the “bicycle kick”, was acrobatic, unexpected and highly dangerous, all rolled into one. Though the jury is out as to whether this technique really was a Latin American phenomenon, Galeano argues that it was, and, indeed, that it was invented in Chile in 1914. Here’s what Galeano suggests:
Ramón Unzaga invented the move on the field of the Chilean port Talcahuano: body in the air, back towards the ground, he shot the ball backwards with a sudden snap of his legs, like scissor blades.
But it was not only the “chilena” that had an impact on the development of football around the world. The creolization of football led to what might be described as the pinnacle of Latin American inventiveness, the “autopase”. A literal translation of this word is “self-pass”, but it means much more than this. It describes the football move that occurs when the player (say a winger) passes the ball to a player on the other team (say a defender), confuses him in the process, and then takes it back off him and runs round him. Diego Maradona was a past master in the use of this technique, and, although he is normally remembered for his “Mano de Dios” goal, he used the “autopase” to devastating effect in the 1986 World Cup when Argentina knocked England out of the competition.
But what was the most important consequence of Latin America’s footballing informality? The answer, of course, is individual stars like Edson Arantes do Nascimento – better known as Pelé – Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Pelé, Maradona and Messi regularly appear in polls on the top five best-ever players, and their achievements are self-evident: Pelé scored 1,261 goals in his career, is the only player to lift the World Cup three times (in 1958, 1962 and 1970) and Brazil declared three days of mourning when he died. Maradona won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986, he helped Barça win three Spanish cups (the Spanish Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the Spanish League Cup), he single-handedly helped Napoli win five cups (Italian Champions twice, the Italian Cup, the Italian Super Cup, and the UEFA Cup), and he is often acclaimed as the greatest dribbler of all time. Messi has won the Golden Boot nine times, and, after captaining his country and leading them to victory in the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, he has been ranked by 90 Minutes as the “greatest player of all time” (https://www.90min.com/posts/50-greatest-footballers-all-time-ranked).
It is tempting, of course, to see the dominance of European clubs – particularly the UK’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga – as typifying the continuation of the chains of “economic dependency” whereby the talent of Latin America is being exploited by Europe. Thus Enzo Fernández, one of the stars of Argentina’s winning World Cup squad, has just signed for Chelsea in a record deal worth £106m. However, it is just as easy to argue that the players are the ones who are running the show.
What do you think? Please let us know by filling in the BAS three-question vote. You can send in your answers via Contact Us in the menu bar at the top of your screen (using the comment box), or email them to email@example.com
Thank you, and sigue la pelota.
|Is Pelé the world’s best-ever player?||YES||NO|
|Are European clubs exploiting Latin American players?||YES||NO|
|Was the “overhead kick” invented in Latin America?||YES||NO|