When sport meets politics in South America

. Nov 11, 2019
Estadio Nacional Chile Pinochet politics sports Santiago's Estadio Nacional. Photo archive

Hello and welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, with the news of the Copa Libertadores final being moved after protests in Chile, we look back on other times the beautiful game has been directly influenced by politics, in Brazil and around South America. Plus, there’s news of physical and verbal violence in Brazilian stadiums this week, and we keep up with Brazil’s women’s and under-17 squads. Happy reading!

When sport meets politics

As we suspected in last week’s Brazil Sports newsletter, the 2019 Copa Libertadores final will no longer be held in Santiago, amid the wave of public protests and conflict in the Chilean capital. As opposed to reverting to the two-legged final model, the South American football confederation (Conmebol) decided to move the deciding match to the Peruvian capital of Lima, holding the game at the famous Estadio Nacional of Peru.

Football around the world has always been influenced by politics, often acting as a reflection or opposition to the context of power at the contemporary moment. However, at some points in history, the two have clashed, with politics no longer playing a concealed behind-the-scenes role, and taking center stage in the beautiful game. Here are a few cases of politics invading the realm of sports in 20th century South America:

Football in a torture center

The American Red Cross estimates that over 20,000 prisoners were housed in the stadium. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)
Brutal politics: over 20,000 prisoners were housed in the stadium. Photo: Martin Bernetti/AFP

Ahead of the 1974 World Cup, Chile and the Soviet Union were to face each other in a qualification play-off, pitting the brutal far-right dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet against Soviet Communism. The second leg had been scheduled to be played in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional—the original venue for this year’s Libertadores final—on November 21, just two months after the Chilean military junta took power in a bloody coup d’etat. 

After reports that the stadium was being used as a detention and torture center by the Chilean army, the USSR demanded the match be relocated. Fifa inspected the stadium, with political prisoners hidden in the depths of the ground, and said the game should go ahead as planned. The Soviets refused to travel and the game took place, being stopped after 30 seconds and a walkover awarded to Chile.

President firing the manager

joão saldanha
João Saldanha’s politics cost him his job

Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team enchanted the globe with its superb, free-flowing football. It was also the first tournament to be widely broadcast in color in Europe, and the mystique of the national team and its iconic golden jerseys stole the hearts and minds of spectators at home. What many do not know, however, is that the Brazil 1970 side had very close ties to the country’s military dictatorship, and investments in World Cup preparations were seen as a regime strategy to show off the best Brazil could offer to nations around the world. The generals even had a direct say in national team matters, putting pressure on certain players to be selected, and even binning Brazil coach João Saldanha, a former journalist and staunchly left-wing critic of the military regime.

Saldanha was fired during preparations for the World Cup, with the football confederation claiming it was down to a disagreement between the coach and star forward Pelé. While the two had their differences—Saldanha speculated to the press that Pelé may have been going blind the month before—both denied any rift causing his removal. A fanciful yet unlikely excuse was that General Emilio Garrastazu Medici, Brazil’s dictator du jour, wanted João Saldanha to call up Atlético-MG striker Dário, better known as “Dadá Maravilha.”

Incensed at the pressure, Saldanha retorted saying that he was in charge of picking the team, and that he didn’t pick Medici’s cabinet ministers. In reality, however, Saldanha was fired because of what he represented. Brazil at the World Cup had to be seen as a celebration of the country, an extension of its military government. João Saldanha was an outspoken communist and, in the eyes of the generals, he had to go.

Argentina 1978. The idea of using football as a way to sugarcoat a brutal military dictatorship was copied by Brazil’s neighbors Argentina, when they hosted the World Cup of 1978. Despite complaints of numerous human rights abuses committed by the military junta, Fifa saw no problem in hosting the tournament in Argentina—unsurprising after giving a Chilean torture center the go-ahead to host a football match just five years prior.

Argentina 1978 World Cup - Sports and Politics
Politics invade the stadium: Argentina’s dictator Jorge Rafael Videla presents the World Cup trophy

The 1978 World Cup was, for the most part, one long piece of propaganda. Football dignitaries gushed over the country and no-one dared mention the thousands of political prisoners disappeared by the junta, some which were held in the neighborhood surrounding the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires.

On the pitch, Argentina coincidentally ended up as world champions, amid dozens of calls of foul play. The most contested result of the tournament was the host nation’s 6-0 win over Chile in the tournament’s second round, a match in which Argentina conveniently needed to win by a margin of four goals in order to progress.

Goal of the Week

In a difficult away win over Chapecoense, Grêmio forward Luciano came up with a lovely piece of skill to open the scoring. On the receiving end of a well-judged headed knock-on from his team-mate, he pulled off a powerful bicycle kick which smashed into the back of the net. Beyond the honor of being chosen as the Brazil Sports newsletter’s Goal of the Week, Luciano will receive another prize for his overhead kick. In May last year, Grêmio coach Renato Gaúcho said he would buy a car for any of his players who managed to score a bicycle kick in a competitive match. Asked about his promise on Sunday evening, Renato confirmed that he would come through with his side of the deal. “But remember, I only promised them a compact car.” 

What else you should know

Série A. Flamengo took another big step toward the league title after two difficult wins last week. Against rivals Botafogo midweek, they were put under the cosh for the first time this season, but a second-half red card for their opponents allowed them to nick a 1-0 win. With Palmeiras’ 1-1 draw on Saturday against rivals Corinthians, Flamengo’s lead is now 10 points, and they could seal the title as early as this weekend.

International Tournament of China. Brazil’s women’s football team lost in the final of the International Tournament of China against the host nation. 0-0 in normal time, Brazil were beaten 4-2 on penalties, the same fate as a recent tournament in São Paulo, when Brazil lost to Chile on spot-kicks. The performance was underwhelming, with Brazil struggling to create changes and losing control of proceedings in the second half, being fortunate to make it to the final whistle without conceding. On the plus side, Brazil have yet to lose a match in regulation time since Swedish coach Pia Sundhage took the reins. The mood is positive on the training ground and all attention is on next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Behind enemy lines. Last week, we had a few outrageous incidents of fan violence inside the stadium at a major derby match in Rio de Janeiro. Fans of Botafogo, hosting leaders Flamengo in the crucial match mentioned above, were convinced that a number of visiting fans had made their way into the home end, after Flamengo had sold out their ticket allocation. Several videos surfaced on social media of football fans being assaulted, under the pretext that they were infiltrated Flamengo fans. Reportedly, one organized Botafogo fan group decided to police the supporters around them, for anyone who looked suspiciously “non-Botafogo.” In these cases, groups would seize the cellphone of the “suspect,” and verify whether they were a part of any Flamengo fan WhatsApp groups. One of the victims of the many shocking videos online turned out to be a Botafogo fan after all.

Racism. More shocking news from inside Brazilian football stadiums. After Sunday’s Belo Horizonte derby between Atlético-MG and Cruzeiro, which finished goalless, footage surfaced of one home fan racially abusing a security guard. After incidents in the stadium, one black security guard was filmed shepherding Atlético fans to within their sector, to which one supporter replied incredulously: “Are you putting your hands on me? Look at your color, you faggot!” The confrontation occurred after some members of the home support had invaded an area of executive boxes reserved for Cruzeiro fans, causing security to hold some sections of the stadium back after the final whistle.

U17s. Later today, Brazil will face Italy in the quarter-finals of the U17 World Cup. After breezing through the group stage, the country’s youngsters were nearly caught cold in the last 16, squeezing their way past Chile, coming back from 2-1 down to win 3-2. Brazil will now be without their headline performer, however, as winger Thalles Magno picked up a thigh injury and has been sent back to his club, Vasco da Gama.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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