The Beautiful Game and Golazo

The end of a fairly fiddly week. I wandered into Uni again for the Sports Fair to meet the new cricket committee. I’m coaching the men’s team as well, so it was good to catch up with a few old friends and meet some of the new lads. Looking forward to the first training session and talent spotting on Sunday and indoor matches on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Registration process was happily nice and swift and I have my Uni card. To celebrate I headed straight to Western Bank and the IC to hit the shelves and came back with various books on general Latin American football history (The Beautiful Game, Golazo, The Ball is Round, From Frontiers to Football), some books about sporting nationalism in Latin America (Sports and Nationalism in Latin/o America and Futbologías...) and rather more dully, nation theory (Imagined Communities, In the Shadow of the State, Remaking the nation and Banal Nationalism).

Before embarking on opening the pages of these fine tomes, I thought it best to get some admin done. I read through and completed the Fire training and Out of hours training online courses (both necessary and sensible), but then there was the Desk and Screen awareness course. I have scarcely read through a greater load of utter bollocks than this before. Although I can understand concerns about not wanting students and staff to pick up injuries, I hardly think that having a section about ideal mouse mat positions and not glare desk surfaces is something we should have to complete. Absurd, risible and ‘health and safety gone more than a little bit mad.’ Oh well so be it.

My first reading was on ‘The Beautiful Game’ by Chris Taylor. This is an enjoyable book written around the time of qualifying for the France 1998 World Cup and has a chapter by chapter analysis on various nations and the convergence of footballing and historial issues. This allows Taylor to explore issues such as Blacks in football, political interference in football, national and regional rivalries, the South American diaspora and their footballing needs and of course, in the case of Colombia, drug trafficking and criminality. Of all the chapters, I think I perhaps most enjoy the Uruguay one, perhaps the first great World football team that won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928 before staging and winning the first World Cup in 1930. It seems inconceivable that such a small and unheard of nation at the time could have so impressed the world, so short a time after football was introduced to the nation by British elites (and to a lesser extent, sailors).

The Colombian chapter is more predictable for those of us in the know. There are a few unsubstantiated claims (did M-19 really ask for their ball back before storming the Dominican embassy in Bogotá – I can’t find any evidence or mention of this story elsewhere at the moment though I will continue to look) but the stories of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha interference in Colombian league teams and the success, violence and accusations around them are interesting. It will be a source I will go back to when writing my book, more than writing my thesis. Andrés Escobar and his death of course is mentioned too, as well as the various other deaths of referees, directors and those of the public in the celebrations around the 5-0 victory against Argentina. I’ve read it before obviously, and it didn’t really suggest any new questions or angles to explore that I haven’t already considered for my thesis, which is good news.

Happily though, having started to read Andreas Campomar’s ‘Golazo’, a couple of points did come up almost straight away, as seen below in these two quotes:

“As with many small nations, Uruguay has developed an exaggerated sense of self.”

“‘The beautiful game’ has achieved what a succession of third-rate dictators and craven presidents have never been able to do: to instil the continent with a sense of self-belief and historical narrative of which it can be proud, and thereby cast off those heavy shackles of colonialism.”

The first quote is worth considering in the Colombian context. Colombia is a relatively large country in South America, but has always seen itself, or perhaps been placed by other Latin American nations, on a secondary level. The likes of Argentina and Chile certainly developed economically more quickly, and saw themselves as more ‘European’ compared to the Andean nations in particular. On a sporting front, Colombia does not have the same sense of jerarquía as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay who for such a long time dominated the continental football, and gained international triumphs that allowed the nations and their citizens to gain a sense of achievement and hierarchy over the likes of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay who have struggled to make a mark continentally and globally.

Colombia then, and their citizens have perhaps struggled to create a sense of ‘self’, or an self importance. Colombia has its geographical, economic, racial, linguistic and historical fissures and schisms which substantially contribute to this failure to build ‘colombianidad’ and to have national pride. With the country for so long being more famous for periods of violence, and latterly for the drug trade and violence and corruption, there have been few national successes which can help to create a national identity, and an imagined horizontal community. Shame and suspicion have been more unifying national attributes. Perhaps this historical national self-characterisation and how they were stereotyped internationally, explains why when success finally came with the 5-0 win in September 1993, the exaggerated sense of self and self aggrandisement that was created by press and politicians in particular was so vehement. They became the parvenus on the international stage, cocky upstarts that resented criticism of their national team as other South Americans being jealous of their success. After being put down and ridiculed for so long, it was time for Colombians to become the cocks of the walk. This arrogance and pride in their team, a fragile construction at best masking the ever present social and political violence, as well as being built on drug money, were shattered as we know following the losses to Romania and the USA in the 1994 World Cup, as well as Andrés Escobar’s murder.

The second quote below does summarise why football has been so fundamental to the nation building projects in Latin America. Populist politicians will come and go across the continent from Ushuaia to San Andrés island, and their great claims for social advancement and national improvements will come and go with them, but football will always be there to cut across the rifts that exist in every country, whatever these may be. Few have faith in these politicians, suspicions of corruption and self interest in the political classes are entrenched, but football is a source of hope, pride, unity and social transformation and advancement. When Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil et al can claim to be the very best, or to have the very best players, this is something they can believe in. Disappointments and defeats are inevitable, and are painful, but at least there is more of a chance for associated glory.

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