Football is important in South America. Whenever traffic is a little bit less chaotic, I know that a football match is being broadcast and keeps people off the streets. But after the match, they will make up for it by cruising around town in honking cars, waving flags and setting off fireworks.
And not only for the World Cup, but also for Copa América, the American championship of national teams, and for Copa Libertadores, CONCACAF Champions League, Copa Sudamerican, Recopa Sudamericana, Copa Aldao, Campeonato Sudamericana de Campeones, Supercopa and Copa Master Supercopa Libertadores (championships for clubs, something like the Champions League, but a multiple of it). Due to the number of competitions, there is at least one match every day. If a club loses, it’s really not a big deal, as it will qualify for a different championship the week after.
In addition to international ones there are of course regional, national, binational and multinational championships like the cup of the teams from the South Andes or the relegation of the third-placed teams in the north-eastern quadrant of the Amazon. Then there are school, university, union, police, army, navy, air force, customs, church, kindergarten, miners’ and bus drivers’ championships, each of them at the local, regional, national, binational, multinational and international level, of course. In different age groups. And don’t forget to double the whole thing for men and women.
This is complicated even more by the fact that many universities and companies, but also some municipalities, have different clubs that are distinguished by their political orientation. Let’s look at the team of third-semester sociology students at the University of Buenos Aires who are supportive of the current government, for example. They face tournaments against (a) the anti-government, (b) liberal, (c) socialist and (d) anarchist teams of the same semester of the same faculty of the same university, (e) the teams of other semesters of the same faculty of the same university, (f) the teams of the same semester, but of different faculties of the same university, (g) the teams of other sociological faculties of other universities in Buenos Aires, with different championships for (h) state (i) and private universities, (j) the winners of which will of course meet for a super cup, after which the whole process is repeated at the (k) regional, (l) national, (m) binational, (n) multinational (o) and international level.
For students in the fourth semester, there is a completely independent calendar of tournaments, so the whole process has to be completed within half a year. Because it already takes you more than a week to travel from Buenos Aires to Bogotá by bus, there is hardly any time left for studying or for work. The political rivalry makes winning even more important than it usually is, so the teams exercise in the park or on the roof of a skyscraper every morning and every night. When I point out the negative effects on economic and academic productivity, people reply: “But look at Germany! You are football and export champions at the same time.”
But not only the players, the fans, too, sacrifice their whole life. In Cochabamba in Bolivia, I shared the house with a guy who is a fan of CA River Plate from Argentina. He is constantly criss-crossing the continent to watch the matches of his adored team. If that doesn’t work, he is glued to the television. A few weeks ago, I met him again in La Paz and he told me about a friend from Uruguay, whose team qualified for one of these international competitions for the first time. To be able to afford the trips and the tickets, that man sold his house. The wife and the children had to move in with the grandparents.
There are even organ donation circles among the fans of the same club. When a fan of LDU Quito needs a kidney, chances are that he’ll receive one from a fellow fan. But that donor would never allow himself to be cut open for a fan of CD Clan Juvenil, even if that person was his brother.
All of this would be funny, but my loyal readers already expect me to give it a serious turn. Rightfully so. It makes me sad to watch millions of children kicking a ball on the street or in a park all afternoon, each of them dreaming of making it onto the national team or being bought by Bayern München or Inter Milano. That won’t work out in most cases. The likelihood to succeed in that way is far lower than that of being academically successful, if only the youngsters would spend their useless football afternoons at the library instead. By focusing on education, they would have much more influence on their own success than by hoping that an agent will pass through the favela one day. But the celebrity cult surrounding the players, the constant media presence of football, the overestimation of sports and the undervaluation of lawyers and historians provide wrong incentives.
Lastly, I suggest that one of the next World Cups will be played in Bolivia. The stadium in La Paz is at an altitude of 3637 m, that will show the teams from the lowlands who’s boss. Here, Bolivia already won against Brazil (2:0) and Argentina (6:1). European teams are too scared to even show up.