Football in South America

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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.

football bolivia
In Bolivia, people build the football pitch before they build the town.

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 SudamericanRecopa 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.

football field San Jose de Chiquitos.JPG
View: awesome. Quality of the pitch: Well…

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.”

football field Sacaba
After hiking in Tunari National Park for three hours: a football pitch.

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.

football floating island
A football pitch on reed in Lake Titicaca. The players arrive by boat.

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.

In Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.

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.

goal Chacaltaya.JPG
On Chacaltaya (5200 m), I saw the highest football pitch ever.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Photography, Politics, Sports, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Football in South America

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  2. David Rosenbaum says:

    The interjection of politics into sports is what turns me off to European football.

    In the US, that kind of thing is pretty much non-existent – so much so that your average American can’t comprehend the whole strange business.

    • I have to say I am generally turned off by team sports because the “fight” between two groups with distinct “uniforms” and flags and hymns where you can only win by “destroying” the other always reminds me of fascism. We do see unquestioning loyalty to their teams by fans on all continents, whether their teams play fair or not, it’s “their” team.
      Sometimes I wonder if that hasn’t seeped into politics too much.

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  6. Great job mate – never knew the full extent of football on the continent outside of club teams. That alone is difficult to perceive!

    Very interesting thoughts regarding young boys focusing on playing football rather than their studies. In Johan Cruyff’s autobiography, he mentioned that in the United States, sport and academics were linked. The top athletes in their given sport also succeeded academically and earned scholarships to Universities where they progress from. The best players are highly intelligent people – they have to be – in order to play at the top level. Placing a balance in approach to football and academics could alleviate such societal issues going forward.

    Keep up the good work!!

    • Thank you!
      I feel like too many top players (not only in football) don’t stress training, discipline and a healthy diet, bu tshow off their wealth and girlfriends, thus giving kids a wrong impression of what is important.

  7. Joe Haslam says:

    Great piece and very interesting

  8. I loved your article. Can I make some comments?

    1. “If a club loses, it’s really not a big deal, as it will qualify for a different championship the week after”. In fact it was so funny to read but I need to disagree. Each South American country have the own interpretation about the championships, here in Brazil we have a hierarchy between them. For example, Copa Sul-Americana is less important than Libertadores da América (by the way, this name is amazing to this side of world). My team – Corinthians – suffered bullying because we just won it after 100 year of existence, haha. Libertatores > any championship. In fact, even comparing national competition and local team championships, Libertadores is the second more important championship, just less important than World Cup. Remember the final between River x Boca (by the way 2, I think was offensive do the final in SPAIN. Come on, guys, the name of Libertadores is in honor of guys who kicked out the colonizers and they do the final in the colonizers land… frankly…). My point is, if you lose sul-américa is bad but ok. If you lose Libertadores, the Mercosul become even shaken up.

    2. I understand your critic about favela and football and I share it. But I want to put out another perspective. Here in favela – I have been living in favelas all my life – the football is the way that we created not only to have fun but we create others feelings like fellowship and community sense.
    Here EVERY kid play it, we don’t have separation between girls and boys.
    Here we have Várzea Championship, all favelas participate with the teams and it is a commotion (almost so important like Libertadores), people stop everything to watch and after each game we do confraternization parties.
    Here the fields to football are treated like temples and NO ONE can building houses or use it in wrong way.
    I don’t want to romanticize the football but at same time it is our solution to give some pleasure to kids and reliefs to adults. We don’t have ANY cultural places, we don’t have good schools. The State doesn’t look at us. We need to live with what we have.
    Now the challenge is cross give education with pleasure from football. Not easy, but some people are trying to introduce this perpective to kids.

    Ok. I am prolix. Sorry for long comment and for English mistakes (I learn it alone for 2 years and sometimes it is more painful than lose Libertadore).

    • Thank you so much for your insightful comments, Maiara!

      1. Here I can’t add anything, because I obviously didn’t quite understand the system. I only lived in South America for 18 months or so, which was not enough to learn all the complexities of football.

      But good point on the Libertadores Cup final being played in Spain!

      2. I am very thankful for you taking the time to explain a situation which I obviously didn’t know anything about. It has enlightened me and I hope it will enlighten some of my readers.

      I grew up where there were other choices, from just playing in the forest to a good library. Probably some other sports, too, but I was never into that.

      But thank you again for your comment, which showed that however much I think I understand, there is always more to see and learn and understand.

    • It is my pleasure to read your articles. This one, specially, because I really like football and as a proto-sociologist (I am still studying) I think this sport can show a lot of behaviours of society. For example, even if football is the most popular sport here and a lot of people enjoy it, you can see more poor women participating as supporters than rich women. Maybe (just a hypothesis) it happens because in poor neighborhoods we don’t have the separation between “boys stuffs” and “girls stuffs” so girls grow up enjoying it if they want.
      I think we can have a lot of ideas from observation of football.

      Aside my enthusiasm, I want to thank you for your articles. I really enjoy everyone I read so far.
      And reading you I feel even a desire to write too. You are inspiration :)

    • I am studying history at the moment, but I am already thinking of studying sociology next. :-)

      And I agree, football is a really good field for research and analysis because it’s very widely played, the (basic) rules are easy, it’s open to many people because you don’t need expensive equipment, and it’s played around the world.
      Your hypothesis makes sense. I can also imagine that some of it is about signaling. Rich people want to show that they are rich, so they distance themselves from the masses and especially from a sport with low entrance barriers. They feel like they have to watch polo or golf, even though it’s boring. (Maybe they secretly watch football at home.)
      Politicians on the other hand may want to go to football matches to show that the are “normal people”, even if they are not interested.
      Then there is the football-as-religion theory.

      I myself, maybe because I am a budding historian and from Germany, sometimes feel reminded of fascism when I see football fans (at professional matches). The uniforms, the shouting, the idolization, the eager deferral of the individual for the sake of the mass, the glorification of fighting and the denigration of opponents.

      Maybe I could even venture and posit the theory that countries with a strong culture on team sports (Brazil and USA for example) end up having a footballized political system with two teams fighting each other to the death. Whereas countries that emphasize sports like chess have a political system where everyone sits together and thinks. I mean, in Armenia, even during the last revolution nobody got hurt.
      But no, I concede that this is overly simplistic.

    • And I usually don’t tell people they should write because there is already too much being written every day. But I think your insight, experience and outlook would indeed bring something special.

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