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Across Latin American history, soccer rivalries -- spanning national borders and neighborhood boundaries -- have had an outsize influence on politics and identity. As Brazil prepares to host the 20th FIFA World Cup, we explore how the "beautiful game" arrived in South and Central America.
Why do soccer fans in Latin America take the sport so seriously?
Brazilian scholars have described soccer as their country's "secular religion." The dominant countries of South American soccer all have national styles of play: Argentina has "la nuestra," Brazil has "futebol arte,"and Uruguay has the "garra charrua"—tactics and movements that are said to reflect the countries' unique histories of trade and immigration. El Salvador and Honduras once went to war after a highly-contested World Cup qualifier, a conflict known as the "Football War".
In his new book, author Joshua Nadel says the key to understanding the passion of Latin American soccer is history:
"It arrived ... in late 1800s, just as the countries of the region were beginning to consolidate themselves as modern nations. Massive immigration from Europe altered the demography and with it some of the “traditional” social norms. Immigrants helped to grow the popularity of soccer, just as the sport aided in integrating new populations into the nation. New constitutions offered new rights. Men and women, people from all social classes, agitated for more inclusive notions of citizenship, in so doing changing Latin American self-perception. Many of these changes were intended to make Latin America look more like Europe, both socially and culturally. At the time, national leaders in the region tried to superimpose a modern European mentality in their nations. These ideas were supposed to life the countries of the region ... and they revealed something of an inferiority complex in the region ...
Soccer and county became fused in the minds of many so that sport came to embody the nation. As a result, modern Latin American nations and soccer grew and evolved together. Soccer clubs and stadiums acted as spaces where Latin American societies could grapple with the complexities of nationhood, citizenship, politics, gender and race.
Many of these national myths and narratives will be on display when play begins in the 20th FIFA World Cup next month, especially for the "big three" of Latin American soccer: host Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
The Brazilian team will be under intense pressure, not just to win the competition, but to do so in a style that reflects the ethos of "Futebol Arte." Nadel says the idea of a Brazilian soccer style can be traced to the 1930s, a period of time also ripe with debate about racial integration and the country's African roots. After a strong showing in the 1938 World Cup:
"Brazilian and foreign commentators noted that Brazil not only played well but also played a unique brand of soccer never before seen on the field of Europe. It was, they said, a distinctly Brazilian style based largely on the play of Brazilians of African descent. According to one of Brazil's most important intellectuals of the twentieth century, Gilberto Freyre, the team played a mulatto football. "Brazilians," Freyre suggested, played soccer, "as if it were a dance."
During this period, words like "cunning, art, musicality, ginga (swing), and spontaneity" became attached to the Brazilian game.
While these racial stereotypes served to project a mostly positive vision of multiculturalism, they cut both ways. Indeed, Afro-Brazilian players were scapegoated for failures by the national team, which were attributed to their lack of organization and focus.
The most infamous game in Brazilian soccer history—known as "The Marcanazo"—took place on July 15, 1950. Brazil lost the World Cup final to Uruguay at home . The loss, paired with a similarly disappointing showing in 1954's World Cup, prompted rounds of national soul-searching.
It was not until 1958, when a young Afro-Brazilian star named Pele led Brazil to a world championship and global fame, that the ghosts of 1950 were "laid to rest" in Brazil. But the Maracanzo remains a potent symbol for Brazilian and Uruguayan soccer fans alike.
In 2014, soccer will once again return to the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, the grounds of the 1950 loss. In advance of the tournament, Uruguay sponsor Puma poked fun at the superstition in this new commercial , "El Fantasma del 50 Ya Esta En Brasil."
Excerpted from Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America. Copyright © 2014 by Joshua Nadel and reprinted with permission of University Press of Florida. All Rights Reserved.