Honduras’ soccer win in San Salvador on October 14, guaranteeing a World Cup berth for the Catrachos in South Africa in 2010, has potentially muddled negotiations to resolve the political crisis that erupted on June 28. As I noted in this space last week and also in Sports Illustrated, the prospect of a Honduran berth in the World Cup would provide the de facto government with the opportunity to use the result to rally the population around the flag, potentially providing an excuse to remain intransigent in the face of immense international pressure.
Indeed, with the declaration of yesterday as a national holiday, that is exactly what the Micheletti government did. But wait, it gets even more cynical, because just as the determining game was getting underway in San Salvador, a Micheletti spokesman was walking away from an apparent agreement in principal that had been struck by the opposing parties earlier in the day to resolve the crisis. The calculation now appears to be that the Honduran win will buy additional time for the de facto government in its efforts to keep the deposed president Zelaya holed up in the Brazilian Embassy.
Micheletti’s gambit is only the latest example of a well-worn path in Latin America of attempting to transfer good feelings resulting from international sporting victories to support the government in power. One need only think of the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, for example. More broadly, former Eastern Bloc nations routinely used sport to promote the legitimacy and superiority of their systems internationally, and Cuba continues to do so to this day, though with less overt success. It may be cynical and heavy-handed, but it apparently still works.
At the same time, further south in Uruguay, Argentina was scraping into the World Cup with a 1-0 win in Montevideo, forcing the host nation into a two-game playoff with Costa Rica for the final hemispheric spot in South Africa. Argentina faced elimination, but scored as time was expiring to secure its berth. The fact is, however, that Argentina should arguably have secured a spot well in advance of the final game against Uruguay, and coach Diego Maradona faced significant criticism for Argentina’s relatively poor results, at least compared to expectations. After the win, Maradona let loose on his detractors, suggesting that those who doubted his abilities or the ultimate success of Argentina in the qualifying rounds could, well, engage in a sexual act upon him. At which point even those used to his boorish behavior expressed horror at his crude insults. But really, given his antics during the 2005 Summit of the Americas, was anyone really that surprised?
Some time ago, I was given a book titled “How Soccer Explains the World”, which uses the game to offer insights into various national characters and pathologies from Spain to Brazil to Eastern Europe to elsewhere around the globe. It’s a fun read, not necessarily serious sociology, but nonetheless thought provoking, and I think the actions related to World Cup qualifying bear this out. Honduras, fighting for its soccer life, goes down to the last round, and victory is cause to declare a national holiday. One can easily see political parallels here, given current circumstances. For its part, Argentina has had to fight back from near elimination on the pitch, despite an abundance of talent and riches, only barely squeaking into the tournament but doing so in a uniquely Argentine manner. In so doing, Argentina has proven itself again, unorthodox and in-your-face, with a poke in the eye to the world and all the so-called experts who counted the nation out. No doubt, the politics and the economic management of the country are consistent with this approach.
Ok, this analogy can be overdrawn. But there are nonetheless enough parallels for consideration to make it interesting. My question: what does this say ultimately about Brazil, given the way that nation swept through the qualifying rounds?
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.