Mihir Bose: What does this South American World Cup teach us?

The Uruguayan polemicist and football fanatic Eduardo Galeano once wrote: “Tell me how you play, and I will tell you who you are.”

So now as the World Cup, in the country made for football and made by football, draws to a close it is worth asking what this World Cup has told us about football and about us. That such a question can be raised about what is essentially 22 men in shorts kicking a ball around shows us how football is seen in Latin America. It is a game all of the continent embraces including its leading literary figures, apart that is from the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who wrote, “Football is popular because stupidity is popular”. But he was the great exception and why and how football has such a place in Latin America is the theme of Golazo written by Andreas Campomar and subtitled A History of Latin American Football.

He begins and ends his book with quotes from Galeano and his conclusion after a fantastic tour de force of how football came to Latin America, via cricket clubs the English brought to the continent, is “that Latin America took on an English game, and improved upon it; in effect casting the game in her own image. Wherever it is played, well or badly, football for all Latin Americans remains an expression of culture and identity.”

I have certainly been made aware of this during the World Cup and travelling round Brazil accompanied by Campomar’ s brilliant book it has been fascinating to find how much the present mirrors the past. So Campomar describes that, “Argentina nearly provoked a diplomatic row during the 1937 Campeonato Sudamericano when, throughout the tournament, Brazilians players had to endure racial abuse from the Argentine crowds. Not content with casting aspersions on the modernity of Brazilian cities (players were asked whether there were telephones in Rio de Janeiro) the Brazilians were called macaquitos (little monkeys). For Argentina the assertion of her racial superiority was becoming a national pastime. In X-ray of the Pampa (1933) his analysis of Argentine identity, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada professed a simple theory: “Argentina distrusts other countries because she considers them to be the residence of the Indian who no longer exists in her territory, the repository of her taboos.” Even as late as the early 1970s, there had been no change in attitude. Whilst completing the research for his incisive essay on Argentina, ‘The return of Eva Peron’, V. S. Naipaul jotted a few thoughts, in his notebook; ‘Un prejuicio racial integral contra todas [A built-in racial prejudice against everyone]…Dios es argentino [God is Argentine].'” (And, of course, the Pope now is – ed).

And what do we see in this World Cup, why an almost exact replay of what Campomar has described. So in the first Argentina match in the Maracana we had Argentine fans calling Brazilians macaquitos. This was just after Bosnia scored. Then, clearly angered, two Argentinians directed monkey gestures at Brazilian fans and security guards. The two fans who were arrested were later released but are being investigated and if convicted face three years in jail. Their behaviour reminded us that however much Lionel Messi’s individual brilliance has meant Argentina has gone a long way in exorcising the nasty arts their footballers often specialised in, the dark side of the River Plate fans is not ancient history.

Some of this may be prompted by the fact that Argentina feels it has not had due recognition from the football world for all its footballing achievements. Campomar provides brilliant historical insights into this mindset and throughout the tournament the songs the Argentine fans have sung bear witness to this.

So their most evocative song, and sung with even greater gusto when they know Diego Maradona is in the stadium, has been, “Maradona is greater than your Pele.” Interestingly Brazilian fans have not reacted to that by saying anything about Pele giving the impression that they do not have to protect Pele’s reputation. It may be because unlike Maradona, Pele, despite being the face of the World Cup, and the most iconic Brazilian, has been the mystery man of this World Cup. He has just been nowhere to be seen. Journalists met him briefly at a media evening in Sao Paulo, a few days before the opening match. After that he has been seen often enough on television promoting this or that product, he never ceases to market his image, but he has not been seen in person at a stadium. Why he should have vanished is not cleat but what this suggests is that while the world sees Pele as the symbol of Brazil, his own countrymen while nodding every time a visitor mentions Pele no longer see him as the idol to be worshipped.

Instead the Brazilian fans treating the Argentine fans as naughty children, who have not done their homework properly, have been responding with the song “We have won the Cup five times”, a pointed reference to Brazil’s supremacy in this competition and particularly hurting for the Argentines who for all their claims about Maradona can only claim two victories. Messi may reduce the margin to two by next Sunday but this cannot conceal the fact that Argentina feel they must triumph over Brazil, seeing it as the big neighbour that needs to be brought down a peg or two. And what better place to do so than when you are invited to a party at the neighbour’s home.

What Argentina wants to do, says Andreas Campomar is “poner los cuernos a Brasil”, which means “cuckold Brazil in the marital bed”(i.e. in the Maracana).”

And, amazingly, at the start of the tournament Brazil provided Argentina the opportunity by vacating the marriage bed with the home team playing anywhere but in Rio. The idea was that provided results went the right way in the group and knock out stages Brazil would come to Rio but only for the final match on July 13. Most home nations would at least play their opening match in their main stadium before venturing out and about, some never leave the comfort of the home stadium.

The schedule suggests Brazil sees this tournament like a coronation where the monarch to be goes on a tour of his far flung empire before he finally returns to his capital to be crowned. So far Brazil are on course but such a strategy has its dangers, Brazil may find the crown is no longer on offer and the road to Rio blocked. What this strategy has also done is far from generating enthusiasm for Brazil all over this country it is the Argentina fans who have made all the running.

So it was the Argentina fans, having been given the honour of both opening their campaign and playing the first World Cup game at the refurbished Maracana, who made the most of getting possession of the spiritual football bed of their greatest rivals. This has continued throughout the competition. With Argentina just across the border thousands have poured in and in all the venues they have played in Argentinian fans have taken charge of the city centres as if the cities belonged to them. It is as if in a World Cup in England the Germans were to take over Trafalgar Square and other London tourist spots.

This has also meant that unlike previous World Cups the fans setting the mood and defining the competition are not the home fans but the visiting ones. In a World Cup where the Brazilians were meant to provide the sumptuous fan cake with the visitors at best the icing on top, it is the visitors led by the Argentinians who have done all the baking so far while the hosts have stood by not sure whether they even want to enter the bakery. Indeed, the mood of the Argentinian fans is such that you get the impression they believe the whole bakery belongs to them.

So, despite the coronation planning, this has generated the fear among Brazilians that should they meet Argentina in the final, the country could face another Maracanazo, Maracana Blow, as in 1950. Then, as now, Brazilians treated their appearance in Rio as a formality. They needed a draw and behaved as if they had secured the Cup even before the final was played. But at the final, in the then new Maracana, they were, unexpectedly, ambushed by Uruguay, a defeat that shattered the country. The only consolation now is should Messi’s hand lift the Cup, even the most committed Brazilian will concede it is not a surprise.

How this will affect South America and both Argentina and Brazil remains to be seen. But with Campomar having vetted our appetite with his excellent study of football and society he may have enough material to do a sequel.

Golazo, A History of Latin American Football, by Andreas Campomar, Quercus £20.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Fpllow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose