The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires’s politics of football

Carlos Forment
15 June 2006

Half an hour or so into my second interview with Hector, a fan of Club Atlético Huracán – whose club house and stadium are located in Parque Patricio, one of Buenos Aires’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods – and this 46-year-old car mechanic and sometime roofer explained why he remained interested in football but had become apathetic about politics:

"None of the people that I know give a bolilla (damn) about politics. I voted in the mayoral elections because I am legally required to do so, but I left my ballot unmarked. We have been betrayed so many times by so many politicians that I do not trust any of them, even those who help us, like Kirchner [current president of Argentina] ... This is how I feel, but I know – because I have talked about this with my viejo (old man) – that it was not like this before. My father and his friends are Quemeros [nickname for Huracán fan], but when they were my age they were also active in the neighborhood branch of the Unidad Basica (Peronist Party) and in the metallurgical union. When they get together for asado (cook-outs) at our house, they often talk about the good old days."

Like his father when he was a young man, Hector had been active in the Peronist Party until the late 1990s but abandoned it in protest against the neo-liberal reforms implemented by President Carlos Menem's second government. When I asked Hector how he felt about his team. He said:

"Football is in my blood. I have been a Quemero since I was a kid, and will die wearing my jersey. I told my wife to bury me with it. My two oldest boys are members of Huracán as well; they play football and volleyball in the club, and in the summer they swim in the pool. On weekends, I often take them or go with my friends to the stadium when Huracán is playing at home.... During a match, I desenchufo (unplug) from all my worries; after a game, I am ready to face another week at work... As you know, Huracán is so indebted that it had to declare itself bankrupt; the team has lost so many matches that we [were demoted from first division and] can play only against other second-division teams. Yes, Huracán is in a complete quilombo (mess), but my passion for it has not changed."

I reminded Hector that Huracán’s crisis had been brought about by its own officers, who for decades had squandered and stolen large sums of money from its treasury. After avoiding the issue and changing topics more than once, Hector finally admitted that the level of corruption in football clubs and political life is roughly the same. He went on to confirm what I had read recently in a local tabloid: the battle cry, Que se vayan todos! (All of them must go!), made famous by the neighborhood assembly movement that erupted in Buenos Aires in 2003 in repudiation of the country's "political class", was first used in 1998 by fans of Huracán during a rebellion which toppled the club's president. After some additional prodding, Hector clarified why corruption had not dampened his enthusiasm for football:

"I don't know why football stirs me in ways that politics no longer does. I feel the same way about the neighbourhood. It is a sentiment I cannot explain (this phrase, which was first used by Peronists in the 1940s to describe their loyalty to the party, has become a cliche and acquired the status of an ontological truth among Peronist and anti-Peronists alike). Nothing I have ever felt outside the stadium compares with what I feel when I am inside... Look here, in order to attend a Huracán match, sometimes I have had to sacrifice a lot: taken sick leave from work and a cut from my paycheque; missed family gatherings and cook-outs, and cancelled encounters with my girlfriend. You know what they say: a football team will never meterte los cuernos (betray you, like a woman)... I no longer would sacrifice any of these things for Peronism..."

Football provided Hector with enough fulfilment to enable him to overcome the disenchantment he felt toward his club because of corruption. At first glance, Hector’s response seems based on a dual, perhaps incoherent, set of standards: one applicable only to football and based on individual norms of personal fulfilment, the other applicable only to politics and based on public standards of accountability. But his response makes considerable sense in the context of Buenos Aires's football traditions and recent crisis of representation.

Carlos Forment is director of the Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Vida Pública in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Democracy In Latin America, 1760-1900 (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

Also in openDemocracy on Argentina and its politics:

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve"
(17 April 2003)

Mariano Aguirre, "The many cities of Buenos Aires"
(16 February 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Néstor Kirchner’s Argentina: a journey from hell"
(25 May 2005)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: the state we're on"
(26 October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, "Latin America’s eroding democracy: the view from Argentina"
(1 June)

A reformation of citizenship

From late 2001 until late 2003, Buenos Aires experienced a very severe crisis of representation as well a social and economic meltdown. After toppling four presidents in several weeks, Portenos then organised neighbourhood assemblies and called on their compatriots across the country to join them in demanding that congress convene a constituent assembly; they demanded that congress reform the constitution and create institutional mechanisms to enable citizens to practice direct democracy both at the local and national level.

Impelled by the crisis, the city’s impoverished middle class created bartering networks to exchange goods and services (cars, homes, plumbing services, foodstuffs), relying on vouchers and credit instead of legal-tender money to complete their transactions.

Unemployed strikers erected pickets and multiple blockades throughout the city and strategic points in the surrounding beltway bringing traffic to a standstill and everyday life to a halt. Bank depositors marched into the financial district, assaulted foreign and nationally-owned banks, and forced them to close, in retaliation for having frozen and devalued the money (US dollars) they had in their accounts.

Buenos Aires, which until now had been the most integrated and middle-class city in the global south, experienced in a relatively short period of time record levels of pauperisation, segregation and fragmentation (see Mariano Aguirre, "The many cities of Buenos Aires", 16 February 2005).

The number and size of shanty-towns and gated communities increased, while the streets of the city became inundated with entire families, including children, who spent their entire day scavenging through trash piles collecting metal and paper products and reselling them to recycling companies. Neighbourhood assemblies across the city established soup-kitchens to provide nourishment to these late-modern versions of hunter-gatherers.

Hector’s response, like those of many other Portenos, makes sense in light of the crisis of representation which led a large number of local residents to sever whatever ties they once had to the country’s two leading political parties (Peronists,Radicals), to turn their backs on government and state institutions of all type, and become increasingly sceptical about the need for, and virtues of, representative democracy itself.

The crisis also caused havoc and threatened the continued existence of several football clubs, generating considerable panic and alarm among Portenos. For more than a century and a half (far longer than any political party), football has occupied a central and continuous place in the public life of this city. Buenos Aires is home to the largest number of first-division teams (twelve) of any city in the world. Portenos identify strongly with their teams; they consider them both a family tradition – loyalty to a team is nearly always passed on by the father or, sometimes, uncle to the son or daughter – and a marker of neighbourhood life.

The crisis aggravated the financial situation of all the clubs; some had to close their operations and face the possibility of extinction; others declared bankruptcy in order to prevent financial institutions from acquiring their stadium, club-house and other assets; and still others contemplated the notion of privatising and selling their team to foreign and local investors. Because these clubs have been constitutive of communal forms of life, and played a pivotal role in shaping the public practices and identities of Portenos, the representational crisis took on additional significance. The crisis that was afflicting Buenos Aires was political as well as social and economic in character.

Portenos responded to these various crisis by reconsidering their conception of citizenship and institutional affiliation. They revised their notion of citizenship by shifting from a political to a civic-centred perspective, in TH Marshall's sense of these terms; many of them also shifted their institutional loyalty from political parties to football clubs, neighbourhood associations and other forms of communal life.

Portenos experienced this shift in slightly different ways. One group, including Hector, abandoned political life, adopted a civic conception of citizenship and deposited their sense of loyalty in football clubs. But the overwhelming majority of Portenos did not follow this path. Instead, they combined civic and political elements and used the product of both to develop an alternative conception of citizenship and institutional affiliation.

Although citizens in this group remained active in politics and participated in the 2003 mayoral elections, they employed, for the first time in the history of municipal elections, football-related tropes and symbols to make sense of them. During both rounds of the elections, large numbers of Portenos from poor, middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods from all walks of life voted in support of a centre-right coalition (Compromiso para el Cambio [Compromise for Change]) with social and organisational roots in the world of football; its mayoral candidate was none other than the current president (Mauricio Macri) of Boca Juniors, the city’s most important football club and known to fans around the world as Diego Maradona’s home team.

This fusion of football and politics enabled Portenos to develop an alternative set of representational practices, use them to give political shape and cultural form to a new set of public concerns, and in the process to give birth to a new type of citizen – call it the "democratic dribbler".

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