FOOTBALL AND FATHERLAND: THE CRISIS... Alabarces / Rodríguez     

During a period marked by a great number of sport successes and outstanding performances in both local and abroad stages11, these outcomes were profited in order to set them on stage as a mechanism of re-assertion of nationalistic epic. One of the most efficient devices to do this was Sucesos Argentinos, movie newsreels which showed the outcomes of the sport performances, both in communitarian sport and the extended public works (Child Tournaments, inauguration of multi-sport buildings, etc.) and in the broadcasting of the rewarded athletes' achievements. But, in the other hand, the imaginary also worked on the fictional movies which would allow us to read the relationship of peronism with the cultural industries and the cultural agents. Cinema became one of the most important basis where the nationalistic epics could be illustrated, moreover because of the strong spreading of the aboriginal cultural production, related with the economic growth of the period and with the State support that cinema received.

In the relationship between sport and cinema, the populist period gives a first sign: from the (scarce) series of Argentinean films which deal (direct or indirectly) with the subject of sport, an average greater than thirty per cent were produced during this period (scarcely ten years, over more than sixty in the Argentinean cinema's history), which points out, provisionally, the burden of the subject on the consumption's expectations.

On the other hand, during peronism, the sport films were not publicity documentaries, and even more, they split away from the explicit or boasting references suited to the State media system. As a re-interpretation of nationalism operation some of the audiovisual cultural products of fiction let us make interesting approaches. In one of the last scenes of Pelota de trapo (1948), perhaps the most important film both because its quality and its repercussion, there is a funny dialogue: the main character, Comeuñas (Armando Bó), a star soccer player who must retire due to a hearth disease, is requested by the fans to play at a South American final match between Argentina-Brazil. In the dressing-room, his friend and discoverer complains to him his presence and refuses to authorize him to play the supplementary time which will define the match. But, staring at the Argentinean flag which waves in the field, the Bó's character insists to his friend with this argument:

"-There are many ways to give your own life for the country. And this is one of them."

Faced to such a tremendous pleading, the friend accepts and Comeuñas enters the field. Unsurprinsingly, he scores the definitive points, has chestaches but he resists and doesn't die. Does fatherland accept his effort but does not request his immolation? Beyond all the melodrama logics, this piece refers (for the first time in the Argentinean sport movies) to an interpellation that links, explicitly, the sport performances with the national plots. In the populist context, the people-Nation association allowed popular individuals to share the nationality construction from, up to there, unbalanced and illegitimate roles.

As far as it concerns, Escuela de campeones (1950) narrates the story of Alexander Watson Hutton, a Scottish teacher who is considered the great impeller of the soccer in Argentina, and the Alumni club, the founding team. But the film takes part of a major cultural series: Escuela de campeones participates of the film list produced by the Artistas Argentinos Asociados enterprise, whose script-writer was Homero Manzi (well-know as an organic intellectual person of the peronism) and who, during those years, drew a pedagogic history for mass consumption12. Thus we can understand the fact that soccer was considered as a needful component on the narrative of nationality together with, for instance, the biography of the eminent Domingo Sarmiento, filmed in Su mejor alumno. Inside the populist series, Manzi uses the legitimating plots of the conservative tradition.

This audiovisual cultural products of fiction, showed the hopes of a social sector for which sport (especially soccer, already professional) became a possible road which could lead to an economic success and/or to fame. Sport heroes, as icons of the republican concept of equalitarism suited to modern societies, appeals the citizens, on their condition of simple mortals, to recognize themselves on the meritocratic idea which supposes the formal equality of both opportunities and resources access (Ehrenberg, 1992). In other words, and paraphrasing Gellner (1993), the "popular heroes" are not different from us: they just have more money13. And the media is an ideal tool to set on stage the epic poems of the sport heroes as a re-assertion of the belief in equality. A good example of the period is the glorification that has been done of the sport prowesses of one of the most mythical exponent: the boxer José María Gatica, the "Monkey".

In this sense, Argentina relies on a historical series which can be denominated "world sport heroes", and that gathers the group of those athletes that condense in their sport prowesses world wide broadcasted, a kind of national referenciality that rests upon the high degree of adhesion from their own community (although each perfomance must be articulated with a specific historical stage of the global development of the media).

Obviously this series is crowned by Diego Maradona.

Diego Maradona: (first? last?) global hero
This cultural series is efficiently articulated around the one who stands out from the rest by his or her own merit, re-affirming by this that along this road it is possible to reach the personal success. And, while Bromberger (1994) states that merit is not enough, that other features, like chance or cheat, also help to get the triumphs, in 1986 Diego Maradona gave account not only of his merit but also of the roles of chance and cheat: firstly the "hand of God", and then the best goal of the world and of all the times.

This double attribution of sense, this excess of Maradona, embraces its own contradiction because it is, at the same time, an obstacle to the possibility of building around soccer a new patriotic reference. Archetti points it out correctly when he affirms that his perfomance doesn't seem to be associated to a "national style" but he is considered unique. Archetti states (1994a: 56:): "The problem, from the Argentinean point of view is not only the fact that heroes are universalized in a context where soccer belongs to a kind of 'world global culture', but that they are perceived as 'historical accidents', as 'products of an arbitrary nature'". Maradona also understood it that way when he said: "God plays with me". The Argentinean soccer style seems to be no more than a myth: individuals are the true story.

What makes of Maradona an obliged milestone, besides his outstanding skillfulness, is his global condition: not only he played the major part of his career abroad but he also, mostly since México '86, has done not few prowesses on behalf of the Argentinean skirt and in front of millions of spectators, putting on circulation a symbol of "argentinness" which points in two directions: one of them concentric, that is towards the country of which he is the reference, and another one eccentric, towards outside, towards the world: Maradona seems to be our best audiovisual ambassador. And he is not a simulacrum of the post-industrial society (Baudrillard, 1987) because the model doesn't precede the real: they come along.

During his global phase, the mythical image of Diego Maradona has put together the three elements of the myth pointed by Baczko (1991): an affective context, a fact able to be converted in object of discourse and actors who give a meaning to it. This combination allowed us to imagine that, in the nations' concert, in the circulation of goods throughout the international market, Argentina could win a place, if not in terms of economic goods, at least in terms of symbolic purchases. A place, on the other hand increased by Maradona by adding to argentinean soccer a legitimacy value. Because, if in 1978 Argentina won the World Cup, the suspects which fell over the Argentina-Perú match, and indeed the perverse militarized stage in which the Championship took place, has displaced its heroic representation and was replaced by the legitimate victory in 1986 and the "almost" triumph in 199014.

His effectiveness on the soccer ground has also served as a symbolic relief in order to elaborate with less anguish the social imaginary about the national issue. The "hand of God" against the English team in México '86 is a topic which can be read (and in fact so it did) as a slant way to face, from the creole knavery ("picardía criolla"), the old enemies, and that issue reappeared from the very University of Oxford, updating old national conflicts where Malvinas' defeat is not a minor issue15.

What this sport hero sets out is the fatherland's referenciality. The maradonian apotheosis in Argentina has put him in the center of a struggle for the meaning among different sectors which pulled at him in order to appropriate of his symbolic burden16. Is soccer the fatherland? Can soccer replace the politics?

The 1994 World Cup meant the climax of that struggle. The globalized image of Diego Maradona after his third goal to Greece triggered the contradiction: hero of the fatherland or denial of the intellectual capital (and then a legitimate one)? Positive energy settled straight to the service of putting together the affectibility of a whole country or negative energy that showed a distorted image of Argentina?17 A dilemma that put the own construction of Maradona as a symbol, because the struggle was in terms of attempts to freezing the sense, to appropriating him for the own territory: each newly event carried out by Maradona has established a stress between the necessity of manage the fact's encoding and the meanings that the reception has indeed conferred. We don't want to say with these that those debates replaced the discussions over the national issue but that they did happened simultaneously and perhaps in a hazardous way with the circulation of other discourses about the "national" generated by his performances18.

In the center of that stress it can be read the media's vacillation either to include Diego Maradona in the historical series of "genius", characterized by the group of those who showed his or her early vocation "through facts better than argues" (Varela, 1994a: 57) or to fire him from heaven, that is to exclude him from the historical series of the "enlightened men", due to not being capable to adapt himself to the norms of school knowledge. Complex articulation, not a linear and in struggle one, because the difficulty of putting together the opposing narrations doesn't depend, as the canonical form of history, on the reconstruction of an event. Maradona didn't face us to former and lost facts but he did it to a set of emotions, necessities and subjectivities related to a patriotic feeling rather than to a factual truth. The dominant sectors' bias about legitimate a social national model, seemed to collide with the erratic condition of the actions and statements of Diego Maradona who, not only in the sport field but also in his public show-off appearances, he resisted to be modeled. This made hard the articulation of strong-ideas around an, in some way, essentialist national identity and, at the same time, addressed the collective hopes and feelings to the directions that his human (and then fallible) condition was pointing: from left to right in a unstoppable pendulum.

If, for the media, Maradona meant money, he also offered the possibility of picking up a wandering sense: that of a society who see how the most elementary political references collapse. Maradona was the (last?) chance of giving to fatherland a sense which anchorage's process has been historically a disputable object. But an unforeseeable possibility: in the first place due to his own ambiguity of his comes and goes from and out the soccer universe, both in his professional performances and the drifting of his friendships and/or his political opinions which made a covetable object of him. But also (and may be this is the most interesting element) due to his erratic condition which allowed the chance of the practice of the compensating function of the collective memory19, that is the updating of the values considered as essential for the national identity and culture through not linear neither unified mechanisms of signification.

In the struggle between memory and history, Diego Maradona seemed to have settled accounts, for a time, to Argentina's side

The fracture: tribal soccer at global times
In a recent work, Archetti states that part of the efficacy of Maradona's epicity lays on his continuity with the mythological tradition. There he points out that "in a global scene where the production of local territories and identities is supposed to be difficult because the lived-worlds of local subjects tend to become deterritorialized, diasporic and transnational ones" (Archetti, 1996b: 15), the continuity of the myth of the Argentinean style incarnated in Maradona, allows this identity to survive. However, the localization in global stages with the mediation of the hero invested of national representation, is put in crisis with the exit of Maradona out from the scene. His exclusion of the World Cup '94 coincided with the elimination of the Argentinean team in the second round, proposing a temporary cause-effect relation which was also read in the facts. Maradona, fired out from the World Cup, drags the whole Nation with him; starting from there, the only Argentinean both symbolically and bodily successful merchandise is depreciated in the global market and thus Argentina is sent back to its traditional --and scarcely relevant-- place of foods producer nation and weak exporter of low value goods. The mythological story of the Argentinean soccer, a mixture of successes and heroes, of original styles and wise appropriations, was seen, unexpectedly, lacking all referenciality.

The following years exemplify that picture. Maradona became a non-systematic player; his semantic erratically behavior abandoned the political progressive lines and seemed to find a more steady place next to the populist neoconservatism repertoires; but besides, while descending to the local scene, his mythical stature has decreased and disappeared as a core of representation of the nationality (Alabarces and Rodríguez, 1996). Argentinean soccer players, although they continue to being massively exported to the European soccer, are no longer exclusive figures neither they play, with a very few exceptions, in teams of first rate. The massive access to the sport international schedule due to the explosive widespread of the cable television services, allows Argentinean audiences to verify that the national soccer is excluded from the new global stadiums. Argentinean soccer, then, is placed in a crisis situation of similar scope as the one which was perceived after the Sweden World Cup in 1958, when the defeat for six goals against Czechoslovakia motivated a fracture of all the mythical stories.

In this case, however, the crisis is not only a soccer's one. It's not only the confirmation of the failure of a tactic scheme but it's the whole series which we have presented up to this point the one that seems to being fractured: the mythological foundation -- of the soccer and of the nation--; the assumption of the relationship between sport and nation in the populist stage by the State; Argentinean's maximum hero. That fall of the hero doesn't take place in no matter what moment but in the global stage of the Western capitalism. Argentina can not respond appropriately to the questions about how does the nation get into the globalization?, how does it mark the local placing?, how does it print a mark of self sense onto the flow of transnationalized discourses?. Renato Ortiz points out that the globalization process deflects the weightiness of the discourses (and the merchandises) traditionally based on the national-popular imaginary towards the constitution of an international-popular imaginary. In that new frame, the traditional symbols of the foundation of the Brazilian State-Nation --samba, carnival, soccer-- leave their place to new globalizated goods: publicity, televisual melodrama and Formula 1 (Ortiz, 1991; [cfr]. supra). What it's interesting is that in this series of goods strongly marked by the popular classes, which is now being replaced by basically media-ised goods, the sport and the heroic prowesses reappears: Ayrton Senna, three times World champion, martyr of the global motoring, fatherland's hero in Brazil. The Brazilian culture seems to have discovered its particular way of being global: the continuity of a penetration model in the universal markets through the production of symbolic goods with comparative advantages: Ronaldinho, not the best but the most expensive soccer player of the World.

On the contrary, a collision of discourses takes place in Argentina: a hegemonic political and economical neoconservatism which proclaims the Argentinean entrance to the First World, daily coexists with the everyday experience of the popular and the middle classes too: that of the acute deterioration of the life's conditions with the increasingly poverty and with the inefficiency to get successfully incorporated into a global market from which the citizens receive their damages --depreciation of the goods' value, unemployment as a world phenomenon, narcotraffic-- but not their benefits. To make things worse, the traditional goods like soccer --as an exportable credit balance but also as a symbolic capital-- disappear from the market too.

The Argentinean soccer is not able to give rise to new global heroes: and in the argument that we have developed up to this point, there is no possible epic story without heroes that could support it. The post-Maradona void is too big. In consequence, what prevail are attempts of small and domestic epics of Latin American range --due to the exacerbation of a slightly jingoism which has loosen even the anti-imperialist hint that had ever restored, for example, the traditional confrontation with England-- which generate chauvinisms and racisms sheltered in the mythical ethnic unity in front of the Latin American poli-ethnicity and massmediatic paranoias that explain each defeat by some kind of planetary conspiracies. The industrial explosion of the global telecommunications and of the sport show as the highest phenomenon of audiences, finds Argentina in weak conditions in order to "naturally" impose its actors, so the media discourses should manufacture them and should replace the strictly sport strategies for those of the marketing. The case of the soccer player Ariel Ortega is, in this sense, paradigmatic: he is acclaimed as a new Maradona, he is given the number 10 skirt in the national team, his sale to Spain (to a second rate team, the Valencia) is promoted as an evidence of the continuity of the story, the rude treatment to which he is submitted by the rival defenses (every hero's test) is a point to be remarked. And his class extraction is emphasized: arising from the poor classes of the inner of Argentina, Ortega (called Orteguita, a pibe, a new boy who transgresses the mature and hyperprofessionalizated soccer world with his pertness) is shown as the last representative of the traditional origins of the Argentinean soccer players. Without humble origin, the myth prays, there is not epic of the social promotion. And nowadays the Argentinean popular classes, submitted to deplorable conditions of nutrition and literacy in the childhood, are expelled from the hyperprofessionalism of the global sport and from the high performance's practices.

But while soccer expels these sectors from its professional practices, it embraces what it touches. No discursive surface in the Argentinean society is strange to it: the daily schedule suffers from futbolitis20; the domestic soccer minutiae floods the front pages not only of the popular press, but also of the "serious" ones; the professional intellectual discourses also surrender to the attraction of a ball in movement. The traditional super-representation of the popular classes in the Argentinean soccer has been displaced to an enlarged poli-classism that dissolves (or seems to dissolve) all kind of differential appropriation. And in that expansion, the soccer itself practices a gender's imperialism too, which consists of an accelerated incorporation of the female public both on television and at the stadiums, and of the appearance of an important amount of women that work as sport journalists.

In spite of this explosive invasion of traditionally unaware of soccer territories, the absence of sport unifying myths can not supplant the weakness of the traditional national stories. After the peronism, the increasingly deterioration of the modern Argentinean institutions --the State, the public school, the policy, the Trade Unions--, that has helped the sport's apotheosis to become a symbol of national identity, makes hard to find, short term, new discourses that could take up that function. Meanwhile, soccer submerges itself in a stage of exacerbated tribalization (Maffesoli, 1990), where the local oppositions --confrontations among traditional rival teams, the opposition axis Buenos Aires-the inner provinces, the neighborhood rivalries in a city-- are stretched out to the point that they shape primary identities. More over: the national team is overprinted by them and accused of being a faction. The national team, formerly a myth of unit, is now read as being crossed by the tribal logic. The nationality is supported by partial and fragmentary, mutually excluding discourses, from which the entirety of the unitarian story is absent. Being strongly dependent of the State, the unitarian discourse of the nationality is absent, in the same movement in which the neo-conservative State is absent of the everyday life.

Strange symbol of these times, the emblem of national unit is delivered by the cultural industry. As a corollary of an aggressive advertising campaign --ornated by triumphalist and xenophobic appeals--, América TV, the multimedia company which has broadcasted several games of the Latin American preliminary round for the World Cup '98, made a giant flag (approximately 150 meters of wide and 40,000 dollars of cost) that was "donated" to a supposed "Argentinean supporter" in order to be used at the match against Ecuador in the Monumental stadium of Buenos Aires. The huge flag --with the Argentinean colors, the logo of the channel printed in its lower portion, and a legend which says "Argentina is passion" (the motto of the TV channel is "America is passion")-- was shown at the beginning of the game and in the intermezzo, filling a terrace of the stadium and allowing the television camera that faced it to make a general advertising plane. The flag, symbol par excellence of the homeland, metonym of the Nation, pointed out the national unit at the same time that it became a sponsors' territory. Meanwhile, sheltered by the momentary coverage, the spectators that were under it were threatened by dozens of pickpockets to give them their belongings.

Thus, among the sponsorship of the patriotism and the delinquency, circulate our national plots.

Quoted Bibliography

© 1998. Alabarces & Rodríguez
Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes.
Año 3, Nº 10. Buenos Aires. Mayo 1998