Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes
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Joseph L. Arbena (USA)
Clemson University

María Laura San Martín

Across Latin America-defined as everything in the Western Hemisphere south of the United States-no doubt the most popular participant and spectator sport remains soccer (football, fútbol, futebol), though baseball, cricket, basketball, rugby, volleyball, boxing, track and field, horse racing, auto racing, and others excite significant numbers of devotees in different parts of that geographical realm.2 What remain unclear are the reasons why certain sports over the last century became so popular in certain places and the meaning that those sports have today in their different domains.

Overall, analytical study of the history of sports in Latin America has been insufficient to allow us to answer those questions with full confidence.3 Fortunately, recent years have brought new writers and perspectives to the field.4 As a way of introducing some comparative interpretations of the process of diffusion of modern sports into Latin America5 and the evolving meaning of those sports in their respective contexts, I here note some of the more provocative of those recent writings and the implications of their ideas for the larger field.


There is little reason to doubt that soccer was introduced into the Río de la Plata region by a mix of British businessmen, engineers, educators, and sailors,6 then spread first among the local elites and, almost as quickly, among the working classes, often the youth, who kicked rag balls (pelotas de trapo) around the bare, rough spaces in emerging cities like Buenos Aires and Montevideo.7 In Argentina specifically, from the 1880s till the 1910s, the most visible soccer was dominated by English schools and their graduates, while locals, whose ranks were expanded by ever increasing waves of immigrants, struggled to find sufficient open space (potreros) to imitate the game of the Englishmen if not its values and meaning. By about 1912-1913 the popular sectors had generated enough skilled players ("cracks") and teams to provoke a critical reaction among the elite sectors and a reorganization of soccer institutions in the capital.8

Against this background, going beyond the historical narrative, sociologist Eduardo Archetti-an Argentine long resident in Norway-uses textual analysis, personal interviews, and observed fan behavior to lay out interpretations of the interconnectedness between soccer on the one hand and national, gender, and generational identities on the other. First, he defines Argentine soccer as a "masculine discourse" that reaffirms "father/son and macho/homosexual differences," perhaps more among the "peripheral" participants (read spectators) than the "central" ones (read athletes). This emphasis on male identity, reinforced by violence and illegality in the larger society, especially that of the military regime between 1976 and 1983, contributed to the persistence of fan violence.9 Second, soccer-based Argentine masculinity highlights autonomy, fantasy, force, power, authority, and maturity-though not necessarily work, discipline, and perseverance-which become, in turn, the basis for demarcating a "national style" of soccer that is part of the search for national identity. Archetti himself, however, doubts if such historical connections can be firmly established, since so much of soccer is carried out by individual players and/or coaches and is thus subject to conflicting interpretations, though he acknowledges that the creolization of polo and soccer between 1880 and 1930, and the implied opposition to British characteristics, did further the construction of an Argentine masculine image, if not a precisely unique national identity.10

Building on Archetti, newly minted Ph.D. in anthropology/ethnography, Jeffrey Tobin classifies fútbol as one of three play elements interrelated in the reproduction and contestation of Argentine, especially porteño, masculinity: 1) The asado (Argentine barbecue or cook out) is a male-dominated activity that subordinates the female, yet is tied to images of feminization of flesh based on textual connections to animals. 2) Soccer likewise is male dominated, yet again has mixed sexual meanings, as terms of sodomy and effeminany are often ascribed to opponents. As with the asado, anal penetration may precede vaginal penetration in giving meaning to the game and feminization to the victim. 3) Tango is frequently depicted as male dominated, yet the history, literature, personalities, and various practices in the dance suggest a homosocial context. Agree with Tobin or not, his analysis relates sport to other social activities in a historical framework and links these in turn to a variety of political expressions such as the definition of Argentine nationality and the widespread use by the military regime of the late 1970s of torture techniques that involved anal penetration, even when the victims were female.11


In Cuba by the 1890s the main question on everyone's mind was the "Ever Faithful" island's future relationship with Mother Spain. Throughout the nineteenth century, growing national identity among Cubans and increasing discontent with Spanish rule led to greater pressure, often violent, for major changes, even independence. After mid-century, an important element in defining that Cuban identity and in expressing a rejection of things Spanish was baseball.

Baseball's entry into Cuba has been attributed to several overlapping sources, including Cuban students who studied in the United States and carried the game home as part of their educational legacy and U.S. sailors who entered Cuban ports with great frequency and spent some of their leisure time hitting balls and rounding bases near their docked ships. Historian Lou Pérez concludes that, as Cubans in the late 1800s moved away from colonial rule toward independence, they found in baseball, while rejecting the bullfight, "the moral order from which their vision of nation was derived," "a means of nationality no less than an ideal of nationhood." Baseball was a way to the progress and modernity being blocked by Spain. Baseball integrated Cubans and distinguished them from Spain, becoming part of the process that tied them more to United States culture.12 Literary scholar Roberto González Echevarría reaches a similar conclusion, but in addition links baseball to the rising popularity among evolving Cuban nationalists of the island inspired danzón and French inspired modernista literature.13


The diffusion of America's national game, like that of soccer and other modern sports, often followed different paths to different places; and the consequences were also often different. Baseball apparently reached distinct parts of Mexico via two routes: into the north directly from the United States carried by engineers, miners, traders, and the local population across the Río Grande; into the Yucatán mainly from Cuba, intensified by large U.S. investments in the henequen trade in the late 1800s, to become for many "El Rey de los Deportes."14

Along the lengthy Mexican - United States border-a border that Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes15 has labeled illusory, crystal, a frontier of mirages-baseball followed a somewhat different path and eventually took on different meaning. Anthropologist Alan Klein, who previously analyzed the paradoxical place of baseball in the Dominican Republic,16 has found in the neighboring cities of Laredo, Texas (USA) and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (Mexico) an expression of three distinct levels or types of nationalism that were products over time of a process that included baseball. The centrality of that sport in that region was uniquely demonstrated in the decade 1985-1994 when a special arrangement allowed those two cities to share a professional baseball team (Los Tecolotes/The Owls) that had home stadiums on both sides of the Río Grande/Río Bravo del Norte while playing in the Mexican League. The consequence was: 1) autonationalism, that traditional nationalism in which Mexicans and North Americans (USA) identify with their respective nation-states; 2) binationalism, by which peoples on each side of the border share experiences and feelings that derive from identification with both nations; and, 3) transnationalism, a growing sense of common identity distinct from either the Mexican or American nations. "All three forms of nationalism exist as structural relations, behavior, and sentiment (identity), and all of them have analogs in the realm of baseball on the border," though "one has to see them as more or less present at different times in differing ways."17

At least since C.L.R. James published his monumental Beyond a Boundary (1963), we have been sensitive to the role cricket (along with the church and the schools) played in the acculturation of blacks and coloreds in Britain's Caribbean colonies, in the development of racial pride and national identity among those colonial subjects, and in the drive toward independence and subsequent nation building.18 Over the years, others have added to this an emphasis on the centrality of cricket as a source of cultural and political resistance.19

More recently, Richard D. E. Burton has raised doubts about the significance of that cricket experience among West Indian blacks. On the one hand, going farther than Tobin, González Echevarría, or James, he sees cricket as part of a comprehensive "play complex" or "play culture" that includes music, dance, food, drink, worship, verbal jousting, stickfighting, cricket, and beyond; in other words, all nonutilitarian activities, or everything that is not work, ranging from the religious, through the festive, to the ludic.

Secondly, Burton questions the long-term implications of these sports/play activities as meaningful forms of resistance to dominant cultures. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he distinguishes between external resistance and internal opposition, concluding that the Afro-Creole cultures he examines are much more cultures of opposition than of resistance, relying "heavily on materials furnished by the dominant culture," opposing the dominant order on that order's own ground and usually on its own terms. The key point is not that the subordinate groups are contesting the hegemonic or dominant groups, but that they are doing so using the institutions, structures, often even the values, of those higher groups. They may beat the masters at their own games, but they are still playing the masters' games.20

If this be true and can be more broadly applied, then West Indian victories over British teams on the cricket pitch, or Cuban humiliation of United States teams on the baseball diamond, or Argentina's elimination of England from the soccer World Cup, with or without the help of God's hand, while a short-term source of satisfaction, neither reflects nor contributes much to changes in real international power relationships. Nor does the fact that black and Latino athletes such as Michael Jordan or Sammy Sosa earn millions of dollars while being cheered by millions of fans in the United States or that an Afro-Brazilian Pelé or an Argentine mestizo (cabecita negra) such as Diego Maradona become well-paid national heroes, reflect any substantive changes in the distribution of power and wealth among whites and non-whites in their respective sports in their respective countries. For there continues a tendency to keep blacks and Latinos, even in the United States, playing inside a white power structure, to denigrate black contributions to Brazilian soccer, and to obstruct players' efforts to build a more socially equitable game in tune with player needs.21


Cricket's predominance in the Anglophone Caribbean has been challenged in recent decades by the spread of basketball, facilitated by satellite technology and made more attractive by the high visibility in the North American game of people of at least some African ancestry. Intrigued by aspects of this phenomenon, economist Jay and sociologist Joan Mandle have not only written extensively on the subject but have likewise worked with the islands' basketballers. Jay, a certified basketball referee, has conducted workshops and seminars in response to the local recognition that there is a shortage of competent and impartial officials whose decisions will be accepted by players and fans.

What the Mandles' writing significantly reveals is that basketball is not simply "an extension of the American game"; it is also "a creation of Caribbean culture," as the basketballers modify the performance context, the style of play, and the organizational framework to meet their own needs. Especially among the poor and disadvantaged-the grass roots-this relatively inexpensive and accessible sport provides a venue for entertainment and sociability, as well as "achievement, belonging, creative expression, and recognition." On the theoretical level, the Mandles propose that, without demonstrating either forceful coercion from the top or meaningful resistance from the bottom, basketball does represent a source of "open space" which offers these generally lower status Caribbean basketballers a relatively rare opportunity to practice a type of democracy by controlling decisions that affect their lives and communities. Unfortunately, the popular organizations set up to promote the game often fail because of a variety of economic and cultural obtsacles.22


Despite the uniqueness of the processes of diffusion, adaptation, and cultural interpretation of each of these sports in each of these specific historical and geographical settings, they are ultimately part of a grander scheme. Not only do they demonstrate variations in the long-term spread of modern, Western sports outward from the North Atlantic realm; they in turn illustrate varying aspects of the reverse linkage of local sports back into the international community. Argentine, like all Latin American soccer, is manipulated in part by FIFA and the wealthier European clubs; Cuban baseball still can't break from the influence of and admiration for US professional leagues; baseball's fortune along the Río Grande depends in part on decisions made in Mexico City and to the north; West Indian cricket fans see Brian Lara less frequently because of the attractions of the UK; even "Grass Roots" basketball in the Caribbean is shaped by international television, equipment sources, and dreams of more involvement at higher skill levels.23

One unfortunate consequence of this globalization, it has been argued, has been the reduction in quality and change in character of sports in those poorer clubs and countries that export athletic talent up the line, both from the smaller to the larger countries within Latin America and from the Americas primarily to Europe in the case of soccer or North America in the case of baseball, where the capital is beyond what most Latin American economies can match. This deprives the exporting countries of the best of their players in their prime, reduces the local gate draw and, almost incidentally, again in the case of soccer, makes it more difficult to prepare national teams for international competition.24

An additional alleged consequence has been a standardization of sports, particularly soccer, driven by economic over athletic considerations, leading to unimaginative and lackluster play. As Uruguayan historian/essayist Eduardo Galeano concludes: "These are days of obligatory uniformity, in soccer and everything else. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes: in this end-of-century world, whoever doesn't die of hunger dies of boredom."25

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Picture: María Laura San Martín (Arg.), Los mejores tiempos. 130 x 160, 1998.
Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes · http://www.efdeportes.com/  
revista digital
· Año 4 · Nº 15 | Buenos Aires, 08/99