The politics of football

The politics of football
A combination of pictures taken in June 2014 shows supporters of The Brazil (at Left) and Colombia (at Right) during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

In two days, Brazil will meet Colombia in the World Cup quarterfinals in a winner-takes-all clash for glory. Is there more to it than football? You bet there is.

Despite an unprecedented boom enjoyed by the successive centre-left governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef, the run-up to the 2014 World Cup saw Dilma's government under immense pressure from a wave of street protests which reached a peak at last year's Confederation Cup tournament which Brazil also hosted.

While Dilma supporters see it as an orchestrated move by conservative forces, including the media, there is little doubt that the protests have hurt the government's image.

Indeed, the opening ceremony of the World Cup itself saw Jeguaká Mirim, an indigenous Guarani boy, protest by holding up a red banner calling for the demarcation of native lands.

All this comes into play with the upcoming presidential elections due to be held on Oct 5, just three months away.

If Brazil do badly in the World Cup, I honestly believe it will impact negatively on the Workers Party-led coalition of Dilma.

That may sound crazy but let's not forget that this is a country where the failure to win the World Cup in 1950, the only other time Brazil hosted it, is still considered a national tragedy by many grown men too young to have actually witnessed a stunning defeat at the hands of neighbouring Uruguay.

In fact, more than once in the past, the World Cup has been used to help legitimise the dictatorial rule of an unpopular regime, queue Brazil in 1970 and Argentina in 1978.

Incidentally, World Cup legends Bebeto and Romario are elected officials who are part of Dilma's ruling coalition.

I'll be honest with you, I have mixed emotions about the Brazil vs Colombia game.

On the one hand, I really do think the revolution of Lula and co is worth preserving and that it is really important that popular support remains with the government.

I think the prestige that goes with winning the World Cup, and the build up to the 2016 Olympics, are really key to Brazil's short-term future.

Ironically, I have been a hard-core supporter of the Colombia football team since I first clapped eyes on the long and frizzy haired trio of Carlos Valderrama, Leonel Alvarez and Rene Higuita in 1990.

They may have looked like extras from Peter Pan but their flair really captured my heart.

Yet it is Colombia's political path that has deviated from the norm of centre-left South American governments ... ranging from Maduro (Venezuela) to Mujica (Uruguay) to Bachelet (Chile) to Kirchner (Argentina) to Correa (Ecuador).

Colombia too just held presidential elections, but it was basically a fight between the moderate right-of-centre incumbent Juan Manuel Santos (head of the Social Party of National Unity) and the more explicit right-wing Democratic Centre party of Óscar Iván Zuluaga.

Ironically, both have links to former president Alvaro Uribe who took Colombia firmly away from the direction of the rest of the continent.

Santos, who gained fame for a number of important moves as Defence Minister under Uribe, eventually won the presidential elections in the second round on June 15, just as the World Cup got underway.

In a way, I don't blame the Colombians for turning to heavy-hand security-first policies, although in the past, in Latin America this has often proved just a step away from endorsing vigilante death squads.

The history of Colombia is steeped in violence with a bloody civil war known as La Violenca raging from 1948-58 between the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party.

It was then superseded by a war between the government and the left-wing guerilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a conflict that rages to this day.

It was a tough approach to the conflict that gained Uribe the support of many Colombians.

In the meantime, this violence was reflected through its celebrity footballers.

Twenty years ago, on July 2, 1994, defender Andres Escobar died after being shot, just days after scoring an own goal, knocking the team out of the World Cup.

Goalkeeper Higuita spent some time in jail for his part in negotiating a kidnapping ransom (in the 1990s one-third of the world's commercial kidnappings occurred in Colom­bia) while his team-mate Freddy Rincon once faced charges of collaboration with cocaine kingpin Pablo Rayo Montaño.

Forward Faustino Asprilla was also hauled up in both 1995 and 2008 after firing numerous shots in public.

Ultimately, I can't help hoping that it is Colombia's footballers who take the chance to prove to the world that the country is about more than coffee, cocaine and kidnapping.

I think the social programmes of Brazil's people's revolution should be strong enough to withstand yet another national tragedy.

More than anything else, I hope for an open game, a truly beautiful game with a peaceful, joyful reaction to the result.

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