The Democratic Dribbler: Football Clubs, Neoliberal Globalization, and Buenos Aires’ Municipal Election of 2003
Half an hour or so into my second interview with Hector, a self-described football fan of Huracán, with its clubhouse and stadium in Parque Patricios, a poor neighborhood in the city of Buenos Aires, I asked this 46-yearold car mechanic and sometime-roofer why he remained invested in football but had turned apathetic toward politics:
None of the people that I know give a damn [bolilla] about politics. . . .We have been betrayed so many times by so many politicians that I do not trust any of them, even those who want to help us, like Kirchner [current president of Argentina]. . . . Football is in my blood. I have been a Quemero [slang for Huracán fan] since I was a kid and will die wearing my jersey. I told my wife to bury me with it. My two oldest boys play football
in the club, and in the summer they swim in the pool. When Huracán is playing at home, I often go with them or my friends to the stadium. . . .During a match, I unplug [desenchufo] from all my worries; after a game, I am ready to face another week. . . .Huracán is so indebted that it declared itself bankrupt; we have lost so many matches that we [were relegated] and can play only against other second-division teams. Yes, Huracán is in a complete and total mess [quilombo], but my passion for it has not changed.1
I reminded Hector that Huracán’s crisis had been brought about, in part, by its elected officials who had squandered and stolen large sums of money from its treasury. After evading the issue more than once, Hector admitted that the level of corruption in football clubs and political life is about the same. He then 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 neighborhood. 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 cliché and acquired the status of an ontological truth among Peronists and anti-Peronists alike to describe strong feelings of identification with a public cause or institution.] Nothing I have ever felt outside the stadium compares with what I feel when I am inside. . . . In order to attend a Huracán match, I have sometimes requested sick leave from work and taken a cut in salary; missed family gatherings; and even cancelled meetings with my girlfriend. You know what they say: a football team will never betray you like a woman [meterte los cuernos].2
The sense of fulfillment that Hector derives from his club outweighs whatever ambivalence he feels toward it and appears to be based on a dual, perhaps incoherent, set of standards, with one set restricted to the world of football and rooted in personal gratification and the second limited to politics and rooted in public standards of accountability. Hector’s response seems to vindicate the center Left’s long-standing criticism of footballers (and other groups associated with popular culture such as evangelicals and rockers) who are accused of undermining democratic forms of life in the city by propagating “negative liberty,” especially among the poor and marginalized sectors of society.3
The goal of this essay is to explore why, during the 2003 municipal elections, so many Porteños (residents of the city of Buenos Aires) transformed the world of football into a “model of and a model for” city government and how they constituted themselves into a new type of citizen: democratic dribblers.4 Studying the subterranean links that surfaced between football and politics in Buenos Aires also provides an opportunity to make sense of the ways that local institutions, in the course of responding to the pressures of neoliberal globalization, are also transforming the age-old relationship between city life and citizenship.5 My essay is in six parts. The first describes how Porteños responded to the social and representational crises brought on by globalization in the years prior to the elections, underscoring why so many of them abandoned political society, became invested in civil society, and organized a variety of associations rooted in local, territorial forms of life. The second and third discuss the impact of globalization on the world of football, with the bulk of the discussion centered on Boca Juniors, the city’s leading club and known to fans throughout the world as Diego Maradona’s home team. The various sociomoral and administrative reforms that the club was compelled to make in order to survive enabled voters to construe it as a model for city government. These changes also encouraged fans to reaffirm their loyalty to their own club while at the same time predisposing many of them to conceive of each other as members of the same “family of footballers.” In parts four and five, I study the social and representational practices of the 2003 mayoral campaign in order to make sense of how voters, candidates, and their strategists, in the course of fusing the world of football and municipal politics, resignified the elections. In my closing remarks, I return to the center Left’s account of the “footballization” of politics and propose an alternative reading of it.
Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Public Life
From early 2000 until mid-2004, Porteños lived through Argentina’s worst crisis of representation to date, as well as a sociopolitical meltdown comparable in magnitude to what they had experienced during the Great Depression of the 1930s.6 After toppling four presidents in an equal number of weeks, Porteños organized scores of neighborhood assemblies and called on their compatriots in other cities throughout the country to join them in demanding that Congress reform the constitution to enable them to institutionalize direct forms of democracy at the local and national level. Impelled by the crisis, the city’s impoverished middle class established barter networks to exchange goods and services of all types (homemade foods, used clothes, generic drugs, housing, child care, car repairs). During these years, unemployed strikers wielding iron pipes and wooden clubs often blockaded major avenues throughout the city and exit ramps on the beltway surrounding it, bringing traffic to a halt and paralyzing urban life. They were joined by bank depositors who marched through the city’s financial district and took turns assaulting banks (foreign and national) in retaliation for having frozen and devalued accounts. Prior to the debacle, Buenos Aires had been the globalized south’s most integrated and middle-class city, but in a short lapse of time it suffered record levels of economic pauperization, social segregation, and spatial fragmentation. The number and size of shantytowns and gated communities soared, as the streets of the city became inundated with families (including children) who spent their entire day scavenging through rubbish heaps in search of metal and paper products to resell to recycling plants. In most neighborhoods, local residents established soup kitchens to feed this late-modern tribe of huntergatherers who had resurfaced in this new ice age of neoliberal globalization.
Many Porteños, including Hector, who lived through this debacle severed whatever ties they once had to Argentina’s oldest, most important political parties (Peronists, Civic Radicals); turned their backs on government institutions; and became committed to direct democracy (and intensely skeptical of electoral democracy). Their involvement in neighborhood assemblies and other types of local associations also led countless Porteños to shift from a state-centered notion of citizenship based on legal, civic, and social rights, in T. H. Marshall’s sense, to a conception of citizenship rooted in civil society and based on mutual recognition and communal belonging.7
Porteños experienced this shift in slightly different ways. One group, including Hector as well as a great many radical democrats, abandoned political society and invested themselves in football clubs and one or another type of local association. But the majority of Porteños did not follow this path. Instead, they remained active in political society and participated in municipal elections, although they now filtered and framed them in relation to football. These Porteños voted for Commitment for Change (Compromiso para el Cambio), a center-right coalition that was led by Mauricio Macri, president of Boca, which they had now transformed into a model of and a model for city government. This fusion of football and politics enabled them to bridge the chasm that now separated civil society and political society, with implications for the way that a large number of Porteños would make sense of democracy, citizenship, and institutional affiliation.
This struck me as puzzling for three reasons. Since the 1920s, local civic associations of one type or another (public libraries, community development groups, neighborhood self-help groups, etc.) have played a major role in Buenos Aires’ municipal elections; however, this was the first time that football clubs occupied a central role in them.8 Second, since the mid-1990s, the center Left has been a dominant influence in Buenos Aires’ political society. But in the 2003 elections, the center Right, in the midst of the crisis, was able to secure a record number of votes by relying on the social and symbolic ties it had to the world of football. In contrast, the center-left coalition, Porteño Power (Fuerza Porteño), which had close ties with neighborhood assemblies and other radical associations from civil society, was unable to enlist their support. Third, although these radical groups provided Porteños a place to practice direct democracy, this experience did not generate an alternative model of political life, in contrast to football clubs, which contributed to restoring the citizenry’s faith in electoral democracy. Not since the onset of military rule in 1976 had electoral democracy suffered such a profound crisis of legitimacy. These three shifts — in organizational form (from one or another type of local civic association to football clubs), in political orientation (from center-left to center-right), and in conception of democracy (from direct to electoral) — are related to the way that the family of footballers in Buenos Aires responded to globalization and the various local crises associated with it.
Football Clubs and Public Life
With nine first-division teams, an equal number of world-class stadiums (seating capacity: 361,000), and roughly one hundred and thirty games per season, Buenos Aires is one of the most football-centered cities in the world.9 Approximately 85 percent of Porteños describe themselves as fans of a local team. In 2003, at the peak of the crisis, 3 million of them (total population: 2.8 million) went to the stadium to cheer for their team.10 Porteños also enjoy watching football on television. Fourteen of the fifteen top-rated programs are wholly dedicated to the sport, representing a total of one hundred hours of programming per week. Roughly 47 percent of men and 17 percent women view one of these programs three or more times a week; another 35 percent of men and 31 percent of women tune in once or twice a week; the remaining 18 percent of men and 52 percent of women never view them.11 Just as the Balinese are deeply passionate about fighting cocks, Porteños are emotionally invested when it comes to dribbling balls.12
Because football clubs have been constitutive of Porteño public life since the turn of the last century (far longer than any political party), the socioeconomic and representational crises brought on by neoliberalism took on an added dimension. In this country of “immigrants, the emergence of the universal vote, the expansion of radicalism and Peronism, and growing unionization, the club was the most massive and frequent form of voluntary association. As if it were a true social mania, beginning at the turn of the (last) century and continuing until four decades later, a multitude of clubs appeared in each neighborhood . . . , with each of them responsible for organizing recreational, leisure, athletic, and social life of local residents.”13 Despite the many and varied changes that football clubs experienced over the century, they have remained the most significant and enduring form of associative life in Buenos Aires. Moreover, they have continued to operate as member-owned civic groups rather than as private corporations, which has become the norm throughout the rest of Latin America and Europe.14 Members of football clubs in Buenos Aires enjoy, without charge or for a nominal fee, a broad range of activities and services, including unlimited use of their club’s multisport complex, where they can practice or learn a number of sports (weight lifting, martial arts, swimming, basketball, paddleball, volleyball, aerobics) under the supervision of trained instructors. Clubs also have a small staff of doctors and nurses that offer routine checkups and specialized care (pediatrics, gynecological, odontological, kinesiological) as well as a pharmacy where generic drugs are sold at a substantial discount. Most clubs offer members introductorylevel courses in computer science and English, afterschool tutoring in reading and math, lecture series and theatre workshops for senior citizens, adult education, and a certificate in child care and needlework to enable the unemployed amongst them to secure a job. In addition, nearly all first-division clubs in Buenos Aires have outreach programs that provide needy families from the surrounding neighborhood with scholarships so that they can join the club; year-round sports clinics and summer camps for their children; and community kitchens that serve daily breakfast and afternoon snacks to hundreds of children and senior citizens and provide them bags of foodstuffs each month.15
During President Carlos Menem’s government (in the 1990s), despite repeated attempts by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to privatize the football clubs, they remained the only public institution in the country that succeeded in defying the decade-long campaign launched against them.16 However, in order to survive and preserve their status as civic associations, clubs were forced to adopt radical measures.17 Some declared bankruptcy to prevent creditors from foreclosing on long-overdue debts and gaining ownership of them; others subcontracted various of their money-making activities (television rights, merchandising of club products) to private investors while retaining control of the club; still others raised monthly fees and reduced the number of benefits and services provided to members.18 All of them had to export and sell their most talented players to European teams and use the income to liquidate their debts. Most clubs employed several of these strategies, with Boca proving to be the most successful in combining them in order to preserve its status as a civic organization.
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Dilip Gaonkar’s and Claudio Lomnitz’s criticisms of an earlier draft led me to rethink my argument. I am also grateful to Patrizia Nanz and Charles Taylor for inviting me to present this essay to the Cultures of Democracy Colloquium at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and to Marcelo Cavarozzi and Arturo Fernández for the opportunity to discuss it with members of the faculty seminar that they lead in the Department of Politics at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín. All thirty interviews that inform this essay were undertaken between November 2003 and February 2004. The majority of them (twenty) were conducted with local residents from poor neighborhoods along the city’s southern rim (La Boca, Barracas, Villa Lugano, and Mataderos); the remaining ten were conducted with middle-class residents in the central and northern dictricts (Nuñez, Flores, and Belgrano). All interviews were conducted in Spanish, and all translations are the author’s. Santiago Garraño conducted fifteen of the interviews; the author conducted the rest. Leonardo Hirsch located and verified some of the numerical figures related to football life in Buenos Aires.
- Interview 14.
- Interview 14.
- Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 122 – 73.
- Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 93 – 95.
- Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (New York: Random House, 1999); James Houston, Cities and Citizenship (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999).
- Maristella Svampa, La sociedad excluyente: La Argentina bajo el signo del neoliberalismo (Buenos Aires: Taurus, 2005).
- T. H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship, and Social Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).
- Leandro Gutiérrez and Luís A. Romero, Sectores populares y cultura política. Buenos Aires en la entreguerra (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1995); Luciano de Privitello, Vecinos y ciudadanos: Política y sociedad en la Buenos Aires de entreguerras (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2003), 105 – 83; Omar Acha, “Sociedad civil y sociedad política durante el primer peronismo,” Desarrollo económico 44, no. 174 (2004): 199 – 230; Luciano de Privitello and Luís Alberto Romero, “Organizaciones de la sociedad civil, tradiciones cívicas y cultura política: El caso de Buenos Aires, 1912 – 1976,” Revista de historia, I-1 (Fall 2005): 1 – 34.
- The number of first-division teams in Buenos Aires varies slightly from year to year due to the system of relegation-ascension based on the number of points accumulated by each squad during the season. Other football-centered cities (Sao Paulo; Milan, Rome, and Turin; London, Manchester, and Liverpool) have two first-division teams, one or two stadiums, and rarely host more than sixty games per season. Rio de Janeiro is an exception, with four clubs, three stadiums, and eighty or so games per season. But Rio has a population of six million. For information on football clubs around the world, see Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, wikipedia.org.
- Subsecretaría de seguridad en espectáculos futbolísticos, 2004: Una año más por un fútbol en paz (Buenos Aires: Ministerio del Interior, 2005).
- Gaspar Zímerman, “Un país con los ojos llenos de fútbol,” Clarín, March 19, 1997; “Sobredosis de fútbol en TV,” Clarín, October 1, 1996; Adriana Martínez Vivot and Eduardo Ovalles, “Fútbol como fenómeno social,” in Nueva Mayoría: Investigaciones, ed. Rosendo Fraga (Buenos Aires: Centro de Estudios de la Nueva Mayoría, 1997), 3 – 6.
- Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 412 – 54.
- Ariel Scher, “Las manos de unos pocos,” Página 12, July 15, 1994.
- F. C. Schalke in the German city of Gelsenkirchen, along with F. C. Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, remain Europe’s only member-owned civic associations.
- For a detailed description, see the annual reports (Memorias y Balances) published between 1995 and 2002 by Boca, River Plate, Vélez-Sarsfield, Huracán, Independiente, and San Lorenzo.
- Gustavo Rozano and Leonardo Morales, “Voces y contactos,” Clarín, March 11, 2000.
- Juan Manuel Compte, “El fútbol local no seduce a los inversores grandes,” Clarín, February 12, 2001. Argentina’s top twenty football clubs owe a combined total of U.S.$ 341 million. Most of them are behind schedule in paying their debts.
- Gustavo Veiga, Fútbol limpio, negocios turbios (Buenos Aires: Astralib, 2002).