Latin American Politics: Politics & Football in Argentina

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There is no denying that football is the most fanatically followed sport in Argentina, like many Latin American neighbors. However, it is unique that in Argentina in that football and politics have remained inseparably linked throughout history and this uneasy partnership has at times threatened to detonate on the global stage. Argentines are some of the most passionate people in the world, so when you intertwine two of the practices that people put their emotions behind the most, football and politics, you will inevitably see fireworks. Football, whether people like it or not, is an extension of politics; it is a known unknown of the political system and it is often the case that a domestic sporting issue rapidly becomes politicized, shaking political leaders and institutions alike. In this essay, I will argue that football has often been used as a political tool in Argentina throughout the twentieth century, and will do so by examining the history of politics and football in Argentina from the progressive Peronist policies of the 1940s, through the junta dictatorship which tainted the 1978 World Cup triumph, to the way political violence is ineluctably associated with football, and how this impacted contemporary football and politics alike.

Football and politics have been inextricably linked in Argentina for decades, and perhaps the starting point of this at times awkward union can be traced back to the first presidency of Juan Peron, one of Argentina’s most famous political leaders. Peron, as president of the nation along with his wife Eva “Evita” Peron, were known to champion the rights of the relatively new working class of Argentines as the nation’s industry developed internally for the first time. Although football is extremely popular for all groups and classes of Argentinians, it is known to particularly thrive in the lower classes of Latin societies, including Argentina. (Walter 26)

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Perón was immensely popular with fans of Boca Juniors, a hugely popular Argentine club in the working-class barrio of La Boca, in Buenos Aries which he was a fan of. Fans regularly chanted “Boca, Perón, una Corazon” () as a sign of his popularity. Juan Perón saw the benefits of using sporting team to symbolize the unity and togetherness he wanted to see in the people of Argentina. His party came up with catchphrases such as “Perón, The First Sportsman” and “Perón Sponsors Sports” () to solidify his image as a champion of sporting progress in the country. Perón was very astute and practical; he recognized the extreme popularity of football around his country and knew he could use football as a vehicle for political advancement, as football is a tool to get to the minds and hearts of Argentinians. Football matches in the Argentine First Division saw record attendances throughout his tenure as president. (Brinkerhoff 13) Péron soon realized that his ideals of social mobility and nationalism can easily be spread in football stadiums.

It was during the presidential regime of Juan Péron that Argentine government first exploited state intervention in football matches to achieve political goals. Expanding the broad appeal of sports, along with improving the infrastructure such as the stadiums and the training facilities of top football clubs in the nation became one of the top administrative priorities regarding societal issues in Péron first stint as president. Perón became insistent on showing a positive image of Argentina on the global stage as political propaganda and sought out success on the football pitches around the world to achieve this.

Having imbued the institution of football, Perón tightened his grip on the media, including sport media, with the intention of imbedding his populist ideals within them. He replaced El Gráfíco, the leading Argentine sports magazine, with Mundo Deportivo as he said the old magazine had failed to adequately applaud and acknowledge his accomplishments in the world of sport. (Brinkerhoff 9) Péron gained complete control over what the new magazine printed, so then he often used the metaphor of Argentina as a sports team, using it to promote and spread his idea of solidarity, teamwork and nationalism. (Brinkerhoff 4) Looking back in hindsight at how invested Péron was in Argentine football, it is quite interesting that if you look back at both the 1949 Copa America and the 1950 World Cup, Argentine teams did not attend as losing could be considered a national calamity and horrible for the image of himself and the nation. (Reuters) Club football in Argentina was one of the most effective ways Péron morphed the political and sporting landscape.

Peron equated his success with sporting success so much that medals achieved under Perón were named medallas peronistas (Perónist medals). (Duke & Crolly 103)

It became normal practice during the Perónist period for football clubs to have a padrino (godfather, patron) within government, who often also doubled as directors at the club. Perón’s finance minister Ramón Cereijo was a prime example of just this, how people in privileged political positions can easily become benefactors for the teams they loved. Cereijo’s childhood team was Racing Club and once he was in office, he helped the club by loaning large sums of money to the club in order to play high player wages, allowing Racing Club to acquire some of the best players in Argentina. With the influence of Cereijo as a club ambassador wealthy club funder, Racing claimed three successive titles from 1949 to 1951 and consequently became associated with wealth.

The example of the Peronist regime demonstrates the strong ties shared by football and politics in Argentina and it was in post-Perón era that the two really began to overlap and formulate each other. Perón’s government had laid the groundwork for future administrations to use football as a political tool, most notably the Argentine junta, headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla, which saw the World Cup in 1978 being hosted in Argentina as a great political opportunity. Videla headed a military coup that assumed power in March 1976 following an economic crisis a year earlier, overthrowing Isabel Perón, and his military dictatorship is widely regarded as one of the most violent examples of politics permeating football.

Videla used the 1978 World Cup as a political tool to help draw eyes away from the “Dirty War” that was then ongoing in the nation. He hoped that success on footballs biggest stage would relieve the rising political instability in the country. The triumph for Argentina, helped in no small part by the goals of anti-junta Argentine players, sparked a frenzy of national pride. The tournament was shroud in controversy, stemming from suspicions that the military junta had fixed it. Although fixing of the tournament has never been officially ruled, it is clear that the junta ruled with terror and brutality, and often intertwined its agenda with football. When the tournament started, Videla’s junta was at its peak, exterminating rival parties and manipulating the national press and while millions absorbed the exciting footballing spectacle on their TV sets, thousands of political activists were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The World cup served as an elaborate mask for the murderous activities of Videla’s rule, with Argentina’s victory in the final confirming, in his eyes, a sense of national pride.

The amount of influence and sway that the junta had on then 1978 World Cup, and in Argentine football in general has been the topic of much discussion. Many of the critics of the junta point to the 6-0 result vs Peru at the fateful 1978 World Cup as evidence that the beautiful game had been manipulated at the hands of Videla and the state. Peru were a great team in 1978, recently coming off of a Copa America victory in 1975 and nearing the end of a golden generation of being captained by José Velásquez, inarguably one of the best players at the tournament, they were expected to do exceedingly well at the World Cup on their home continent. (Mundial 78) Videla, whom on this day was accompanied by Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, had attended nine games over the course of the 1978 World Cup, including most of Argentina’s appearances, and Peru’s was the only locker room the general visited. Videla ominously said “I just wanted to tell you this game tonight is one between brothers, and in the name of Latin American brotherhood, I am here to share my hopes that things turn out well. Latin America is watching you.” (Bensinger) Videla finished by reading a letter from the dictator of Peru, General Francisco Morales-Bermúdez, that spoke of cooperation between the two nations. Then he and Kissinger, along with a heavily armed military escort, turned and left. The football match that ensued is one of the most discussed, analyzed, and scrutinized matches in the history of the World Cup. With Peru losing 2-0 at halftime to Argentina, the country needed their star, José Velásquez to be the spark for a comeback and reach the final. He was substituted and did not reappear for the second half. Velásquez has openly claimed over the years that he was substituted due to political pressure from the government. (Mundial 78) Velásquez said that the Peruvians were told that they were to lose the game. Peru’s captain, Héctor Chumpitaz, was also substituted to assure the Argentines had the easiest possible route to the final. He said: “Something happened. Our team was changed. I was changed in the tenth minute of the second half, when we were already losing by two goals. There was no reason to change me. I always was an important piece in our team. So, what can one think?” (Bensinger)

Numerous allegations have since been made implying corruption. These include players being offered six-digit sums of money to throw the game and Peru being forced to insert injured players into the lineup while they substitute their best players. The heaviest legend surrounding the match was that Videla struck a secret political deal with president Morales-Bermúdez that would see Argentina win the match comfortably. In exchange, it is said that Videla took Peruvian political prisoners from Peru into Argentina to “disappear them”. What exactly took place on that fateful day in Rosario is unknown, but the role of Videla’s junta in the World Cup on the world stage is well documented and it again highlights the close relationship between politics and football in Argentina.

Less than a mile away from El Monumental, where Argentina would go on win the World Cup of ’78, lied the ESMA, one of the main illegal detention centers for the Junta. Over the course of the Dirty War, almost 5,000 people were abducted and held illegally; all except 150 were killed during or after interrogation and torture. (Daniels) After the victory, guards at the ESMA took some of their prisoners to waiting cars and subsequently drove them around the city to witness the mass euphoria of winning a World Cup, even ordering them to put their heads out the windows and watch. (Mundial 78) According to later recollections, one driver even stopped at a local bar and pizzeria where celebrations were taking place and let the prisoners, many of whom hadn’t been outside the compound walls for years, stood there, pale, trembling and terrified as inebriated patrons jumped on tables and sang victorious songs loudly. Nobody seemed to notice when they were put back in the cars and taken back to the detention centers. (Bensinger)

With the team going on to defeat the Netherlands in the final, Videla had achieved a primary objective in displaying Argentina as a powerful nation through the heroic achievements of their footballers while he drew the world’s attention away from the bleak economic climate and the horrifying actions of his junta. “I want to thank those who permitted Argentina to be the host of this event and gave the Argentine people a chance to show what it is capable of,” (Bensinger) Videla said. When looking back upon the world cup in later years, the leader said the World Cup was a “symbol of peace”. (Bensinger)

The most contemporary resonating element of Videla’s involvement in football is that when intertwined, football and politics rarely have a happy ending. The Diego Maradona-led world champions of 1986 are continuously glorified, while the squad of 1978 appear as inconspicuous footnotes when discussing Argentine World Cup victories, simply due to football being intertwined with politics. The squad who won the World Cup in 1978 are not being criminalized, but their involuntary association with a corrupt military junta left scars that are still not fully healed.

Today, the most observable intersection between football and politics are the existence of barrabravas. The emergence and development of these barrabravas was aided by wealthy directors of Argentine clubs, often in politics, who paid members of the factions to “rule the terraces”. (Página/12) Even on top of benefits such as free travel to away fixtures and admission the barrabravas, especially at the more famous clubs in Argentina, earn a comfortable living from the sale of merchandise and refreshments, and the control of parking lots around the stadium. Barrabravas are surely hardcore football fans, as they appear, but are inarguably extension of politics, representing the politicization of football in Argentina. Even as football hooliganism has been a problem worldwide, it has been notoriously hard to stamp out in Argentina, with many feeling that it is because of the deep connections between the barrabravas and police, journalists and, of course, politicians, that enables the hooligans to continue to operate at a level above the law.

Through the establishment of Peronism and the use of football as a political vehicle, through to the violent and treacherous dealings of General Videla’s dictatorship and finally the notorious history of the hundreds of barrabrava groups in Argentine football, it is clear to see that football and politics in Argentina share a tumultuous but closely intertwined history. Political leaders have often taken advantage of Argentinians near-religious footballing culture and used it as an expression of nationalism and pride, and as a stage with the entire nations eyes on it for which to project an image of unity and strength whilst covering up corruption alongside brutality at the core of a military junta. and this uneasy partnership has at times threatened to detonate on the global stage.


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