On Monday June 25 Hernán Mejía Campuzano, first vice-president of the Colombian Soccer Federation (FCF), was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas at a rural roadblock near the city of Pereira in western Colombia. Four days later he was released. “There is no question that the FARC made a mistake,” he told reporters. “I was at my ranch and was swept into what they call a ‘miraculous catch.’ When they realized what a reaction they provoked, they couldn’t get rid of me fast enough.” Mejía is the country’s chief organizer of the 2001 Copa America, a 12-team tournament scheduled to be played in Colombia among the national teams of 10 South American countries plus two invited guests. The kidnapping put a crimp in the schedule—and in Colombia’s national pride.
Just a few days after his release, Mejía was in Buenos Aires trying to convince the South American Soccer Confederation (Conmebol) not to call off or relocate the tournament. With the backing of the event’s transnational sponsors—notably Coca Cola, Mastercard and the Brazilian telecasters Traffic—he succeeded in convincing the group to reconsider, but he had a hard time with the Argentines themselves, who wanted the Copa moved to another country. That raised his patriotic ire.
“They have no right to take the Cup away from us,” he told the Argentine sports daily Olé. “They always believe that Brazil is Brazil, Argentina is Argentina and the rest of us don’t matter. But...the decision of Conmebol is a triumph for the weak over the powerful. Like it or not, the Cup will be played in Colombia.”
Colombia, soccer fans will remember, was slated to host the 1986 World Cup, but lost the event at the last minute when it became clear that the country, in the midst of violence and disorganization, had neither the political nor the economic resources to host the games. Colombia, those same fans will remember, is the country whose first-round loss in the 1994 World Cup was so traumatic to some citizens that national team star Andrés Escobar, responsible for a game-losing own-goal against a mediocre U.S. squad, was shot dead outside a Bogotá nightclub shortly after the team’s elimination. Now Colombia, still in the midst of violence and disorganization, is the country to which other countries are reluctant to send their star players.
Colombia is not the only country in which soccer mixes with national politics. As political demoralization stages a comeback throughout the region, poorer than expected play from national teams in the qualifying matches for World Cup 2002 has prompted national anguish in several countries.
“We watched Mexico-USA at the Cantina Corona,” writes an old friend from Mexico City, “and I have to say it was no big deal that la Selección beat your country. To tell you the truth, they are still sleepwalking through every game. It was nice to beat the Gringos but the “Tri” [the “tricolor,” same as the flag, same as the once-invincible PRI] is depressing all of Mexico.” Well, maybe not all of Mexico anguishes over the fate of “El Tri,” but as the national team struggles for a final classification spot among such soccer lightweights as Honduras and Jamaica, the country—already ambivalent about the new PAN, the U-turn on indigenous rights, the resilience of the old PRI caciques and news about paisanos dying in the Arizona desert—is in a muted mood.
The Mexicans, long accustomed to losing at some point in a World Cup tournament, are resigned and ironic about the fate of their national squad. Not so the Brazilians. The Brazilians, winners of four World Cups, always among the favorites, always the most exciting—inventors of o jogo bonito, the beautiful game—enter the tail end of the classification round with only six wins, against four losses and three ties, tied for the last qualifying position among the South American teams. The country faces an electricity shortage, scandals in Congress, a disappearing currency, the usual unrest among the dispossessed—and plummeting morale as the national team sinks into mediocrity!
And Ecuador—not used to winning much in these South American tournaments—has a Colombian coach who has thus far led the team to the brink of qualifying for the World Cup finals. Trouble is he didn’t pick the soccer-playing son of ex-president Abdala “El Loco” Bucaram, now exiled in Panama, for a spot on the team. This led some Bucaram loyalists to rough him up last winter. And then on May 8, he was shot three times leaving a hotel in Guayaquil. He survived to become an Ecuadorian hero, coaching the team to a victory over Peru—in Lima.
Meanwhile, at the Copa America, Coca Cola, Traffic and company are successfully protecting their investments: The games must go on! The Copa is being played as we go to press, though without many of the continent’s best players, and without the participation of Argentina, worried by threats its star players would be kidnapped for ransom.
And as we write these notes, a depleted and demoralized Brazilian team has lost its opening match to Mexico. And you still can’t turn the lights on in Rio.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Rosen is the Director and Editor of NACLA.