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The blessing of Soccer

In Mexico, soccer is as popular as any religious fiesta. It wasn’t always that way. During the first half of the 20th century, it was rivaled by other sports. Baseball was brought into the country by U.S. companies (mining, railroad, and oil) established along the northern border, in the tropical gulf regions, and along the Pacific coast. Football (“American” football) was popular among the student bodies of the era’s two principal institutions of higher learning: the National University and the Polytechnic Institute. Bullfighting had been practiced since colonial times (1521-1821), and reached its zenith in the 1940’s, when legendary Mexican bullfighters went head to head with Spanish bullfighters, as if in a restaging of the War of Conquest. Boxing was a good fit for the stoic Mexican character, accustomed since Aztec times to stand firm, defend itself, and weather the assaults of nature, history, and capricious gods. Lucha libre, a Mexican form of wrestling, became very popular because the wrestlers wore masks, a custom predating the Conquest. But suddenly, on the eve of World War II, all of these spectacles paled before the game imported around 1902 by English miners. No one calls it “soccer.” It’s simply futbol, and today it’s the national sport.

One of the reasons for its popularity — like so many things in a country as old as Mexico — may be historical. It’s possible that soccer appeals to a memory even older than the Conquest: the pre-Hispanic ball games that were played on open courts, where players used their bodies — but not their hands — to send a hard rubber ball through a small stone hoop projecting from the wall. The crowds cheered, as they do today, but the game didn’t come to a peaceful conclusion, ending instead with the physical sacrifice of one of the opposing teams. That legendary game was the metaphor for a cosmic battle. Since then, many centuries have passed. Blood no longer runs down the stands. But soccer continues to possess an almost cosmic importance in Mexico. The Mexican selection is almost seen as the collective incarnation of the national soul: if it wins, all is bliss and joy; if it loses, unhappiness reaches the level of mass depression.

But regardless of its precursors and meaning, soccer in Mexico is a social blessing. No matter where you go, even in the poorest and remotest corners of the country, there are vacant lots known as llanos, and Sunday after Sunday, a ritual takes place on them that is almost as important as the fiesta of the country’s patron saint: it is llanero soccer, the game in which twenty-two players, proud of their colors, dash happily after a ball raising fleeting dust sculptures in their wake. There, just as during the popular fiestas, time stops and sorrows are forgotten, especially at the sacramental moment when the awaited-for miracle occurs: the miracle of the goal.

Now Mexico faces two events of near cosmic importance: it’s participation in the World Cup and the elections to choose both the Executive and the Congress. A victory or defeat of the Mexican team in the first round (against Iran, Angola and Portugal) might affect the outcome of the forthcoming elections (July 2): If Mexico wins, the mood will be cheerful, which would probably favor the candidate of the P.A.N. (National Action Party); but if it looses the votes could go the leading candidate of the opposition, the P.R.D. (Democratic Revolution Party). Anything can happen both in politics and in soccer, but my own experience convinces me of one thing: so long as there is a father playing soccer with his son — in a park, an alley, a yard, a llano — Mexico will have hope.

Publicado en el blog "Kicking and Screaming" de The New York Times, 10 de junio de 2006.

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