Why the Copa América Centenario Matters (Even Though it Shouldn’t)

Just over 100 years ago, in his essay Ariel, the Uruguayan intellectual José Enrique Rodó warned Latin Americans of a growing threat: nordomanía – a slavish devotion to all things North American. Rodó noted the utilitarianism and profit motive that formed the cornerstones of US cultural values, and worried that these would corrupt humanistic, moral, and broad-minded hispanismo in the rapidly modernizing nations of South America. With the start of the Copa América Centenario, the centennial South American Championship—in the United States—Rodó’s fears seem to have become reality.

Nordomanía has enthralled regional soccer federations and the marketers that dictate to them. By running the tournament off-cycle (the most recent iteration of the supposedly quadrennial event was last year), CONMEBOL and CONCACAF are exploiting the history of South American soccer for economic gain. And in hosting the Copa outside the region, they have missed the mark.

Call me a purist, but just as the 1996 Olympics should have been held in Athens rather than Atlanta (home of major Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola), the Copa América Centenario should have been in Buenos Aires. The first championship celebrated the centennial of Argentine independence, and was also the impetus for the creation of the South American Soccer Confederation. Thus, had this year’s tournament been in Buenos Aires, it would have been a celebration of both sport and nation. It would actually have had historical significance.

Instead of honoring that history, the confederations gave in to the profit motive. By holding the event in the United States, they sought to maximize marketing and television rights. Prior to the FIFA corruption scandal, which brought down Traffic Sports, the Copa América Centenario marketing firm, the tournament had already garnered $140 million in broadcasting fees, $75 million of which came from the United States. Certainly North America offers a huge, relatively untapped market, but poor planning has caused ticket sales to lag behind expectations.

Nordomanía has enthralled regional soccer federations and the marketers that dictate to them.

What I’m trying to say is that the tournament shouldn’t be happening this year, and it certainly should not be in the United States. Nor, practically, should it matter to anyone in the region.

The countries of the Americas are suffering through crises at every turn. Political problems plague many: in the United States, Donald Trump’s victory in the circus-like Republican primary has fueled a white supremacist surge; a “constitutional” coup in Brazil brought down the government of Dilma Rousseff, replacing it with a corrupt, unelected vice president who—without popular mandate—has begun dismantling many of the social programs instituted over the past decade; and Evo Morales faces accusations of corruption that exacerbate stiff opposition to his efforts to re-write the Bolivian constitution.

Economic crises dominate headlines as well. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, lacking the charisma and oil revenues of his predecessor, has instituted a state of emergency as inflation spikes and production languishes. Haiti’s economic problems date back decades, with no end in sight. A massive earthquake in Ecuador has shaken the economy and damaged fragile infrastructure.

Social problems roil the waters too: the kidnapping of former Mexican international Alan Pulido last Saturday served to underscore ongoing insecurity and impunity throughout Mexico, even if he was rescued on Monday; in Chile, student marches protesting the lack of promised educational reforms turned violent last week, as police used tear gas on demonstrators.

Latin American crises only serve to make the soccer this summer more important. Starting Friday, the attention of the region will be on eleven men and a small grass field.

Even in the realm of soccer there is controversy: Argentina’s government recently ordered an investigation into the Argentine Football Association, and called for a suspension of institutional elections. Should FIFA decide that this constitutes government intervention, Argentina could be suspended from international soccer.

In other words, the reasons that the Copa América shouldn’t matter are legion. The attention of the region should be elsewhere. It should be on the very real problems facing Latin America and Latin Americans.

Yet these crises only serve to make the soccer this summer more important. Starting Friday, the attention of the region will be on eleven men and a small grass field. Government offices will close. Men and women will call in sick to work. National holidays will be hastily created. Why?

There are obvious reasons why people will watch the Copa América Centenario. It boasts some of the best players in the world. Last year’s cynical—let us say utilitarian—play in (and by) Chile notwithstanding, it offers the potential for scintillating games. At its best, soccer gives rise to creativity and artistry. It is a fleeting, impermanent exhibition of human ability and human frailty. But there are less tangible explanations for its importance.

These reasons lie deep in national psyches. Soccer serves as a reflection of the nation. Since the arrival of the sport in the late nineteenth century, national and regional tensions have played out on the soccer pitch as much as they have in presidential palaces or military barracks. Triumphs on the field have paralleled—and led to—peaks in national pride, just as defeats sometimes have signaled political change and precipitated crises of identity.

More concretely, soccer arrived in Latin America at the same moment that the countries of the region consolidated and shaped their cultural, political, and economic identities. Massive flows of immigrants and—in some cases—newly freed slaves reshaped the demographics of the nations. Societies grappled with how to incorporate both groups as citizens. Some countries had to knit themselves together after years of civil war or internecine conflict. Industrial development led to new social classes, while universal male suffrage—and the lack of female suffrage—unleashed new social forces. Soccer helped navigate these challenges.

For three and a half weeks corruption, economic crises, and social unrest won’t matter.

Politicians used the sport to garner support. They built stadiums, funded soccer leagues, and used national team success as political propaganda. The people used the sport to undercut politicians: soccer games became sites of protest and teams the launch pads for political careers. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, soccer players and teams protested against military dictatorships, using their popularity to mobilize for democracy.

Importantly, the sport placed Latin America nations on a level playing field with other countries, both within and outside the region. At a time of intense Europhilia and self-doubt, soccer represented the potential for national progress and prowess. Uruguay could defeat its larger, meddling neighbors, and put itself on the global map. Argentina could compete with England on the soccer pitch even if its economy depended on British banks and imports. As the twentieth century wore on, the sport continued to be an avenue to reflect national power and project national aspirations.

Soccer became and remained a part of the language of national definition, in other words, because at some level it was—and is—Latin America. As a result, the Copa América Centenario matters intensely. Externally, it is at once a sporting competition and battle for national pride. Internally, it offers a chance to set aside class difference, political antagonisms, and racial or ethnic divisions in order to cheer on the nation. National and regional problems won’t dissipate during the tournament, but they will be temporarily set aside.

So, while the Copa América Centenario shouldn’t happen, shouldn’t be in the United States, and shouldn’t have any significance, it is here and it is important. For three and a half weeks corruption, economic crises, and social unrest won’t matter. Soccer will.

Joshua Nadel is author of Futbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America.