Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Playing Political Football

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jun 10 2010 (IPS) - The Mexican government and capital city authorities are making the most of the national football team’s participation in the FIFA World Cup beginning Friday in South Africa, by using the sport’s power to distract public attention away from the economic crisis and the violent battle against drug trafficking.

The intertwining of football and politics is indicated by conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s plans to attend the opening match of the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) championship, between Mexico and South Africa. The Foreign Ministry described the president’s visit as a working trip.

“Football is a sport with mass appeal, that allows people to vent their frustrations and let off steam about their day to day reality. Now it has political overtones, because it attracts large gatherings that can be used to get campaign messages across,” analyst Juan Ibarrola told IPS.

In May, the government organised a poll to sound out public opinion about Calderón’s possible visit to South Africa. Between 59 and 63 percent of respondents were in favour of the trip, and so for the first time in Mexican history the president will attend a World Cup match to watch the national team play.

Calderón, who has been invited to the World Cup inaugural ceremony by South African President Jacob Zuma, has met with the Mexican squad at least four times since June 2009.

“Football is all the rage right now. The government is aware of this, and is taking the opportunity to raise people’s morale, or to avoid doing certain things,” Erasmo Zarazúa, of the Department of International Relations at the private Iberoamerican University, told IPS.

The Calderón administration has taken advantage of football fever to make certain announcements.

For instance, when the Mexican team played El Salvador on Oct. 10 last year in a qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup finals, the Calderón administration seized the opportunity to decree the liquidation of the state electricity company Luz y Fuerza del Centro, sparking a conflict that has still not been settled.

The Supreme Court is examining whether or not the closure of the company was unconstitutional, and a group of dismissed workers have held continuous protests, and are now on hunger strike.

According to a nationwide poll by Mitofsky Consultants, results of which were released on Tuesday, half the Mexican population is interested, to varying degrees, in the world football championship.

Javier Aguirre, the Mexican team’s Spanish coach, whose photograph is splashed across the front pages of national newspapers and magazines, has not escaped the political power plays.

“South Africa identifies strongly with its president, as shown in the film ‘Invictus’. We too are well served on this front. Imagine what it’s like for the lads to spend time with the president’s family,” said Aguirre on May 7, after a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador, played in the U.S. state of New Jersey.

“Invictus” (2009), directed by Clint Eastwood, portrays the way former South African president Nelson Mandela (1994-1999) used the 1995 Rugby World Cup — hosted and won by South Africa — to unite society after the demise of the apartheid regime.

On May 30, Aguirre appeared in a spot broadcast by the private networks Televisa and TV Azteca, calling for the country to change “from the Mexico of ‘yes, we can’ to the Mexico of ‘yes, we could and did!’

“It is 2010, and it seems impossible for us to become the great, safe, just and prosperous country that we all want. But once again, it is time to act,” said the coach, referring to the 200th anniversary of independence from Spain (1810) and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution (1910).

Afterwards Aguirre, who also coached the national team in the 2002 World Cup hosted by Japan and South Korea, took part in the television programme “Discutamos Mexico” (Let’s Talk About Mexico) aired Jun. 8 by state channels 11 and 22.

“If I tell the players, ‘Look, the country is desperate for good news, the economy is on a drip feed, the violence is appalling, society isn’t working, so let’s do our part, let’s win the World Cup!’ — can you imagine the pressure I’d be putting on them?” he said.

The Public Education Ministry has given permission for Mexico’s first round matches — with France and Uruguay, as well as with South Africa — to be watched in every school. Companies are also expected to be flexible in order to allow their workers to see the games.

“It will be a good thing if the team wins, because it will instantly cheer people up, but on the other hand the politicians could exploit the moment to take actions that no one will notice in all the euphoria of Mexico winning a match,” Ibarrola said.

The leftwing government of the capital city also sees the championship as an opportunity to make political hay. In the Zócalo, the main square in the historic centre of Mexico City, several giant screens will be set up for live broadcasts of the matches, as part of the FIFA Fan Fest.

The FIFA Fan Fest was organised for the first time during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Mexico City joins five other world cities and nine sites in South Africa that are to provide these displays throughout the 2010 championship.

But while cutting edge technology broadcasts the World Cup games, in a corner of the Zócalo a group of members of the Mexican Electricians Union (SME), which represents former workers of Luz y Fuerza del Centro, will be continuing their protest and hunger strike against the government’s decision to shut down the company.

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