This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

Many European football fans view South America as the ultimate embodiment of football as much more than just a game, with incredible fan culture and intimate relationships between football and politics. In Passion of the People (1994), Tony Mason seeks to study the origins of the beautiful game in the continent and examine the accuracy of this romanticised depiction.

In Brazil, where attendances were as high as 70,000 by 1940, leading clubs excluded the working and middle-classes from the sport. Mason describes how Fluminese led the way, aiming for football to be ‘separate’ from ‘social and economic life’ and vesting power in wealthy shareholders. An influx of middle-class members, however, put pressure on elites while the growth of professional footballers – who were overwhelmingly working-class – fought for pensions and disability benefits via unions. Therefore, football was viewed by politicians as the way to sustain their regimes; some such as General Pinochet as Chile went as far as to save clubs from administration to keep Chile’s professional league going. Mason argues that football changed from a site of oppression and elitism to resistance and populism. He emphasises that it ‘did not become part of popular culture without struggle’, noting attempts to exclude workers and black people from the game.

The key question is whether football can be truly labelled as the passion of the people, in a continent where dictators and the media have been keen to sustain this image for popularity and sales respectively. This narrative is absorbed by European audiences. For Mason, the people of South America are clearly more ‘football-mad’ than anywhere else in the world. In Argentina, each team had ‘hinchas’ whose fifty foot long banners would span one half of the stadium, while the ‘barras bravas’ would confront the opposition fans opposite to create intimidating atmospheres. It is easy to portray football as merely an ‘opiate of the people’, used by the elites to keep everyone distracted from struggles of everyday life. But Mason convincingly puts forward another view: football is the ultimate distraction from such worries, releasing ‘intense emotions not provided by the daily routine’. He references a Brazilian cartoon where a group of hungry supporters are bewildered when they are served a football instead of food by the chef. It’s the ultimate example of how football can unite everyone for 90 minutes but in between, fans – like everyone else – are not blind to reality. 

In a continent that suffers from high levels of poverty, racism and American imperialism, it is no wonder that football, which can be played barefoot in the street as well as in packed out international stadia, has captured the imaginations of so many.

By Jamie Greer