Bolivia: The president's football team

Evo Morales's plan to nationalise Bolivia's football team says a lot about his economic vision – and his love of the sport

Benjamin Dangl, Saturday 19 September 2009

Every Sunday night in La Paz, Bolivia the football stadium comes to life, with its bright lights dimming the stars. After the game, fireworks pound at the cool air and fans roam the streets shaking banners and cans of beer. This happens regardless of what political crisis or triumph the country is going through.

"Whether it's something we celebrate together, or a shipwreck that takes us all down, soccer counts in Latin America, sometimes more than anything else," Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

So when Bolivia's football team recently failed to qualify for the World Cup, devoted fan and socialist President Evo Morales suggested an approach he's taken when other businesses haven't thrived. To solve the team's problem, he said: "What better thing than the intervention of the state?"

Putting the football industry under state control would follow in the footsteps of other nationalisations the popular president has carried out in the gas, tin and telecommunications sectors.

"We're sorry about the performance of our team in the qualifiers," Morales told reporters in Bolivia. "Until now [football] has been [controlled] by private, autonomous entities ... but they aren't getting results." He said nationalisation would "dignify" the national team.

Though not always a fool-proof solution, recent history in Bolivia shows that state control of certain industries and companies has been more efficient than private control. Under Morales, the Bolivian state has often acted in the people's best interest more than, for example, a foreign gas corporation. State-controlled industries have also generated revenue for the impoverished government, providing funds for much-needed social programmes and development work.

Morales's plan for the country's football team says a lot about his economic vision for the country, a vision that buoys his popularity and, according to recent polls, ensures he will be elected president again by a wide margin in the December elections. It also speaks of his love for football, a sport that led him to the presidential palace.

When he was 13, Morales, a child of poor farmers, began a team called Fraternidad (Brotherhood) in his small community in the Bolivian highlands. He took on the role of captain, player, referee and fundraiser. Morales explained: "I was like the owner of the team. I had to do the sheep shearing, for the llama wool. My father helped me. He was really a sportsman, we sold the wool to buy balls, uniforms."

When his family was forced by drought to migrate to the Chapare region to become coca farmers, he was quickly elected as the director of sports for the local coca union. That role led to other union positions as he rose through the ranks of the political left, eventually becoming president in 2005.

He has since played in La Paz with Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, sending the ball used in the game to Fidel Castro, signing it: "With admiration for Fidel." Later, he skipped a dinner with Chilean President Michele Bachelet to play a game in Santiago. His team beat the Chilean pros by 8 to 1.

Morales is right in seeking to put Bolivia's football team under state control. This multi-billion dollar business has favoured corporate elites for decades, separating the sport from the Latin American working-class culture that embraces and sustains it.

"Soccer is an integrator," Morales told Fox News last year. "It doesn't just have to do with championships, trophies or medals. It means much more than that. Soccer makes us forget the politicians who are our specific problems. Even poverty, if only for 90 minutes, gives way to this social phenomenon."

Republished from The Guardian

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