Football, Regionalism, and Its Influence in Multiple Dimensions in Latin America

Football, a sport that is also an important element of life in Latin America. Being the most popular sport, a lot of other elements are also getting involved.

Football, a sport that is also an important element of life in Latin America. Being the most popular sport, a lot of other elements are also getting involved in football, such as the development of technology, politics, and economics (Bar-On, 1997). In Latin America, football has become a unifier of various elements of the country and has even unified the continent itself through regionalism. So, how is football related to regionalism in Latin America? What issues are related to football in Latin American countries as a unified regionalism?

Regionalism and CONMEBOL

Before discussing further about football and Latin American regionalism, let’s discuss the term regionalism. According to Stubbs, R. and Underhill, G.R. (2000), there are three concepts in regionalism, namely region, regionalization, and regionalism. The concept of region originated from a geographical perspective related to the proximity of regions and similarities in culture, history, and problems the countries had faced. In this concept, Latin American countries are geographically close to each other, being located on the same South American continent.

In the concept of regionalization, countries in one region then intensify their interaction and cooperation. Latin American countries collaborate in the fields of economy, tourism, and sports (football). Then, the concept of regionalism is focused on the official attachment of countries in a region that has become a regionalization. In the context of football, Latin American countries are united under the umbrella of regionalism in the form of the CONMEBOL football confederation.

CONMEBOL (Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol) is a football confederation that houses 10 countries’ football federations, namely Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. There are also 3 South American countries that are not affiliated with CONMEBOL but with CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football), namely Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname, because of their closeness in cultural aspects to Caribbean countries.

The CONMEBOL countries are united by football, which is said to be the national sport of the majority of Latin American countries. CONMEBOL countries’ passion for football can be clearly seen in the huge names in world-level football from Messi and Neymar, to legends such as Garrincha, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo Naźario, and Maradona. With the massive popularity of football in Latin America, it cannot be denied that many aspects of the region are closely related to football, for example, in the fields of economics and tourism, politics, and social issues.

CONMEBOL Countries, Football and Tourism

Every two years, CONMEBOL holds the COPA América competition, which brings together the national teams of Latin American countries, sometimes even inviting teams from other confederations (In 2024, COPA América will be held in the CONCACAF country, the United States of America). Hosting the Copa América has a major impact on the host country’s economy and tourism. In 2019, there was a significant growth in the number of foreign tourists from the Latin American region to Brazil, which at that time was hosting the Copa América. Even in a city like Porto Alegre, hotels reached 100% occupancy with a profit of 180 million Brazilian Reals during the Copa América (Furquim, 2019). During the Copa América in Brazil in 2019, there was an increase in demand for tickets to Brazil, almost 5 times more than usual, by Brazilian citizens. Followed by Peruvians (3 times bigger), Chileans (1.5 times bigger), Uruguayans and Ecuadorians (1 times bigger), and Argentines (64%). This increase shows the great influence of football on tourism and the economies of Latin American countries.

CONMEBOL Countries and Politics in Football

With the large influence of football in Latin America, many politicians use football to gain public support (Bar-On, 1997). Carlos Menem went to the national stadium wearing the national jersey of Argentina shortly after being elected president of Argentina in 1989, showing the great connection between politics and football in Argentina. Many Ecuadorians also believe that the great support of Abdula Buracam—Ecuador’s president at that time—for football was the key to Ecuador’s early success in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup (Bar-On, 1997). The same thing happens in other Latin American countries: many politicians enter the football world to gather support, for example, Abdula Buracam, who distributes intensive state funds for the advancement of football.

CONMEBOL Countries and Social Issues in Football

In multicultural and multi-ethnic countries such as Brazil and Peru, Hecht in Bar-On (1997) states that football is the main factor in alleviating the gap between white and colored races. Arbena in Bar-On (1997) states that football in Latin America is used as a medium for teaching constructive values, instilling morals, helping reduce health problems, and developing ideas of community and cooperation. Football is also used to carry out social transformation, for example, by carrying out social campaigns. In Latin America, Sócrates from the São Paulo Corinthians club, who is also a big name in Brazil, led a public campaign for the issue of national democratization in the 1980s (Bar-On, 1997).

CONMEBOL Countries and Gender Issues in Football

Despite having positive impacts in various fields, in Latin America, football is still considered a sport exclusively for men. With the big influence of football in life, women are also involved in football, but usually only as supporters. The narrative that winning in a football game is a result of ‘manliness’ and ‘masculinity’ makes many women reluctant to ‘tarnish’ their femininity (Bar-On, 1997). In some countries, such as Brazil, women’s football has been trying to be elevated to the national level for the past few decades but is currently experiencing difficulties due to a lack of interest and inadequate public funding. In fact, there was a ban on women playing football in Paraguay until 1979 because it was ‘contrary’ to their ‘natural femininity’ (Henshaw in Bar-On, 1997).

In recent years, it has been clear that Latin American football has improved. In 2009, the most important competition of private clubs in South America, COPA Libertadores, created the female version of the event, following the male version that was founded 50 years earlier. Although, there are still a lot of gender issues in the female football scene. There are only three Latin American countries that have had women’s football championships for more than 20 years: Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In Brazil, despite being the second-oldest country with a female football championship, they received less support from the Brazilians compared to the male version of it. Other countries, such as Mexico and Colombia, are currently growing their women’s football league, showing significant growth in this sport.

Football has become an important element in the lives of countries in the Latin American region and has unified many countries under the CONMEBOL confederation. As a regionalism, CONMEBOL countries have faced several similar things, for example, with the political expansion into football. With the massive popularity of football in Latin American countries, many politicians are trying to gain support by entering the football world. There are also many agendas and campaigns carried out with football as a media to gain mass public awareness. Countries in the Latin American region also face the same problems regarding gender issues in football, as football is considered an exclusive sport for men and goes against the femininity of women.

With the vast aspects covered by football in Latin America, football has a big impact on the daily lives of many Latin Americans. Football is not only a unifying element in Latin America, but is also a changemaker tool in various elements, such as politics, economics, and many social issues. Therefore, the development of football will certainly (although indirectly) influence the development of the country itself. This certainly must be carefully considered to ensure the positive development of the Latin American region in various elements with football as a big impact bearer.

Caecilia Ega Sanjaya
Caecilia Ega Sanjaya
Caecilia Ega Sanjaya is an undergraduate student of International Relations at Gadjah Mada University. Ega has always been interested in issues related to her International Relations study, as well as social issues, particularly related to education, culture, and gender.