El Tri: A pagan religion for all

June 4
Fans of Mexico's soccer team gather at the Angel of Independence monument to celebrate their team's 2-1 victory over Brazil and winning of the gold medal for men's soccer at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, in Mexico City, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Fans of Mexico’s soccer team gather at the Angel of Independence monument to celebrate their team’s 2-1 victory over Brazil and winning of the gold medal for men’s soccer at the London 2012 Summer Olympics in Mexico City on Aug. 11, 2012. (Marco Ugarte/AP)

This is the third post in our series on politics, political science and the World Cup. Here are posts 1 and 2. The next set of posts will look at soccer, culture and identity in specific countries, starting with Mexico. Tamir Bar-On is a professor in the Department of International Relations and Humanities at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Querétaro, Mexico. He is the author of “The World Through Soccer: The Cultural Impact of a Global Sport.”

The great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once told an interviewer asking him about soccer, “If you want to talk about soccer, go talk to Juan Villoro.” According to Mexican intellectual Juan Villoro’s “Dios es redondo” (“God is round”), soccer is not merely a Mexican national passion, but rather a “secular religion.” In his new book “Balón dividido” (“Divided ball”), Villoro insists that soccer fans are superstitious and even religious, while soccer constitutes “a system of faith and beliefs.” Even if our team is losing 3-0, we still believe in “miracles,” argues Villoro.

A faith underscores the psychological need for belonging. “Soccer has much less to do with sporting triumphs than with the desire to form an emotional community,” insisted Villoro in a New York Times interview in 2013. In “Los once de la tribu” (“The Tribe of Eleven”), Villoro compared the national soccer team to a “tribe” and the players on the pitch represent “us,” “defend” what “defines us” and what is “ours,” and carry in their boots both “our hopes” and “our scars.”

Legendary Mexican international soccer heroes, from Hugo Sánchez to contemporary stars such as Javier Hernández and Giovani dos Santos, are Mexico’s “gods” and they play (or played) for us in pagan “temples,” sometimes on Sundays. Mexican national soccer teams often qualify for World Cup competitions, but have never fulfilled the country’s expectations. As a result, Mexico looked to individual “gods” to carry the banner of the nation abroad. Antonio Carbajal, a Mexican goalkeeper who played in five World Cups from 1950 to 1966, is a national legend because he is the only goalkeeper to play in five World Cups.

Mexican artist Manuel Mancilla agrees with Villoro’s assessment of soccer as a Mexican pagan religion. Mancilla’s paintings include “Juego de los dioses” (Game of the gods) and “Dioses del estadio” (Gods of the stadium). For Mancilla, soccer is a secular religion and its practitioners and fans experience the divine. One of his most beautiful paintings is called “La chilena de Chac-mool,” an ancient pre-Columbian figure performing the difficult “bicycle kick” maneuver. Chilena connotes bicycle kick, while Chac-mool refers to a form of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture showing a reclining figure with its head facing ninety degrees from the front, supporting itself on its elbows and holding a bowl or a disk upon its stomach. The figures first appeared in the Valley of Mexico among the Aztecs and the northern Yucatán Peninsula in the ninth century.

“Chac Mool” is also the title of a short story written by Carlos Fuentes. When Mexico defeated Panama in a key World Cup qualifier at the fabled Estadio Azteca in 2013, the game-winning goal was scored courtesy of a spectacular Raúl Jiménez chilena. On the night of the goal, Manuel Mancilla sent Raúl Jiménez the image of his “La chilena de Chac-mool” through Facebook and the star forward responded with a “like.”

A secular religion needs its temples and flock of believers. Soccer stadiums are “sacred sites” or “temples,” as Desmond Morris pointed out in his 1981 classic “The Soccer Tribe.” The soccer “temples” fulfill key human functions such as the need for belonging and the power of the group, argued Morris. Indeed, famous Mexican side Club Deportivo Guadalajara, more popularly known as “Chivas,” is nicknamed Rebaño Sagrado (Sacred Flock). Devoted Mexican believers of the national team need to visit Santa Úrsula (Saint Ursula), a large suburb in Mexico City. It is the site of Estadio Azteca and home to the Mexican national soccer team and Club América. It is the world’s third largest stadium. Azteca hosted two World Cups, in 1970 and 1986. Those two World Cup finals included the two greatest soccer “gods” the game has ever seen: Pelé and Maradona. In a soccer correspondence with the Argentinean writer Martín Caparrós, Juan Villoro asserted that a soccer match “without people is like a baptism without a child.” At the 1986 World Cup, Mexico played all of its first round matches at the Estadio Azteca: A 2-1 victory against Belgium in front of 110,000 fans; a 1-1 draw versus Paraguay witnessed by 114,000; and a 1-0 win against Iraq seen by 103,000. According to the University of California-Riverside English Professor and feminist cultural critic Jennifer Doyle, faith in the women’s game was evident when more than 100,000 fans attended the final of the unofficial women’s World Cup in 1971 at the Estadio Azteca. Denmark defeated Mexico 3-0. Contrary to FIFA’s claims, it is the largest crowd to ever attend a women’s soccer game.

Successive Mexican presidents have used soccer to distract the population from deep-seated corruption, decades of one-party Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) rule until 2000, extreme poverty, or the violence of the “war on drugs.” In 1988, Carlos Salinas de Gortari won Mexico’s presidential election through massive voting fraud. In the same year, the Mexican Football Federation was found guilty of fielding overage players in a CONCACAF U-20 tournament. FIFA banned Mexico from all international competitions for two years, thus excluding the national team from the 1990 World Cup.

Soccer is Mexico’s pagan religion for all social classes, both the powerful and the powerless, Yet, the politicization of soccer by Mexican politicians has not always succeeded. President Miguel de la Madrid inaugurated the 1986 World Cup, but as Duncan Tucker explains, “the audio engineers in the Estadio Azteca had to turn up his microphone in an attempt to drown out eight minutes of booing from the crowd.” Mexicans were extremely angry as a result of de la Madrid’s tepid response to the major earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985.

Mexico’s best World Cup results included reaching the quarterfinals in the 1970 and 1986 World Cups, both of which were held on Mexican soil. The hosting of the World Cup reflects the geopolitical imbalance of world politics, as few countries can host World Cup events. Mexico used the World Cups in 1970 and 1986 to win international favor and achieve an aura of advanced modernization in the eyes of domestic and international audiences. Writing in a 1992 issue of Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, the sports historian Joseph Arbena argued that soccer has been utilized by political elites in order to build the nation from within and gain respect and legitimacy from without.

La Ilusión Nacional (The National Illusion) is the title of a 2014 film by Mexican director Olallo Rubio. It does not dispute Arbena’s aforementioned thesis, but highlights the gap between the religious-like hopes surrounding the national soccer team and its less than satisfactory performances at World Cup tournaments. Mexico has qualified for every World Cup tournament since 1994, but never reached beyond the second round since the 1986 World Cup. Rubio traces the history of fanatical support for the “national religion” from El Tri’s (named after Mexico’s tricolor flag composed of green, white and red) first appearance in an international tournament at the 1928 Olympic Games to the spectacular victory over Brazil in the final of the London 2012 Olympics.

Mexican intellectuals and some coaches realize that the pagan religion cannot always be neatly exploited for political purposes. As Fausto Pretelin Muñoz de Cote, a Mexican professor at the prestigious Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México notes, “soccer cannot create miracles.” When Mexico won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, the Mexican coach Luis Fernando Tena was deliberately sanguine in a post-match television interview: The victory “gave Mexicans joy,” but it could not change the realities of the thousands of dead in a “war on drugs,” or the biting poverty of many of his compatriots. Mexico is the 14th biggest economy in the world and second largest in Latin America. Yet, in 2013 Mexico’s government estimated that 33 per cent of its population lives in conditions of moderate poverty and another 9 per cent experiences extreme poverty.

Mexico barely qualified for the 2014 World Cup. It required two emphatic victories against New Zealand in order to seal its passage to Brazil. Thus, the current national mood is that Mexico will not go past the first round of the World Cup, or it will be defeated in the second round against superior opponents such as Spain or Holland.

Yet the national mood is also one of a rising power in Latin America and perhaps the world. Mexico is a G-20 member, but also has a growing economy and a population of 120 million. Alejandro Magos, a blogger for Global Brief, argues that Mexico will surprise at the World Cup because “the opportunities to beat its regional rivals on its own turf is too good to be missed.” Mexico and Brazil will clash on and off the field this year and beyond, as the two states “assert their strategic, social, and economic primacy among Latin American states,” writes Magos. Mexico and Brazil will meet in the first round of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Mexico’s 2012 Olympic Gold medal victory, as well as the World Cup triumphs of the U-17 national team in 2005 and 2011, might spur Mexico’s players to supersede the pessimism of the national illusion and perhaps make history in Brazil. Mexico can count on the passion of its fans, which see the game as a secular religion and believe in miracles. Miracles on the pitch could, in turn, promote Mexico’s national renewal. Yet, whether they win, draw, or lose, El Tri is central to the national faith. As one popular saying states in relation to the long-suffering fans of Guadalajara-based Atlas, “I support Atlas, no matter if they lose.” This saying could have easily been in reference to El Tri’s devoted fans. The story of the Mexican national soccer team is the tale of a ceaseless devotion to a pagan faith.

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