Soccer Nationalism: Ecuador and the World Cup


Soccer is just soccer, right? Wrong, replied Spanish journalist Enric González who covered the Italian soccer league for Spain's largest newspaper El Pais from 2003 to 2007. Soccer is more than a public exhibition of athletic skill—it is an integral part of many nations' “collective memory” (González 2007:24). Anthropologists have also noted the importance of soccer for symbolizing local identities and displaying national pride. For example, Alessandra Miklavcic (2008) demonstrates that a recent soccer match between Italy and Slovenia reignited nationalist passions and historical grudges over the countries' shared border. In Australia, Loring Danforth (2001) shows that soccer has been an important vehicle for the expression of competing versions of nationalism. According to Danforth, traditional elites have used soccer to further a narrative of Australia as a racially homogenous nation by banning “ethnic” soccer clubs—those associated with different immigrant populations—from playing in the National League. In contrast, the owners of these clubs have argued that their teams are vital symbols of Australia's multicultural nationalism.

In a similar vein, Ecuador's qualification for the 2006 World Cup marked an important moment for “narrating the nation” in this small South American country (Bhabha 1990). Soccer has a long history in Ecuador and represents an important aspect of social life. The Federation of Ecuadorian Soccer was founded in 1925 and the country now has more than twenty professional clubs divided into two leagues. No other sport competes with soccer for dominance; the national team's games are consistently the most-watched television programs in Ecuador, sometimes drawing as much as 90 percent of the country's viewers (Radcliffe and Westwood 1996:93).

Despite Ecuador's love affair with soccer, the country has struggled to compete against soccer giants like Argentina, Uruguay and the perennially dominant Brazil. Ecuador's best finish in the Copa America, the longest running soccer tournament in South America, was fourth place in 1993. Before 2006, Ecuador qualified only once for the World Cup—losing two of its three games during the 2002 competition hosted by South Korea and Japan. In contrast, Brazil has qualified for every Soccer World Cup and won the tournament's golden trophy a record five times.1

Ecuador's 2006 tournament berth sparked public celebrations across the country as well as declarations by politicians and pundits that the Ecuadorian team's success represented the country's future; one in which renewed national unity would enable it to compete on the global playing field (El Comercio 2006a; 2006d). This was an appealing message after two decades of structural adjustment programs led the country into an economic crisis, which reached an apex in 1999 when Ecuador's largest banks collapsed.2

Coverage of the World Cup dominated the front pages of Ecuador's most prominent newspaper, the conservative El Comercio, and editorials admonished the country's citizens to put aside the race and class differences that had “impeded” national unification. One article reported that Indigenous communities in several northern provinces had suspended their celebration of Inti Raymi—the solstice—to watch the playoff game between Ecuador and England (El Comercio 2006f). Another praised residents in the community of Juncal—the home town of Ecuador's star veteran player, Agustín Delgado—who “forgot their poverty, [and] lack of basic services and got animated for the team” (El Comercio 2006e). Then interim President Alfredo Palacio even joined the party, showing off a jersey signed by the Ecuadorian team. After Ecuador advanced to the playoffs, he granted an asueto (little holiday) so that Ecuadorians could celebrate with a shortened work day.

Proclamations of national unity during the World Cup were little more than thinly-veiled political rhetoric, however. After declaring his support for World Cup celebrations, the President quickly dispatched 20,000 police with helicopters to monitor the revelers, many of whom gathered in the same places where protestors called for the removal of Palacio's predecessor the year before (El Comercio 2006b).3

The 2006 Soccer World Cup provided an important moment for Ecuador's elites to reassert a narrative of Ecuadorian nationalism rooted in internal homogeneity, one that conveniently glossed over differences in race and gender. In 1998, Ecuador revised its constitution to recognize the country's multiethnic make-up. Nonetheless, some white-mestizo elites have continued to resist the idea of ethnic and racial plurality as a basis for national identity, defending their privileged position in Ecuadorian society. Yet the fact that most of Ecuador's star World Cup players were Afro-Ecuadorian undermined visions of Ecuador as a homogenous nation. According to Jean Muteba Rahier (2008:622), white-mestizos dealt with this visible contradiction by ignoring the race of Ecuador's players in published commentary on the World Cup. Journalists and bloggers focused almost exclusively on aspects of the sport that appeared to index white-mestizo society, thus perpetuating the official invisibility of blackness in the Ecuadorian nation. Likewise, celebrations of soccer as a symbol of Ecuadorian identity quietly naturalized “the national” as a decidedly male space. Soccer is considered a masculine sport in Ecuador and throughout much of Latin America (e.g. Magazine 2007). The majority of players and fans at all levels of the game are men, as the photos in this essay attest. As such, declaring soccer a source of national character largely excluded women from active participation in the nation-as-a-game.

One reporter remarked that after Ecuador's win against Costa Rica, fans took to the streets, quickly melding into rivers of yellow, red and blue (the national colors) where the differences among them vanished (El Comercio 2006b). Besides reproducing race and gender inequalities, World Cup celebrations renewed class inequalities in subtle but noticeable ways. The Ecuadorian national jersey—according to the aforementioned reporter, a symbol of “country and team” second only to the flag—acted as a token of difference as much as an emblem of unity. The officially-sanctioned jersey, produced by Marathon Sports (an Ecuadorian-based multinational), retailed for US $29.90 in upscale malls in Ecuador's largest cities. In a country where 51 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (most of whom are Indigenous), and the average monthly salary in 2006 was US $237, this symbol of national identity was hardly accessible to most (El Comercio 2006c).4 While a small number of upper and middle class Ecuadorians engaged in acts of patriotic consumption, buying Marathon shirts for themselves and relatives abroad, most settled for cheap knock-offs sold on street corners and open air markets for a few dollars (El Comercio 2006c). In the end, rather than disappearing into a yellow clad utopia, fans were distinguished in ways that echoed enduring disparities within the Ecuadorian nation state.



Acknowledgments.  I owe special thanks to Travis Hartman for his help editing and selecting the final photographs for this essay.

1 Argentina and Uruguay have each won the World Cup twice.

2Forment (2007) provides an important look at the role that soccer has played in Argentina's local politics following that country's financial crisis in 2001.

3 Ecuador's previous president, Lucio Gutiérrez, was removed from office in April 2005 by mass protests against his policies of neoliberal economic adjustment and heavy-handed clientelism in national politics. He completed less than three years of his four year term and was replaced by his Vice President, Palacio. Felipe Burbano de Lara (2005) provides a good overview of the April protests.

4 See for statistics on Ecuador's annual GNI.