Behind the Beautiful Game

Published by Tom Porter

The referee’s whistle goes off, and the world’s biggest sporting tournament is underway, as host country Qatar takes on Ecuador. An early penalty puts the Latin American country ahead as Ecuador goes on to claim a 2-0 victory—marking the first time a host country has lost the opening game in the tournament’s history.

No matter which country lifts the FIFA World Cup trophy on December 18, however, the tournament will also be remembered for events off the field. Whether it’s outrage over human rights abuses by the host country, the controversial statement by the president of the sport’s governing body on the eve of the tournament, or the Iranian team’s outspoken support for the protests going on back in their home country, there is no shortage of nonsporting news associated with the 2022 World Cup.

paula cuellar cuellar
Paula Cuellar Cuellar

This is new nothing new, says Paula Cuellar Cuellar, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies, who has come to Jack Magee’s Grill to watch this opening match on a big screen with some of her students. Soccer, or football, as the world outside America calls it, provides an interesting lens through which to look at wider topics because of its immense popularity. “It can be a fun way to explore complicated issues,” she adds. Cuellar, who arrived at Bowdoin this year, is teaching a new class this semester: History, Politics and Culture of Soccer in the Americas (LACL 2107).

The course focuses particularly on the role of the sport in Latin America, which, although not the birthplace of football, is regarded as a hotbed of soccer talent where passion for the sport is unequalled. It’s also a region where football has played a dominant role in history and politics.

“We look at how soccer has been used by politicians to whitewash their reputation,” says Cuellar. In many instances, she explains, this was the case with military dictators. “In 1978, for example, when Argentina hosted the World Cup, the ruling military junta used the tournament to present a clean image to the international community,” she explains. While the government portrayed the country as a happy nation united in a love of football (Argentina won the World Cup that year, by the way), political prisoners were being tortured and thousands of the regime’s opponents routinely disappeared. In many cases, says Cuellar, victims were being tortured less than a mile from the main stadium in Buenos Aires, the roar of the crowds no doubt mixing with the screams of the prisoners.

“I love football and I love history, so this class is the perfect combination for me.”
Ben Turnbull ’25

The war on drugs has also played its part in influencing the world of Latin American football, says Cuellar. This was particularly true in Colombia, she adds, where narco syndicates owned football clubs and crime lords like Pablo Escobar financed much the sport’s infrastructure in that country in the 1990s.

Other subjects covered in Cuellar’s class include the struggle for gender equality. Latin America especially, she says, is a patriarchal society, and for many years the idea of a professional women’s soccer league was resisted. In Brazil, for example, women’s soccer was banned outright from the early 1940s until the late 1970s, despite its popularity. “Women have always played soccer,” she explains, “but when their matches started to generate serious revenue, they were outlawed.”

“I love football and I love history,” says Ben Turnbull ’25, “so this class is the perfect combination for me.” Sporting an England shirt, he is watching the Ecuador-Qatar match with two of his sophomore classmates from Cuellar’s course. “I picked this class because I thought it would be interesting to see how soccer intertwines with politics in the history of Latin America and how big a role it’s played,” says Zach Cheesman, “and I’ve found it really interesting.” With them is Mitri Traile, who describes himself as a soccer fan who watches a lot of England’s premier league. When the full-time whistle goes at the conclusion of Cuellar’s class next month, Traile and classmates will have learned a lot more about Latin American soccer and its role in some of the pivotal historical and political events of the region.