Latin America revels in its World Cup moment
Latin America revels in its World Cup moment
Copacabana beach is in the midst of a Latin American invasion, not seen by Brazil even during its last major regional wars in the 19th century.
Some come sporting green sombreros from Mexico, the yellow shirts of Colombia or the masks of Uruguay's president, José Mujica, and Argentinian Pope Francis. Others sing the chants of the rescued Chilean miners or football songs in Spanish or Portuguese. They drink cachaça, tequila, aguardente, or just plain beer. But all have two things in common – Latin American identity and the sweet taste of World Cup success.
With the knockout stage of the tournament due to start on Saturday, the winner so far is increasingly clear from the fans who are left in Rio de Janeiro: Latin America, which is enjoying a tournament like no other, with its teams more successful and its supporters more prominent than ever before.
"This is our World Cup," said Salvador Barrios, an engineer from Toluca in Mexico, as he reflected happily on the group stage that ended on Thursday. "Many players from this region play in Europe, but this tournament is in Latin America. It's ours."
The numbers back him up. More teams from the Americas – 10 (including the non-Latin USA) – are participating in this World Cup than any previous tournament and a record eight have progressed beyond the group stages.
As well as Argentina and Brazil, the most impressive performances have come from smaller nations who have progressed at the expense of the former football powers of Europe. England and Italy fell to Costa Rica and Uruguay, while Spain were squeezed out by Chile.
For those with a sense of history, this is a sign of the New World outdoing the Old. More than one microblogger has suggested the teams of Spain and Portugal should return to Europe on caravela – the sailing ships on which the colonists first arrived on South American shores 500 years ago. The sense of triumphalism was shared by Diego Maradona, who suggested the early domination of Latin American teams could signal a longer term shift in the balance of football power.
"Latin Americans have been very strong. English football is gone. So are the Spanish and Italians despite having the best leagues in the world," the Argentinian World Cup winner opined on his World Cup show on the Telesur channel. "We [in Latin America] are firmly on our way to winning the trophy."
Such prognostications for what will happen on the pitch are still premature, but a change is clearly under way in the stadiums and on the streets.
In terms of registered sales of tickets to fans, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Chile are in the top 10, which was almost entirely dominated by European nations in previous World Cups. The US was top with more than 125,000 tickets – though precedent suggests many of these will have been bought by Hispanics supporting other teams in the region.
According to Facebook data on the World Cup, the top five best represented nations in Brazil are all from the Americas – the US, Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Argentina. Demographic and economic changes help to explain this shift. In 2011, the number of people in Latin America's middle class overtook the poor for the first time – a rise in affluence which, although patchy, means more people can afford the air fares, hotels and tickets needed to attend a World Cup.
Compared with the past, the region also has better infrastructure for networking, both by transport routes and telecom cables. Distances in this continent are huge, but more manageable because roads and air networks have been extended. Some fans have driven thousands of miles in buses, vans and cars to camp on the beaches.
Roberto Alzir, a Rio de Janeiro official in charge of policing the World Cup, said the influx of Latin American supporters had exceed forecasts. There have been occasional clashes, including a confrontation in Belo Horizonte between Brazilian and Argentinian fans, but most of the arrests to date have more to do with desperate fans trying to break into stadiums because there are too many buyers and not enough tickets. For the most part, the mood is more one of regional solidarity than conflict.
The army of Argentinian fans who crossed the border for their team's recent game against Nigeria in Porto Alegre is estimated by the Brazilian authorities to have been between 80,000 and 120,000. Fewer than a quarter of them had tickets for the game. The rest appeared content to watch the match on the giant screens at the Fifa Fan Fest, to simply wear their colours in a Brazilian bar, or to head further north and soak up the festival spirit in Rio.
When Argentina played in this resort city, Copacabana beach were thick with crowds in blue and white, singing mostly good-natured abuse in Spanish about the superiority of Maradona and Messi over Pelé and Neymar. Two days later, it was the red-shirted Chileans' turn to dominate the city, congregating on the steps in Lapa created by their artistic compatriot Selarõn and shouting the chant heard frequently during the 2010 miners rescue: "Chi, Chi, Chi, Le, Le, Le – Viva Chile!"
With Brazilian fans in the stadiums also generally supporting their regional neighbours, this has meant that Latin American teams have enjoyed a home atmosphere in almost every game.
"I'm loving that our countries are doing so well," said Felippe Trindade, a Brazilian fan from Rio. "It's great and it was predictable because of the mood and the fans."
Regional support, though, is far from guaranteed. Latin America is too complex for that. Many supporters like European nations because of family ties, or African and Asian nations because they are underdogs. Others qualify their support for neighbouring nations with the caveat "except for Argentina", which is widely perceived as being aloof, self-important and overly "European".
Juan Santia, an engineering student from Cordoba in Argentina, said the home advantage for Latin American nations was the key rather than a sense of regional unity, which was almost accidental.
"That's just the way we are. We're more friendly than Europeans," he said.
Mutual support will be tested in the knockout stage, where several Latin American teams are matched against one another, starting with Brazil versus Chile on Saturday. Such has been the run of results, however, that even at this early stage at least one Latin American team is guaranteed to be in the semi final – quite an achievement considering Europe accounted for seven of the past eight semi-finalists.
If this success can be maintained, regional football authorities will lobby Fifa to maintain or even increase the number of spots for the Americas in future World Cups.
This time, history is on Latin America's side. Although Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and France are still in the competition, no European side has ever won the World Cup outside their home continent.