While British media slams the Clausura General Belgrano, the real concern is the increasing politicisation of Argentine football

The naming of the coming tournament after the tragic warship is not a call to arms, but the AFA's willingness to reflect political opinion can only have negative consequences
COMMENT
By Daniel Edwards in Buenos Aires

Any fan of Argentine football will tell you that, despite the annual exodus of its most promising talents to Europe, Brazil and elsewhere, the Primera Division can be an enthralling competition. World-class veterans such as Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron are joined by the promising teenage prospects who will one day be household names, as well as talents from across South America.

Despite these virtues, as well as the passionate fans who create a spectacle almost unmatched in world football, the Argentine domestic game is criminally underrated outside of South America. It is even sadder that, when it does make a rare appearance on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it is for all the wrong reasons.

So it proved earlier in the week, when certain sections of the British media were provoked into uproar by the name of the latest instalment of the local league. The first half of 2012 will carry the tag of the 'Clausura Crucero Belgrano', in homage to the ship that was torpedoed and sunk during the Falkland Islands conflict 30 years ago, taking with it the lives of over 300 young Argentine sailors.

The reaction from the UK, at least in certain publications, is as misguided as it is vitriolic. The Daily Mail has led the way on condemning the decision, accusing the nation of "whipping up tension" over the issue as it remains in the news of both countries. Even more extreme was the quoted reaction of Falklands veteran Tony Hill.

"This is just another pathetic attempt to keep up the agitation on the islanders and disrupt life," he fumed in an interview with the same newspaper. "Thank God in this country we would never dream of dishonouring our fallen comrades in the same way."


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What is missed from this outrage, however, is an understanding of the situation on the other side of the conflict. The vast majority of Argentines, including President Cristina Kirchner, regard the war of 1982 as an aberration forced upon them by the vicious military dictatorship of the day. The leader, in common with deceased husband Nestor and countless other politicians, was forced out of the political sphere during this murderous period as thousands of colleagues were kidnapped or assassinated, while some 'disappeared', and no other administration since the return of democracy has done more to bring those military figures involved to justice.

The Falklands, or Malvinas in Spanish, remains an emotive theme in Argentina and a rallying cry for certain militant groups. This latest move, however - which despite what reports in the UK have affirmed will be used only for the latest tournament and not the Primera as a whole, and which has been largely ignored by the Argentine public - should be read more as an attempt to honour those lost in what was the country's worst military disaster in history, and not calculated to further stir tensions.

No one would claim, least of all this writer - English-born but having lived for almost three years in Argentina - that the wounds of 1982 have healed and that the Falklands issue is dead. This is simply not the case, especially around the anniversary of the war when the chant 'El que no salta, es un ingles' (The one who isn't jumping is English) becomes a hit in almost every stadium. The real push for action, however, is confined to certain extreme militant groups which naturally catch the headlines with flag-burning and protests, and who cannot be said to speak for the majority. The reality is that, in a full democracy as Argentina unquestionably is in the 21st Century, the idea of armed intervention is so remote as to be ridiculous.

Aside from the hysteria propagated in certain circles, however, which has included an editorial debating whether Argentina's invitation to the 2012 Olympic Games should be withdrawn, there is a darker side to this story. For fans of Argentine football, by far the most worrying aspect of this latest dispute is the growing dependence of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) on the national government.

This began in 2009 with the state purchasing of the Primera Division's television rights, and has only grown. Cristina's government is by far the principal source of income for Argentine clubs, and the AFA have responded by becoming closer and closer to those in power. The two previous tournaments, for example, were named in honour of Nestor Kirchner after the ex-President's tragic death, while a previous edition was dubbed the Copa Malvinas Argentinas in a move arguably far more provocative than that which has caught the eye of the London press.

"We are a people who have suffered too much from violence. War games and weapons have no appeal for us"


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Fifa rules are unbending when it comes to political interference in football, and so far there is no suggestion that long-term chief Julio Grondona has bowed to pressure from above in his decisions. The future, however, is murky. Already one government decision has been almost perfectly mirrored in football, the withdrawal of subsidies from such public utilities as transport, water and gas bills accompanied by a 25 per cent rise in the cost of the cheapest stadium tickets across the board.

For the first time in his 32-year reign, 'Don Julio' has found himself under pressure from certain clubs and their chiefs, and if this clamour for change continues to grow it would not be unforeseeable to predict a further strengthening of ties between this great survivor and those in the national government.

Meanwhile, the Clausura Crucero Belgrano kicks off on Friday at the Bombonera with champions Boca Juniors facing Olimpo. Local fans will flock to the stadiums as ever to break a fast of two months without competitive action, however, and the names on everyone's lips the following day will be the heroes and villains of the encounter and not those who perished during that black period in Argentine history.

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