What Copa America means for race relations in an era of Trump

Bolivia midfielder Jhasmani Campos deflects a pass from Argentina forward Sergio Aguero. Reuters

While all eyes this side of the Atlantic are on Euros, over the water another international football tournament is taking place. Copa America, sees the national teams of the South American Football Confederation along with teams from North America, battle it out to be named champions of the continent.

Racism and migration have long overshadowed the 44 previous editions of the tournament, which is in part due to the very different ways each nation sees itself racially. In light of this, Chile hosted the first ever indigenous Copa America in 2015 – two weeks after also hosting the main tournament.

For the 2016 tournament, the issues of race and migration that marked the early games have emerged once more, this time against the backdrop of the US presidential race – where Donald Trump has consistently focused on the menace of Mexicans and other latinos.

This year’s Copa America is far from being the first to play out in a political environment, and football has been intimately bound up with questions of race, migration and national identity in the Americas since the tournament began.

A brief history of racism

The inaugural Copa America was hosted by Argentina in July 1916 and won by Uruguay, marking the start of their regional – and global – domination of football. The presence of two black players in the Uruguayan team – Isabelino Gradín (who was the tournament’s top scorer) and Juan Delgado – was first appearance of black players in international football and led to complaints from Chile that Uruguay was fielding “African” players.

Questions around race were not limited to Uruguay, which has tended to consider itself primarily European in its heritage – with many Uruguayan’s having partial Spanish or Italian roots following waves of historical immigration. In 1919 Brazil hosted the tournament for the first time, and won thanks to a goal in the final match by “mulatto” striker Arthur Friedenreich, perhaps the first time a non-white Brazilian had acted as a national icon in such triumphant terms.

The politics of race surrounding the tournament, came to a head in 1920, when the Argentinean newspaper Crítica published a piece on the Brazilian team. This article, titled “Monos en Buenos Aires” (Monkeys in Buenos Aires) was accompanied by a cartoon illustration that showed the team as monkeys and referred to them as monkeys.

Argentinian newspaper cartoon depicting the Brazilian football team. Author provided

This was picked up by outraged Brazilian intellectuals, and in 1921 the Brazilian president decided that the national team to play in that year’s tournament (hosted in Buenos Aires) should contain no black players. In response, author Lima Barreto who was of mixed race declared that “for them, we are all monkeys”.

It is this episode that Brazilian footballer Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (or at least his media team) drew on to construct the anti-racism campaign “Todos somos macacos” (we are all monkeys). This was launched on social media in April 2014 in response to the infamous banana throwing episode involving teammate Dani Alves, during a Spanish league match between Barcelona and Villareal in April 2014.

Changing times

But things are gradually changing and in Chile, a nation which has constructed an image of itself as essentially “mestizo” – with a mix of indigenous and European influences (where Afro-Chileans are virtually invisible), it is not so much the politics of race, but politics per se that the Copa America has addressed.

The tournament in 2015, held in Chile 99 years after the inaugural championship, carried a strongly symbolic dimension for the host nation, who played all of their matches in the national stadium in the capital Santiago. This is the same stadium which had served as a detention and torture centre in the months following the brutal military coup that brought the dictatorship of General Pinochet to power in September 1973.

Estadio Nacional de Chile after the 1973 Chilean coup d'état. By Chile-_el_pueblo_vencera.jpg: Ed. Fundamentos, Buenos Aires.derivative work: Rec79 (talk) - Chile-_el_pueblo_vencera.jpg, Public Domain,

Just a few months after Pinochet came to power, FIFA insisted a World Cup playoff decider against the USSR be played at the same stadium. This was despite thousands of prisoners still being held there during a visit by a high-level FIFA delegation. FIFA’s declaration that everything was “normal” was not one of its finest moments, even by recent standards, and in what is widely known as “the match of shame”, Chile scored with no opposition and qualified for the 1974 World Cup finals.

Chile’s Copa America victory in 2015 – the first time the country has won the tournament – marks an ongoing reclamation of the stadium from the horrors of that era.

A political game

This year’s Copa America has had a similar political impact, given it comes at a time when migration and national identity are high on the agenda in the US, thanks to Donald Trump’s ongoing anti-immigration campaign.

In his speeches, Trump has famously revealed his presidential plans for a wall along the United States’ southern border with Mexico. But football fans have been quick to point out, that at a time Trump is keen to “keep the migrants out”, two of the US squad’s players – Michael Orozco and Alejandro Bedoya – are in fact born to parents from Mexico and Colombia.

On top of this, many cities in the US actually provide what are effectively “home” matches for Mexico given the thousands of US residents who continue to identify with “El Tri” – Mexico’s national football team.

In a great bit of publicity, Argentina’s broadcaster TyC used clips from Trump’s speeches about Latino immigration to promote their coverage of the Copa America.

It juxtaposes excerpts from Trump’s speeches about Latino migrants with images of Argentina’s star players beating their rivals on the pitch while their fans arrive in droves – giving a firm two finger salute to Trump and his policies.

Because if Trump has been watching the US team, including its Latino players, he will have realised that defensive walls do not always stop your opponent from scoring.