How long can football last in a country if it's supporters are used as political weapons?
Everyday, a new burst of violence from Latin America sprints around the global news cycle. From Mexico to Honduras, bloodshed has directly touched on the lives of football players and supporters. Yet, at the same time, Nicaragua has enjoyed modest economic growth, relative security, and a surge in interest and support for football. I dare to ask - for how much longer?
As a backdrop, Central America can be roughly divided into two halves. In the Northern part of the isthmus, Honduras and El Salvador have long had violence problems, due largely to gangs. In El Salvador, there are allegedly more mareros than police and army officers combined. However, both countries also have passionate soccer fans and clubs with a healthy number of socios. Rivals Motagua and Club Deportivo Olimpia share and regularly fill the 35,000 capacity Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Alianza FC boasts a 44,000 capacity stadium in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Sadly, during the last few years gangs penetrated large sections of Motagua and Olimpica's barra bravas. The violence threatened to spiral out of control. Just last summer, after two years of negotiations and intervention by nonprofits and the police, the two groups signed a peace accord. Hope remains, but the power of gangs and poverty may reduce the accord to a paper tiger. At best, it's a band-aid on a festering wound.
At the other end of the isthmus, Costa Rica and Panama boast relatively strong economies and a growing passion for soccer. Since demilitarizing a few decades ago, Costa Rica's investments in healthcare and education have paid off. The Ticos have tamed inflation, reduced poverty, and enjoy a relatively high GDP per capita. Panama's see no evil shipping and corporate policies have created a hotbed of capitalism, and they enjoy a superior GDP to even Costa Rica. In terms of soccer, Deportivo Saprissa and L.D. Alajuelense dominate the Costa Rican league. Both boast stadiums with a seating capacity over 15,000. Costa Rica qualified for the 2006 World Cup, and lost to Uruguay in a play-off for the 2010 event in South Africa. In Panama, the professional league was founded in 1988. Thus, stadiums still can only accommodate spectators in four digit figures. In both countries, the violence mostly stays on the pitch between players.
Nicaragua sits at the great divide between North and South. Like its Northern neighbors, the Nicas suffered a bloody civil war a few decades ago. Also, a 6.2 earthquake in 1972 decimated Managua, the capital. Still, recent government policies and corporate interests have created an uneasy engine of growth. Many rightly question the electoral legitimacy of current President Daniel Ortega, but, like Franco's Spain, the current dictatorship has spawned an economic turnaround. Despite a global recession, Nicaragua has seen its economy grow by 5% or more the past two years. Fundamentally, the economy has shifted from total dependence on agricultural exports to increased tourism and manufacturing. It remains the 2nd poorest country in the Americas, but for multinational corporations, this means labor that is c-h-e-a-p.
Soccer has also blossomed in the last decade. It's a baseball town that has warmed up to the beautiful game thanks at first to Ronaldinho and cable TV. Today, bars in Managua's trendy Zona Hippos regularly show games from La Liga to interested patrons. Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys cover the landscape. The national team qualified for its first ever Gold Cup in 2009. Two years ago, a new national stadium opened in the capital. Over 1,400 people have likedFutbolNica, the leading site for domestic soccer, on Facebook. Rojadirecta has stamped the domestic league with a seal of approval by providing links to domestic games, even if they don’t always work.
Top clubs feature exotic and somewhat pricey expat Honduransand Mexicans. Real Esteli, based in the Northern and mountainous city of Esteli near the Honduran border, regularly wins the domestic crown and the is the creme of the Nica crop. They have competed respectably in the Concacaf Champions League as the sole Nicaraguan representative a handful of times. This past summer, they lost to Toronto FC of the MLS at home 2:1 and away 2:1. Not bad, but not good. Deportivo Walter Ferretti, based in Managua, regularly battles Real Esteli for the top spot. Historically, Diriangen FC, based in Diriamba, has won the league a record 26 times, but haven’t won it since 2006.
The Nicarguan top division has existed since 1933, yet the recent growth and improvement in local players owes in part to FIFA. In 2001, FIFA opened a special training center for top talent in Diriamba, the then spiritual center of Nicaraguan football. During the early decades when baseball rued the roost, Diriangen FC of Diriamba dominated. In the 1990s, the sport spread and grew in Esteli and Managua, forming a base for FIFA to invest. Since the 2001 center opened, the national team qualified for the 2009 Gold Cup with a pulsating away win at Guatemala. Even more recently, the Nicas have won three games on the trot for the first time in memory. The team’s top players tend to play for top local clubs Diriamba, Real Esteli, and Walter Ferretti, but more and more Nicas are making the jump abroad. A few have turned up in the Puerto Rican first division and even Brazil.
The economy and soccer have grown, but the country remains pleasant and safe. Nicaragua has somegang activity, but nowhere near the organized crime of its Northern neighbors. Barra bravas have not yet formed in Nicaragua, but, sadly, fan violence has started to appear. February 19, Real Esteli traveled to Managua and beat Walter Ferreti 2:1 in a tense match that probably decided the title. While leaving the stadium, the home fans tossed rocks at the victorious Estelians. More alarmingly, shots were allegedly fired as the team left in their coach. FENIFUT has opened an investigation, yet nobody holds their breath waiting for an arrest or conviction. Why?
Alarmingly, as reported by FutbolNica, police officers present during the incident were reluctant to intervene. The legal system, police included, does not inspire confidence. Eerily, this feet-dragging by police has reared its head in another context: political protests. At the US State Department noted, the police have failed to protect political protestors. Violent supporters of the Ortega regime have regularly attacked non-violence and pro-democracy protesters with impunity. Like in Iran and Venezuela, police turn a blind eye to blood thirsty militias. In 2010, the opposition party held a meeting in a Holiday Inn to avoid a confrontation with angry and gun-wielding Sandinistas lurking in the streets near the National Assembly. What happened? The thugs came to them. And the police did nothing as Sandinistas fired mortars at the hotel.
Herein lies the overarching concern: Daniel Ortega is playing with fire. Like Franco in Spain, Ortega has worked to recruit and enable a Juventud Sandinista that is largely comprised of gang members from poor neighborhoods. For example, his party has canvassers in the hairy Jorge Dimitrov neighborhood, and when an opposition march is announced, mysterious buses arrive to pick up gang members and transport them to form a normally violent counter-protest in support of Daniel. During the last elections, Ortega first re-wrote the Constitution to allow him to run for a second term. Then, the day of the election, menacing members of the Juventud Sandinista loitered around voting stations. How long will this flame last? And, equally worryingly, will it burn the blossoming football world?
Football has grown by leaps and bounds in Nicaragua, and the economy hums along. Still, every time a headline about soccer violence in Latin America pops up, I hold my breath. I don't expect to see Nicaragua in the news, but I've grown to fear the worst. Ortega’s pot-stirring and passive police could easily turn a spark into a flame. I love my adopted homeland, but the deck has dealt a deceptively dangerous hand.
Elliott blogs about football at Futfanatico.com. Hisfootball eBook, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, is available onAmazon.co.uk for only £3.82. Check out a free preview here