Football's relationship with politics both on the left and right has been well documented. Those who wish to reinforce their ideology over those whom they rule or wish to, have never been short on using the sport for its propaganda purposes and Mexico's socialist Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) are no different.
The EZLN were formed in late 1983 and based themselves in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Their foundation was made amongst the complex ideologies of Mexico's urban north and the indigenous populations of the remote areas of eastern Chiapas. Using connections between the local peasantry and the Catholic Church the group soon began to have a popular following. On January 1 1994 the EZLN made a public statement which in effect declared war upon the Mexican government. They believed that the government had become so out of touch with those it claimed to represent that they had lost their legitimacy. It also stated that they were forced into an armed struggle due to the lack of success of peaceful protests and sit ins. Led by the charismatic Subcomandante Marcos (often seen in public wearing a facemask with a tobacco pipe protruding from his mouth), they soon attracted attention and sympathies from beyond Mexico's border and it was here that football began to be intertwined with their ideologies.
Firstly Rage Against The Machine's Zack de la Rocha organised a football match for EZLN to draw attention to the group's cause. More audaciously perhaps, the group tried to organise a football match against European giants Inter Milan following direct communication between Subcomandante Marcos and Inter's President Massimo Moratti. The idea of the match also received tacit support from Inter's captain Javier Zanetti, who had written to the group to show his support for the rebels “struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals”. Inter donated £3,500, an ambulance and a replica shirt with the number 4 on the back (Zanetti's squad number at the club). Zanetti also talked his team mates into donating their collective club fines to the village of Zinacantan after it was attacked by government troops.
It is no coincidence that Zanetti was one of the driving forces behind the push to donate funds to the EZLN cause. Born into the harsh conditions of Buenos Aires' notorious Dock Sud district, Zanetti has been a FIFA ambassador for the SOS Children's project in Argentina. He also founded his own children's charity with teammate and fellow Argentine Esteban Cambiasso and in the aftermath of the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina which saw many lose their savings and were reduced to poverty he set up a foundation with his wife which aimed to provide educational opportunities for the countries poorest children as well as ensuring that their nutritional needs were met. Realising the privileged position his role as a footballer has given him he has said that “I've always believed that our public actions need to take account of our social responsibility”
Zanetti further addressed the EZLN issue in his autobiography. He said he encouraged Inter to maintain their support of the group, “these communities fight to make their culture recognised as well as a different way of surviving”. Calling Subcomandante Marcos the “soldier of the losers of the earth” he recognised the group's simple aim of providing dignity and stability to pre-Columbian populations.
In June 2004 as part of the ongoing negotiations, Inter's team manager Bruno Bartolozzi visited the village of Caracol de Oventic with another set of donations from the club. This injection of funds helped restore housing and water supplies to the village with the promise of ongoing “sustained support”; there was also the offer of football equipment to be supplied too.
There were a few stumbling blocks to the fixture being played. Firstly members of the EZLN do not show their face in public, this would have of course presented itself as a problem with airport security. The second obstacle was the Mexican government, who may not have been too happy with the idea of an armed group within its borders scoring a massive propaganda coup by it playing one of the most famous football clubs in the world. However President Vicente Fox's chief negotiator with EZLN said that he could foresee no issues with the fixture being played. The Mexican FA also gave their support to the match being played with spokesman Mauricio Zavala stating that “football is football; anyone with a ball can play it”
The details of the fixture were ironed out in a touching correspondence between Subcomandante Marcos and Massimo Moratti. Marcos wrote that he had been nominated as Head Coach and was responsible for “intergalactic relations”, though he self deprecatingly declared that nobody else wanted the job. There were suggestions as to whether the match should be played over one or two legs and where the games could be played; Marcos suggested rather grandly that 1968 Olympic Stadium could accommodate the Mexican leg of the tie. Los Angeles and Cuba were touted as venues too though Marcos admitted the former location would be difficult as the state governor “who substitutes steroids for his lack of neurons” was oppressive towards Latin migrants. Marcos also suggested that Rome could be used as a location for the return leg. He would also like a day spent in Genoa so he could graffiti the Christopher Columbus statue with all damages to be paid for by Inter of course.
Marcos also suggested that Diego Maradona could be employed as referee, Javier El Vasco Aguirre and Jorge Valdano as linesmen with Socrates to be used as fourth official. Proceeds from the Mexican leg were to go towards legal aid for political prisoners within Mexico and those from the Italian leg were to go towards migrants within the EU. Marcos signed his letter with a friendly warning that “in front of the goalposts, there will be neither mercy nor compassion”
Moratti's reply accepted the challenge suggesting that maybe the match could be played in a field in a way that children would innocently take part. He went on to say that “football can be an instrument for achieving important objectives…turns us all into children. Dreamers all”.
The fixture unfortunately never came to fruition, the EZLN continue their struggle and in May 2014 Subcomandante Marcos stepped down from his role amid rumours of poor health (something he denied). It never happened but the possible sight of Javier Zanetti and his teammates from one of the most famous clubs in the world playing football against balaclava clad Marxist rebels in the Mexican countryside would have been one of the most iconic sporting images of modern times.
Follow Chris on Twitter @carmband.