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For Alejandro Sabella and Argentina, a tangled political past looms large

Maradona, Che Guevara, Perón and the Dirty War all come together in the country’s World Cup hopes

If there are two icons who symbolize Argentina’s twin passions, they would be Diego Maradona and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Maradona is still hailed by this football-mad country as the greatest player of all time, while Guevara – the Argentine doctor who helped Fidel Castro to power in Cuba, before heading off to all corners of the Earth to export the revolution – remains a global symbol of revolutionary passion. The fact that Maradona sports a large tattoo depicting Che Guevara on his right arm is a reminder of the often intimate connection between soccer and politics in Argentina.

But Argentines find it hard to forget a darker and more sinister side to that link in the country's recent past. When Argentina hosted the World Cup in 1978, the bloody dictatorship of General Jorge Videla tried to use the event as propaganda to whitewash the murderous image projected by the thousands of young opponents who had "disappeared," the euphemism employed by the generals for their murder of some 20,000 people during their eight-year rule. Because one of the main death camps set up by the military was located close by the River Plate stadium where the final match was held, some survivors recall how, imprisoned, tortured and in chains, they could hear the roar of cheering crowds during that tournament when Argentina won its first World Cup against the Netherlands.

On the 30th anniversary of that victory, some of the Argentine players who won that World Cup such as Leopoldo Luque, Ricardo Villa and René Houseman took part in an exhibition match at the River Plate stadium to honor the victims of the regime that had hosted the tournament.

Argentine President Jorge Videla presents the World Cup to captain Daniel Passarella in 1978.
AFP / Getty Images

Politics was not absent either during Argentina's second World Cup title in 1986. That year Maradona almost singlehandedly beat the English side in the Mexico quarterfinals, scoring two masterly goals that many Argentines felt were payback for Argentina's military defeat by Britain during the Falklands war only four years earlier. (Since 1833, Britain and Argentina, which calls the South Atlantic islands Las Malvinas, maintain a sovereignty dispute over the archipelago that erupted in a brief war costing over 900 casualties in 1982.) As Maradona recalled in his autobiography, "It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team … Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge."

No surprise, then, that politics is ever-present in Argentinian football – a point re-emphasized recently when Alejandro Sabella, coach of the national team at the Brazil World Cup, declared himself a revolutionary in the tradition of populist former president Juan Perón, lambasting the rich and urging a redistribution of wealth to offset social inequalities.

Although Argentina is by comparison better off than most other South American nations, thanks to its large and well-educated middle class, inequality between the land-owning oligarchs and the impoverished working class still fuels political sentiment in the country. Some 25 percent of Argentina's population lives in poverty today, according to the latest statistics.

"It's the most humble and poorest people who give of themselves most sincerely and who are able to open their hearts to give even what they don't have," said Sabella. "Rich people often give only their leftovers, but it's the ones who have the least who give even what they lack, and that's a very big difference."

Sabella, who is 59, comes from an upper middle class background, growing up in the well-off Barrio Norte neighborhood of Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. He studied law for a short time before concentrating full-time on a career in football. In his spare time, he tends to settle down for an evening of television political chat shows or documentaries on history.

And he makes sure that Argentines know not only his politics, but his history. In 1973-74, when young left-wing revolutionaries confronted – sometimes violently – the authorities, Sabella recalled in a recent interview in the Argentine press how in his room he had a poster of Argentina's then democratically elected president Juan Perón, a populist who championed the rights of the poor, and a collection of issues of the magazine "El Descamisado" ("The Shirtless One"), a publication of the revolutionary Montoneros, a socialist guerrilla group that sought to lead a Guevara-inspired revolution in Argentina.

"I felt a growing need to be always on the side of solidarity and of the distribution of wealth for a fairer, more egalitarian society, in which we can all have equal opportunities,” said Sabella. But like many other young idealists of the time, Sabella's political dreams were dashed by the death of Perón in 1974 and the coup in 1976 by General Videla that ended Peronist rule and kidnapped thousands of young idealists such as Sabella, making them disappear in the dark abyss of the regime's military dungeons.

Four decades later, Sabella holds on to the political outlook of his youth. "The state needs to be present to regulate politics and mark the path," he said. "We can't wait for the trickle-down effect to overflow, because that is a lie."

Speaking to an alternative media outlet called "La Garganta Poderosa" ("Powerful Throat") published by journalists from the large shanty towns of Buenos Aires, Sabella recalled how in his youth he worked to aid the urban poor, despite the risk of death at the hands of a military dictatorship that had considered such activities "subversive."

"We went on Saturdays to different poor neighborhoods and worked digging ditches for walls, sharing activities with the Peronist Youth and the rest of the popular movements," Sabella recalled.

Argentina's coach does not reserve his political views solely to Argentina's past, however. In his recent interview with "La Garganta Poderosa" he posed before a chalkboard with a "Dream Team" made up not of football players, but activists who have been killed or have gone missing since the return of democracy in 1983, many of them young victims of police violence.

But Argentines of all social classes will judge Sabella not by his political announcements, but by whether he manages to bring home the cup last won by Argentina in 1986, when Maradona at the peak of his powers dominated the tournament. (Maradona coached Argentina in South Africa in 2010, where they were dumped out in a humiliating 4-0 loss to Germany.)

And on that front, many are unconvinced by Sabella’s showing in the run-up to the tournament, ­ particularly his surprise decision to leave out Carlos Tevez, perhaps Argentina's best-loved contemporary player.

Tevez – who helped Juventus win the Italian Serie A title this past season – is much loved for his shantytown background, having emerged to international soccer stardom from "Fort Apache," probably Argentina's most violent and drug-infested slum, exactly the kind of neighborhood where Sabella used to help the poor in his younger days.

Commenting on a media article in Argentina about Sabella's political statements, soccer fan Hugo Alberto Árias posted, "All very well, Mr. Sabella, but remember you should include 'El Apache' Carlitos Tevez in the national team, thank you."

For the self-styled revolutionary and champion of the working class at the helm of Argentina's World Cup effort, leaving Tevez out of the squad has raised the cost of failure. All will be forgiven, of course, if he brings home the cup.

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