Jun 15 2:23 PM

This World Cup belongs to Latin America’s middle class

Colombia fans
Tens of thousands of fans were on hand to celebrate Colombia's win.
Paul Gilham / Getty Images

Colombia’s opening World Cup clash with Greece may have been played in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, but the tens of thousands of Colombian fans filling the stadium would have made it feel like a home game for Los Cafeteros. That fact, and the similarly large fan turnout for other Latin American teams in Brazil, tells us something about the continent’s emerging middle class: World Cup match tickets cost hundreds of dollars, which together with air fares and accommodation in Brazil put the price of traveling to support their teams beyond the reach of most working class fans.

In 2011 the World Bank announced that, for the first time, more Latin Americans were middle class than were living in poverty. Of course, the term middle class in the region is sufficiently complex and elastic to stretch from anyone with a regular job in the formal economy to a university professor, but there is no doubt that the last decade of economic development has  spread wealth more widely in the region, creating more jobs in middle class occupations and the service sector.

The fruits of that shift are evident at the World Cup. In 1930, the final of the inaugural world Cup in Uruguay saw the political elites and high society of Buenos Aries rush across the Rio Plata for the game. Chilean exiles made their presence felt at the 1974 games, making anti-Pinochet protests in the stands. The leaders of the Argentine Barras Bravas, the organized and sometimes criminal gangs of fans, were present to see Madonna lift the cup in Mexico in 1986.  But it is only in the last decade that we have only begun to witness Latin American versions of the large caravans of fans that have traditionally accompanied European teams to the tournament. Substantial numbers of Brazilians and Mexicans traveled to South Africa in 2010, for example.

Television pictures can be deceptive, and wearing a Colombian shirt is no guarantee of citizenship, but the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte was awash with yellows — perhaps 20,000 in a crowd of 57,000. The Chilean media has been reporting that up to 10,000 are making the trip to Brazil, and it looked as if they were all present in Cuiaba as the national team swept past Australia. Uruguayans were thinner on the ground in their game against Costa Rica but still numbered a few thousand, but Mexicans were present in numbers that dwarfed the small, rain-drenched Cameroon presence.

Official FIFA ticket sales confirm this impression. Six of the top ten ticket buyers from outside of Brazil come inevitably from the richer countries of the industrialized north. Americans have been the biggest buyers, taking 125,000 tickets — followed by the Germans (55,000) and the English (51,000). Australians have ordered over 40,000 and the French 35,000.

In contrast to recent tournaments, however, there are four Latin American countries among the top ten ticket buyers — 60,000 tickets for the Colombians, more than 50,000 for the Argentines and over 30,000 for Chile and Mexico. If South Africa 2010 is anything to go by, then a good chunk of the U.S. allocation will have gone to Mexican-Americans following El Tri. I watched Mexico’s game against France in Polokwane with a Mexican anthropologist who estimated, by accent, that half of the Mexican support in the stadium hailed from Southern California.

The economics of a trip to the World Cup are such that we can safely assume the vast majority of these contingents are from the upper reaches of the urban middle classes back home, and my guess is they are predominantly young and highly educated. It will be interesting to see whether the huge Argentine presence looks similar or contains a bigger working class presence. These crowds are a hugely welcome addition to the spectacle, the Chileans use of fireworks  to celebrate a goal a pleasing subversion of FIFA’s stadium regulations.

They are hardly the only important social actors in the region, but Latin Americans new middle classes in all their complexity are important. The social and political consequences of their emergence have only just begun to register, but include the wave of liberal abortion legislation and the decriminalization of drugs, and the emergence of networked street level social protest in Chile and Brazil. The 2014 World Cup, in a small and refracted way, is their coming out party too.

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