Argentina’s National Sport In Crisis

Argentina’s officially designated national sport is not soccer, despite all cultural and economic appearances to the contrary: it’s pato, Spanish for duck, a game that’s something of a hybrid between basketball and polo and is nowhere near as popular as soccer. It’s called pato because a live duck was once used instead of a ball, as Argentina Travel Planet helpfully explains:

Though nobody knows exactly when the game began, there are written accounts of it from as early as 1610. In the original game, a live duck was sewn into a leather skin, making a ball, but with its head left hanging out. The way the leather was sewn, handles were left to tug on, and the game began with two of the strongest players tugging on the handles, until one gained control of the ball.

A Wall Street Journal article a couple of days looked in some detail at the challenge to pato’s status as the national sport in Argentina, one that seems to have stemmed from marketing impetus rather than any actual popular interest in what sport is officially anything:

Now, all at once, pato’s privileged place in Argentina’s athletic hierarchy is under siege by soccer-loving corporate and political interests posing the question, “Why a duck?” (Argentina’s soccer team beat South Korea 4-1 Thursday in World Cup play.)

In April, a sportswear company called Topper held a splashy event featuring TV stars and models to launch a petition drive calling for futbol‘s designation as a national sport on a par with pato. Already, more than 140,000 people have signed on. Shortly after the kickoff of the petition, Sen. Emilio Alberto Rached opened up a political front, introducing a bill in Congress seeking national sport status for soccer and relegating pato to the rank of “national traditional sport.”

Soccer advocates argue that tens of millions of Argentines are fans, with goal posts sprouting up on seemingly every vacant lot and kids booting around bottles or bundled-up-rags if they can’t afford a ball. In contrast, they say, pato enthusiasts number in the thousands, and are relatively affluent and confined to pockets of the countryside. Soccer is “working class [and] inclusive,” while pato is “exclusive and costly,” the Rached bill asserts. In an interview, Sen. Rached adds: “It’s clear that more than 90% of Argentines have never seen a game of pato.”

Pato’s defenders point out that pato is a game that has developed over centuries of play in Argentina, and not an import from the informal empire of the English, as soccer of course was in the late nineteenth century.

The main defense of pato enthusiasts is that their sport is 100% Argentine—a claim that can’t be made for soccer. Modern-day soccer is considered to have started with the founding of the English Football Association in 1863.

“What sense does it make for Argentina to have a national sport that came from England?” asks Gustavo Jure, a pato player who is now a referee. “We’ve had some differences with the English, you know.” Nearly three decades after Britain defeated Argentina in a brief war for control of the Falkland Islands, anti-English resentment is still prevalent.

What the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mention is perhaps the most important fact about the development of soccer into Argentina’s most popular game: as Simon Kuper explained in the Guardian a few years ago, the whole point of how it became the people’s game in Argentina was the transformation in the sport’s style and a takeover of it from the English elite who had introduced it to the country:

Argentina in the Victorian age was part of Britain’s “informal empire”. Second sons and black sheep shipped out from Southampton to make their fortunes in cattle and wheat. They built railways and introduced football, a game they played in a muscular, disciplined style. But in the early 1900s, men with Italian or Spanish surnames began playing with more individuality and skill. Their style – known as criollo – came to be seen as typically Latin, or Argentine, the opposite of the British game.

Many among the Argentine poor resented the wealthy British. Juan Peron, who first became president in 1946, exploited these feelings in both rhetoric and economic policy. When Argentina first beat England at football, in 1953, a politician exclaimed: “We nationalised the railways, and now we have nationalised football!”

Since then, of course, Argentina has had a few more opportunities to show the success of that reimagination of the game to England, usually to the latter’s disadvantage. The game as invented in England has become the global game partly because of histories like this.

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