What Lionel Messi Reveals About Geopolitics
Gulf states have embraced the soft power of Latin American soccer in their campaign for global influence.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Gulf states tap into the soft power of South American soccer, talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition resume, and a Salvadoran newsroom sues NSO Group.
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When Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia last week in its opening game of this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, it was uncomfortable in more ways than one.
Argentina had entered the tournament with hopes of winning it all. The two-time champions are currently ranked third in the world, and their star player, 35-year-old Lionel Messi, said this would be his last World Cup. But La Albiceleste’s (as Argentina’s national team is known) expectations were jolted on Nov. 22 by a 2-1 loss to a team that had been ranked 51st. Saudi Arabia was so shocked by the win that King Salman declared a public holiday in the country.
Geopolitically, however, the Argentina-Saudi Arabia matchup is still ongoing. Earlier this year, Messi signed a deal with the kingdom to promote tourism there as it reportedly mulls a candidacy to host the 2030 World Cup. The terms and length of the deal were not made public, but The Athletic reported Messi may be receiving as much as $30 million per year. A potential Saudi Arabian bid would pit the country against Argentina’s own proposal to host the tournament together with Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
Is Messi’s deal “because he is tempted and he can’t stop? Because money justifies everything?” Argentine writer Martín Caparrós wrote in El País the day after the loss to Saudi Arabia. Messi’s team declined to comment to The Athletic about whether the deal poses a conflict to Argentina’s 2030 bid.
Embracing international sports icons is just one way that Gulf countries have worked in recent years to boost their international influence. Qatar sits on the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves and has found itself in a powerful position in the age of energy supply strains. Since the start of the World Cup just two weeks ago, Qatar has signed a 15-year deal with Germany to supply it with natural gas, and the United States—whose largest military base in the Middle East is already near Doha—greenlit a $1 billion arms sale to the country. Washington considers Qatar a major non-NATO ally critical to stability in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
But in Latin America, one of the ways Gulf states’ rising profiles have been most evident is their forays into the soft power of soccer. Gulf countries are not among the top trading partners of Latin America’s largest economies, but sports fans know that both Messi and Brazilian star Neymar play for a club team that is owned by a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, Paris Saint-Germain.
Journalist Alejandro Wall noted last week on the Mexican public television program Conversations from Qatar that when Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, FIFA successfully pressured the country to change its legislation to permit alcohol sales in stadiums. But Qatar was able to impose its own laws on FIFA, in this case prohibiting alcohol sales to regular fans in the stands (though alcohol is freely available to VIP guests in luxury suites). It was one sign of the varying degrees of power held by recent World Cup host nations.
In Conversations from Qatar, Wall, who is Argentine, participates in thrice-weekly discussions on sporting, cultural, and political aspects of the World Cup with two other veteran Argentine sports reporters and an Argentine Mexican sociologist. Latin American audiences are intimately familiar with the use of the World Cup for political aims, such as when Argentina sought international legitimacy for its bloody dictatorship when it hosted the tournament in 1978. Like the European and U.S. press, the show has discussed the human rights and labor rights complaints surrounding the Qatari-hosted event.
Still, Wall told Foreign Policy that, overall, “in South America, perhaps we see [the World Cup] with different eyes.” Latin American coverage of the event has focused more on how soccer culture in both Latin America and the Middle East developed in the context of colonization. It’s been striking to encounter so many Brazil and Argentina fans from the Middle East and Asia at the World Cup, Wall added. “There is something that we see in each other.”
Every four years, their national squads reunited, Latin American fans squint for signs of a unique style of play that differentiates their soccer from that of Europe, pondering how much the region’s star players can retain their local essence after years spent playing abroad—and now, being swept up in prestige quests from the Gulf. The globalized nature of today’s player market makes such distinctions increasingly rare, though Brazilians claimed as their own the artistry of a goal that forward Richarlison scored during their first match by volleying an airborne ball into the net. (Acrobatic Brazilian striker Pelé helped popularized the nickname “the beautiful game.”)
Regardless of the style in which goals are scored, the tournament allows Latin Americans to revel in the soccer soft power that Gulf states are spending billions of dollars to chase.
It has also prompted some to wonder if Latin American countries could better capitalize on their own soccer power. “The value of Argentine soft power” remains “much more potential than real,” former Argentine foreign ministry official Tomás Kroyer told Forbes Argentina this week. In Brazil, the Workers’ Party governments of 2003 to 2016 designed several policies to use the appeal of Brazilian soccer as a diplomatic tool, even taking the national team to play in Haiti to herald the arrival of Brazilian peacekeepers in 2004, Veiga de Almeida University international relations professor Tanguy Baghdadi told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Brazil’s outgoing Jair Bolsonaro government abandoned those policies because “it stopped carrying out foreign policy in general,” Baghdadi added. But the effect of Brazil’s status as a “soccer superpower” does not fade from one administration to the next, he said, because “it creates a positive memory” that can be the basis for future relationships.
The Week Ahead
Monday, Dec. 5, to Tuesday, Dec. 6: Leaders from customs union Mercosur meet in Uruguay for an annual summit.
Saturday, Dec. 3: Argentina plays Australia in the round of 16 at the World Cup.
What We’re Following
Venezuela talks. Internationally facilitated negotiations between Venezuela’s government and its political opposition recommenced Saturday in Mexico City after a hiatus that lasted more than a year. The two sides announced a deal to create a U.N.-backed humanitarian aid fund for the country.
After the agreement, Washington announced that it will remove sanctions to allow Chevron to resume some oil production in Venezuela. The sanctions relief is designed to allow payments to flow to Chevron, leaving future relief that could benefit Venezuela’s state accounts contingent on progress in future talks.
On Wednesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro plunged forward with his demands for the international community in the new negotiations. He said he is willing to discuss conditions for free elections in the country if far more international sanctions are removed. The details for those electoral conditions will be the focus of talks in the coming months.
School shooting in Brazil. A 16-year-old killed three people at two different schools in eastern Brazil last Friday. Police said he had a swastika pinned to his vest. Though school shootings are rare in the country, the incident raised concerns that far-right and neo-Nazi sympathies could spill into violence.
Weeks earlier, police investigated a video of protesters calling for Brazil’s election results to be overturned and apparently doing Nazi salutes in the conservative southern state of Santa Catarina. The Israeli Embassy in Brazil issued a statement condemning the protest, calling it “outrageous.”
Newsroom lawsuit. Journalist Roman Gressier and fellow reporters from El Salvador’s El Faro news site filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court on Wednesday against the Israeli spyware company NSO Group for the alleged use of its Pegasus software to target them for reporting. While many of the journalists believe those who hacked them were connected to the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, the administration has denied being a client of the NSO Group in the past and did not respond to questions from the New Yorker about the lawsuit.
Gressier is a U.S. citizen, and he is the first individual whose phone was allegedly hacked by NSO to sue the company in a U.S. court after the allegations of widespread use of Pegasus against reporters by governments around the world was reported for the first time last year. Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute represents Gressier and Salvadoran journalists who are co-complainants.
Question of the Week
This is Argentina’s first World Cup since soccer great Diego Maradona died in 2020. In which of the following World Cups did the mop-haired striker not play?
Maradona’s first World Cup was in 1982. He scored two goals at the tournament.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• The Perpetually Irrational Ukraine Debate by Stephen M. Walt
• Will China’s Protests Survive? by James Palmer
• It’s Time to Debunk Putin’s Existential Fallacy by Stephen Sestanovich
In Focus: The New Lost Decade
As Latin American economies struggle to recover from the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, policymakers and scholars have often warned that the region could face a new “lost decade” akin to the low growth it experienced during the 1980s. During that time, an oil price shock and sky-high interest rates in the United States had triggered debt and inflation crises in several countries.
The new president of the United Nations’ Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Costa Rican economist José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs, issued a far starker alert in an interview with the Financial Times this week: The lost decade has already arrived, and it’s worse than the last one.
Salazar-Xirinachs cited ECLAC data that showed economies in Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to have grown an average of 0.8 percent of GDP per year in the decade ending in 2023, compared to 2 percent during the decade ending in 1989. “This is terrible, this really ought to be a huge red light,” he said.
In late October, ECLAC published a lengthy paper with policy recommendations for countries to overcome the economic slump. It included suggestions that countries in the region trade more with each other and work to create geographic clusters of research and production designed around specific sectors, such as electric vehicles and biotechnology.
Amid a wave of new left-wing presidents in the region who have pledged to more equally distribute wealth via tax reforms, Salazar-Xirinachs told the Financial Times that such policies were important but insufficient to address stagnation. He said countries need to make specific plans for higher growth. The newly-elected president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Brazilian Ilan Goldfajn, made a similar point in a recent interview to Latin Finance: “When you have social demands and fiscal constraints, the only way you can work on both is if you get the economy to grow.”
Colombia’s finance minister and both Argentina’s foreign minister and science and technology minister attended a launch event for the ECLAC policy paper, suggesting they may be open to considering some of its recommendations. Some of the strategies have been partially implemented across the region, such as in the Brazilian pharmaceutical sector and in the Costa Rican medical equipment industry, the paper pointed out.
While some of Latin American’s newly elected leftist leaders have signaled an interest in cooperating more on economic and environmental policy, it’s still unclear what shape that will take. On trade, it’s fracas rather than consensus making the headlines in recent weeks, with Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay jointly threatening ahead of next week’s Mercosur summit to impose consequences on Uruguay for applying to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which falls outside the parameters of the customs union.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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