As soon as I arrived in Paraguay last week, I could see that the country was in the grips of football fever. It was impossible to forget, even for a minute, that the World Cup was on and that Paraguay’s team was doing extremely well. Every public space was draped with a Paraguayan flag. Every bar had its television on, blaring sports commentary. Taxi drivers and night watchmen carried around transistor radios so as not to miss the latest developments.
The 2010 World Cup will not soon be forgotten. Even with the Quarterfinal loss to Spain last weekend, Paraguayans proudly welcomed home their team yesterday. After all, this team advanced further than any previous Paraguayan squad. This is a big deal for Paraguay, which otherwise suffers from an identity crisis.
“Nobody knows what our country is,” said Bechy, a young woman waiting for a flight out of Asunción’s airport. “People always confuse us with Uruguay.” It doesn’t help, she added, that Paraguay is sandwiched between regional superpowers Brazil and Argentina.
One of the poorest countries in Latin America, Paraguay also has one of the region’s most drastic income gaps. The upper class lives in heavily policed suburbs outside of Asunción; they watch Argentine television stations and consume American culture. They can afford, like Bechy, to travel internationally.
The poor live in the crumbling city. If they finish high school, they go to work in factories or shops. Otherwise, they hustle for a living. Little boys carry shoe shine kits; little girls sell chewing gum on street corners.
And yet, everyone agrees on football.
I was in Paraguay for the Paraguay-Japan match last Tuesday, and I spent a lot of time talking with people about the matches against Japan and Spain. Not one single person was indifferent. Everyone fully expected Paraguay to win. (“The Japanese are very fast,” said Jose Martinez, who has a newsstand near the Calle Palma. “But they aren’t as smart as we are.”)
A few hours outside of Asunción there’s a farming community called La Colmena, which was originally settled by Japanese immigrants in the 1930s. Most of the residents are third-generation descendants of those immigrants. They speak Japanese, Spanish and Guarani, which is the local Indian language.
There, too, everybody was rooting for Paraguay in last week’s big game. Even in the elementary school, where little boys and girls were learning a traditional Japanese dance, the kids said they wanted Paraguay to win.
What’s not clear, though, is what will come of all this football-driven unity.
What is clear is that everyone in a position of power is trying to take advantage of the football fever. The national beer, Pilsen, has stepped up its ad campaign. President Lugo has made flowery proclamations, allying himself with the team and even going to the airport yesterday to welcome them home. Local politicians hired minivans to drive up and down the main avenues, blaring football cheers and the candidates’ names.
What happens now, though, that the games are over?
“Paraguay is paralyzed during the World Cup,” said Jorge Garay, a high school student watching the Japan match on big screens set up in the Plaza de la Democracia. Like every other student, he’d been given the day off for the game. Most businesses were closed, and the plaza was crammed with fans dressed in team colors.
When Paraguay beat Japan, the whole plaza erupted with pure joy. People hugged, laughed, screamed.
But a few hours later, even as the street party continued, the mood had shifted. The atmosphere turned ugly. Women, walking alone, were grabbed in the street. My colleague, a Japanese man, was taunted cruelly. Men smashed bottles and the streets filled up with trash.
I wish Paraguay had won on Saturday. But, at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the kind of national unity that the World Cup creates won’t get any country very far. When people unite, behind a team or an ideal, they need to have a goal and a sense of a destination. Otherwise, their energy has nowhere to go; it expends itself in smashing bottles, in a futile aggression. And then the next day, nothing has changed.
*Kate Prengel is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a journalist based at the United Nations.