“Where is Santiago Maldonado?” The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the young artisan has dominated Argentina since the start of August, with the Gendarmerie (Border Guards) facing allegations that the missing activist disappeared during a protest involving Mapuche demonstrators in Chubut, in an episode that has raised serious questions over the actions of security forces and the government. The clamour for a resolution to the grim case has spilled over into the sporting arena, in another reminder that football and politics can often be intertwined.
On the opening weekend of the Superliga season, a San Lorenzo’s fans group walked out prior to the club’s clash against Racing Club with a banner pleading for his reappearance. In a moment of tragicomic confusion the act appeared to be at first rejected by the AFA, only for a senior executive, Defensores del Belgrano President Marcelo Achile, to overrule, blaming a misunderstanding with a more junior pencil-pusher. “I could never accept a refusal to spread the demand for the live reappearance of Santiago Maldonado,” Achile emphasised, in a laudable gesture.
Similar scenes were witnessed in the build-up to Temperley- River Plate, with the home players voicing their own protest, while Argentina goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán chose the moment he returned to his home country to show a T-shirt asking simply, “Where is Santiago?” The issue has transcended sport, but not everyone was pleased to see it raised.
Plenty of commenters argued against the banners, on the grounds that politics should stay well away from stadiums. Assuming for a second that the reappearance of a missing person — surely as uncontroversial a topic as any that one can imagine — is somehow laced with political intent, it is a long-running tiresome debate. In Europe, authorities have leaned towards expelling political statements from their glossy, hyper-commercialised and sponsor-friendly game, with sometimes ridiculous and arbitrary results.
On those grounds a team like Barcelona can be fined repeatedly by UEFA for their fans — not the club, but its unaffiliated and independent supporters — flying the Estrellada flag, a symbol of Catalan nationalism, at the Camp Nou. Scottish club Celtic were similarly sanctioned for the appearance of Palestinian flags in solidarity with that cause, while in perhaps the most deplorable application of the rules, Polish side Legia Warsaw were punished for displaying a moving mural commemorating the Warsaw Uprising, an ironic demonstration of the limits of free speech if ever there was.
But if those draconian norms rule in Europe, they certainly do not apply locally. Football games are regular hosts of messages, be it for the recovery of the disputed Malvinas Islands or the anti-domestic violence call of Ni Una Menos. Such shows of solidarity on the part of players and directors do not seem to have awoken anything like the controversy that Maldonado has. Nor, for that matter, did Carlos Tevez’s declaration to Animales Sueltos on the very same weekend that “Mauricio Macri is the man who can change this country,” a comment tinged with the party political purpose absent in calls for the young artisan’s reappearance.
The truth is that football, like all other professions, is a place where its employees and employers hold a vast array of different opinions. The overwhelming majority decline to comment on most issues, preferring to stick to purely sporting matters in interviews and on social media.
Some, like San Lorenzo President Matias Lammens, Guzmán and Tevez, speak eloquently and with feeling about their beliefs, and with every right to do so. The former two in particular have long held an affinity with human rights groups such as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, supporting them in their struggle, while Tevez has helped make a real difference in impoverished neighbourhoods like Fuerte Apache where he grew up.
Football is ultimately a reflection of the society that surrounds it, and it is pointless to pretend otherwise.
While in Europe the presence of ‘edgy’ messages is an affront to the anodyne Brave New World the likes of UEFA and FIFA like to promote for their game, here the sport remains a forum for freedom of expression and the voicing of a collective will, that which has been seen across the world in the sheer volume of messages asking ‘Where is Santiago Maldonado?’.