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Nationalism Dies Hard in Global Football

11/01/2013 - 08h35

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Diego Costa had a big decision to make. The 25-year-old Atlético Madrid forward, one of La Liga's biggest stars, had to choose whether to play for Brazil, the country where he was born, grew up, and of which he remains a citizen; or Spain, the country where he feels valued for his work on the pitch day-to-day. He chose the latter.

While it is understandable that this choice has disappointed many Brazilian fans, as well as irritating the powers that be in Brazilian football, to call Costa a traitor to his country is going a bit far.

After all, it is hardly a new situation. Brazil's current coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has publicly criticized Costa, became coach of the Portuguese national side after winning the World Cup with Brazil in 2002. Likewise, his colleague Carlos Alberto Parreira has worked with the national sides of four other countries.

Even before sport became so globalized there were similar cases. In the mid 20th century, the Argentine Alfredo Di Stéfano and the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás played both for their respective countries, as well as playing for Spain. And upon losing his place in 1958 to the young Pelé, the Brazilian José João Altafini, widely known as Mazzola, moved to Italy and represented the Azzurri in the 1962 World Cup.

However, it is only in recent decades that the trickle of Brazilian football stars moving to Europe has become such a deluge. The money and opportunities offered by European clubs has provoked an unprecedented wave of migration, not just of established stars but also of gifted young players who are headhunted for their potential.

Diego Costa's decision must be seen in the context of contemporary globalization, involving porous frontiers for athletes in a range of areas, not just football. For example, the tennis player Fernando Meligeni - born in Argentina - elected to represent Brazil.

Of course, there are debates to be had about the spread of this phenomenon. But should we condemn individuals for their choices?

This seems problematic given the well-documented undercurrent of xenophobia that persists in football, and indeed in virtually all competitive sport. As much as we like to praise the fraternal spirit of international competition, all too often it is seen as a kind of political score-settling.

Many conflicts have developed and escalated in the context of competitive sport, which has frequently encouraged a climate of sectarianism and nationalism. These are not in any way traits that should be encouraged.

Translated by TOM GATEHOUSE

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