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Reviewed by:
  • Citizens & Sportsmen: Fútbol & Politics in 20th-Century Chile by Brenda Elsey
  • John Nauright
Citizens & Sportsmen: Fútbol & Politics in 20th-Century Chile. By Brenda Elsey (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. ix plus 315 pp.).

It goes without saying these days that the history of sports is now a vibrant sub-disciplinary area within the field of history.1 While some historians of sport have embraced postmodernist approaches and others have maintained a descriptive focus, it is clear that the mainstream within sports history view sport as part of social and cultural histories of societies as well as featuring prominently in political, economic and diplomatic spheres.

Citizens & Sportsmen: Fútbol & Politics in 20th-Century Chile by Brenda Elsey provides an excellent example of the ways that sports can illuminate wider [End Page 241] social, cultural and political understanding of a society as well as the ways that sports and sporting organizations relate to formal political structures, the development of capitalism and resistance to it, as well as other social, cultural, and political grouping. Through a focus on what is by far the most played and followed sport in the nation of Chile, Elsey deftly exemplifies the best of sports history and its relationship to wider social and political histories. Remarkably, little of what appears in Elsey's study has been discussed in any detail by historians of Chile or indeed by mainstream historians in most other societies. Any historian who still doubts the pervasive role of sport in modern societies need only read Elsey's text to put an end to their myopia.

Elsey outlines the development of football clubs and other civic associations throughout the first seven decades of the twentieth century. Though there were often close ties between barrio football clubs and labor unions as well as with left leaning political parties, football clubs remained independent of these structures. Indeed, one of the sharpest divides throughout the period was the development of amateur clubs as emblems of working-class cultures and identities and the rise of professional football as the tool of modern capitalism linked to right wing political parties. Local clubs provided opportunities for many men to develop leadership skills, negotiate for playing space and to organize to fight for improvements to living conditions. Elsey argues that the democratic spaces created within amateur football clubs furthered democracy in Chile as a whole, commenting that in the 1950s Chile was one of the few places in the world where a socialist or communist party could realistically hope to take power through the ballot box. She states her argument clearly at the outset: “The argument in its simplest form, is that this narrative of democracy engaged everyday people in politics, encouraged political tolerance, and was skillfully used by working-class organizations to make demands on elected officials (9). Ultimately a socialist government under Salvador Allende did win election in 1970 via this activist support, only to be savagely overturned by a US-backed military coup in September 1973 that brought the Pinochet dictatorship to power.

Elsey's study essentially concludes at this time since the Pinochet regime set about demolishing associative structures linked to leftist movements including barrio football clubs. She states: “The dictatorship correctly identified civic associations such as football clubs as the nexus between leftist labor, politics, and culture (241). Amateur football in Chile has not recovered from this suppression.

Citizens & Sportsmen effectively reminds us of the importance of historical studies to real democratic advocacy as well as to the role that associations and clubs, sporting and otherwise can play in active citizenship both in terms of fostering social and community interaction and in political activism to improve quality of life.

Elsey also effectively examines the ways in which a mestizo Chilean identity linked to European inheritance was constructed that influenced views of what it meant to be Chilean and what it meant to be Other. Immigrants struggled to fit into this racial discourse, but through associations and clubs such as football, middle eastern and southern European migrants were able to carve out social and political space. Women, though excluded from football, slowly found their way on to the fields first...


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