Eva Peron's attempt to use football as a propaganda tool in the early 1950s compromised the integrity of the game in Argentina, argues Jon Spurling
Eva "Evita" Perón could never be described as a football fanatic, although as a struggling actress and model in the 1940s, she appeared on Buenos Aires billboards wearing a Boca Juniors shirt for a toothpaste advert. Nonetheless, when Banfield, a small club ten miles south of the capital, faced reigning champions Racing Club in a two-legged title decider at the end of the 1950-51 season, she spotted a golden political opportunity.
The club, formed in the late 19th century, was named after Edward Banfield, the chairman of Great Southern Rail. A huge number of British entrepreneurs docked at Buenos Aires in the twilight of Queen Victoria's reign and established business in South America. Their principal recreation was playing football and Banfield soon took on a distinctly Anglo flavour. Unlike leading capital clubs Boca, Racing and River Plate, Banfield stagnated, spending the first half of the 20th century fending off bankruptcy. Much of their loyal fanbase was drawn from the poor urban working class, often known as descamisados – "the shirtless ones"). Geographically, the club was out on a limb, awkward to get to and detached from the more established Buenos Aires teams.
Banfield's heroic title challenge was a huge story throughout Argentina. It mirrored Evita's ascent from a poor provincial background, embodying Perónism. Evita used her marriage to right-wing populist Juan Domingo Perón to transform herself into La Señora, the mother of the Argentine nation. General Perón took power through a military coup in 1943 and won an election three years later. By 1951, when he was seeking re-election, his wife's influence was enormous. She ran the Ministry of Labour and Health and set up the Eva Perón Foundation, which sought to improve the lives of low-income families throughout Argentina.
Banfield's ascent, a case of football's descamisados challenging the country's elite, caught her imagination. The team ran out of steam in the final weeks of the season and ended the campaign in a dead heat with reigning champions Racing Club. As Banfield prepared to contest a two-legged title decider against Racing, Evita informed the powerful finance minister Ramón Cereijo – an ardent Racing fan – that her adopted team must win the title. She made several speeches openly declaring her love of Banfield.
"Their challenge for victory encapsulates the daily struggle of everyday Argentinians," she claimed.
Cereijo, against his better instincts, began to work on Racing's players. It was a bizarre situation, as he had previously financed the club's state of the art ground using vast amounts of public money, much to the chagrin of opposition fans, who nicknamed Racing "Deportivo Cereijo". More pertinently, Cereijo was implicated in the plot that effectively robbed Banfield of the title outright.
In a clash against mid-table Chacarita Juniors, the referee turned down Banfield's appeals for a definite penalty and then disallowed a perfectly good goal. Banfield's coach said the game "stank to high heaven", alleging that "higher forces" were at work. But Cereijo's power and prestige hinged upon the Peróns' patronage, and as former Argentina international Ezra Sued later commented, he was forced to try to "unfix what he had fixed".
"He took us all into a room," explained Sued, "and said: ‘Boys, I'm here with a proposal which comes right from the top. Somebody wants to see Banfield win the title, because they believe it right that the humble and dispossessed be helped and assisted.'" To sweeten the team, Cereijo promised that the Racing players could split the gate receipts (around £250,000 in modern money) between them. Evita didn't hold back either. She despatched the Minister for Information, Raul Apod, to offer Banfield's stars cash and new cars as an inducement to win. In addition, the captain was instructed to pay homage to Evita in his victory speech, after the (inevitable) victory against Racing.
There was a catch, however. "We didn't like Cereijo's suggestion at all," explained Sued years later. "We put it to the vote and voted unanimously to reject the proposal. It may have been a daring thing to do, to disobey Cereijo's lords and masters, but we weren't willing to sacrifice our self respect." Cereijo was forced to inform Evita that the fix was off.
In the first leg at the San Lorenzo stadium, 80,000 fans saw the teams play out a scoreless draw. Aside from the small knot of Racing fans, the rest of the baying crowd supported the underdogs. In the second leg, a single strike by Mario Boyé in the 53rd minute ended Banfield's hopes. With them went Evita's wish to use football for political ends. Justice (in the context of those two games) had been done, although it is worth noting that two subsequently banned referees, who awarded Racing some decidedly suspect penalties that season, claimed Cereijo was at the bottom of it. "It's complicated and mixed up. Perhaps there was no honour after all," admitted Sued. General Perón swept to electoral victory regardless.
A year later, Evita died from cancer. Her husband was removed from power, along with his finance minister, in another military coup in 1955. Banfield suffered an equally rapid fall from grace. Within two years of the narrow defeat against Racing they were relegated to the second tier. After spending most of the next 40 years in the lower leagues, they regained a place in the Primera División in 2001. The country's footballing elite quickly reasserted their position at the pinnacle of the game.
Politics and football is rarely a pleasant combination, not least in Argentina where the military junta derived considerable benefit from the 1978 World Cup victory, in which at least one match was rumoured to have been fixed for the hosts' benefit. Set against that, Evita's desire for a footballing version of populism and social justice in 1951 can almost look palatable.
From WSC 301 March 2012