New internationalists

In our third piece on anti-poverty initiatives in football, Paul Virgo reports on the unlikley circumstances that have brought together the corporate giants of Internazionale and the anti-capitalist rebels of the Zapistas in southern Mexico

Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and Internazionale owner Massimo Moratti make an odd couple. The first spends his time fighting for the rights of indigenous people in the Chiapas region of Mexico, while the other spends his oil bucks on expensive footballers who don’t win many trophies.

But the pair have initiated a friendship that should soon be sealed with a match between Inter and a team representing the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). The common denominator is a characteristic not usually associated with football clubs or capitalists like Moratti – concern for the poor.

Mexico is one of 14 developing countries where the Serie A side carry out aid projects for children as part of their Inter Campus Worldwide programme. The projects vary, but they all use football camps to help kids get the general education needed to break out of poverty. Inter also link up with UN agencies, local authorities and NGOs engaged in development initiatives to give worthy causes some of the exposure that goes with the club’s glamorous name. In total, Inter Campus Worldwide has helped around 10,000 children so far. In Chiapas, the club finances health and water supply projects, and supports local junior football teams.

To their credit, Inter have never made a big fuss about their “charity work” – the English-language version of the club’s website does not even mention it. Most fans probably knew nothing about it until the Zapatistas issued their challenge in May. This came as a welcome PR coup for the club, but an unplanned one.

From the off, Inter’s Argentine captain Javier Zanetti was the player most enthusiastic about the proposal. This is no surprise. Zanetti has not forgotten his tough childhood in Buenos Aires. Indeed, he has set up his own foundation, Fundacion PUPI, which runs an array of initiatives that give poor children access to food and education, and helps their families house and provide for themselves.

Marcos became an international symbol for the plight of Mexico’s downtrodden Indians after a 1994 uprising in the southern Chiapas region. His group’s campaign for greater autonomy and indigenous rights has largely been peaceful since more than 150 people died in the fighting in January that year.

The details of the game have not yet been fixed, but Marcos is getting excited. In his reply to Moratti’s letter of acceptance, the ski-masked mystery man suggested Diego Maradona referee the game, Jorge Valdano and Brazil’s Socrates be assistants – Valdano has already agreed – and that the sides play a seven-match series rather than a one-off tie. The mixed men-and-women EZLN outfit will play, he said, in steel-capped miner’s boots. In the initial invitation – handed to a delegation from Inter visiting Chiapas to check on the progress of their projects  – the rebels laid down two conditions: that the club must not sell the television rights to the game; and that Inter should supply the footballs as “all ours are punctured”.

In return they promised to provide “generous rations of Pozol Agrio (a local corn-based drink) after the game”. Marcos also promised his team would not show the visitors up. “Given the affection we feel for you, we are ready not to thrash you, but beat you by just one goal,” he joked. In the second letter, though, he said his team would show “no mercy”.

Marcos also wants to use the event as a platform for Zapatista positions on a range of subjects, not just indigenous rights. He said he will get a group of lesbian women and transsexuals to perform traditional dances during the match. This is aimed at showing that “there are not just two sexes”. Among other things, he proposed one of the games be played “on dignified Cuban soil, in front of the military base which the US government maintains, illegally and illegitimately, in Guantánamo”. He suggested another match take place in Genoa, so he could lay flowers at the place anti-capitalist protestor Carlo Giuliani was killed by Italian police at the 2001 G8 summit.

These may be noble ideas, but they also touch on sensitive issues that football clubs, even ones whose heart is in the right place, usually prefer to stay away from. Moratti may find his new friend takes him deeper into the globalisation debate than he intended to go.

From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month