The cultures found within Latin America are highly varied, and what is popular in one part of the region might have no following in another. Despite these differences, sports are an important way for people and countries of diverse backgrounds to come together, and a huge number of Latin Americans love sports. Throughout much of South and Central America, football (soccer for American readers) is untouchable as the king of sport. Much of the Caribbean adores cricket. And baseball is highly popular in a smaller number of countries, most notably Venezuela, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Throughout Latin America, people bond through sports, although that bonding is sometimes interrupted when tempers run high.
No sport has enmeshed itself in the fabric of Latin American culture the way football has. The game first arrived in the Americas in the late 1800s, as European sailors would play the game during down time in the Argentinian port of Buenos Aires.1 From this beginning, the sport has grown to be the one most synonymous with Latin American culture. A good barometer for the region’s passion for football is the results table for FIFA World Cup tournaments. In second place behind Europe (12), South America is the continent with the most World Cup titles (9)—in fact, no other continent has won a single iteration of the tournament. Additionally, perhaps the greatest football player the world has ever seen, Pelé, hails from Brazil, and Leo Messi (Argentina) and Neymar (Brazil) are two of the most recognized athletes in the world.2 Football is more than a pastime in Latin America: it is a passion.
Sometimes, passions erupt into something more sinister, as in the case of the Football War. It might sound ridiculous to hear of a war over a football match but that’s exactly what broke out between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as the war wasn’t fought solely because of the sport, but a football match did ignite a conflict that had been smoldering for years. In the decade leading up to the Football War, Salvadorans had moved into neighboring Honduras in search of land and work. Honduran officials worked with American corporations and large landowners in their country to pass sweeping reforms that reduced Salvadorans in Honduras—both legal immigrants and clandestine squatters—to migrants with no claim to the land they had been living on and working.
At the height of these tensions between El Salvador and Honduras, the two countries were slated to play each other in order to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. The national teams split their two games among hostile fans and in the midst of a deteriorating diplomatic crisis. The two teams met for a tiebreaker match in Mexico City, which El Salvador won. Following the Salvadoran victory, riots broke out in both countries, and less than three weeks later, El Salvador went to war with its neighbor. In four days of intense fighting, a few thousand civilians died while hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced. After intervention by the Organization of American States, El Salvador ceased hostilities; their national team would lose three straight World Cup matches, returning home after being unceremoniously swept out of the tournament.3
Like football, cricket gained its following as Europeans brought their pastimes to the Western Hemisphere. British colonies throughout the world learned to love cricket, and the West Indies were no exception; cricket is the sport of choice in former British holdings like Jamaica, Trinidad, and the British Virgin Islands. Cricket team supporters are some of the most passionate in Latin America, with pre-game parties reminiscent of American football tailgates.4 West Indies teams won the first two iterations of the ICC Cricket World Cup and came in second in the third iteration, although their success has been limited as South Asian and Pacific teams have won many tournaments in the last thirty years.
The third major sport in Latin America is baseball, which saw rapid growth in the mid-20th century and remains popular in some parts of the region. The island nations of Cuba and the Dominican Republic are the strongest bastions of baseball support in the Caribbean; according to data from MLB in 2018, some ten percent of players in Major League Baseball hail from the D.R., with another five percent coming from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Venezuela leads mainland South America with another ten percent, meaning that Latin Americans comprise fully a quarter of MLB’s players.5 Some of the sport’s most recognizable names from the 1950s onward have been Latin Americans—Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera, and my personal hero Roberto Clemente each became household names over the last few decades.6 But passion for baseball goes beyond just finding success in the MLB: the countries of Latin America have won, placed, or been semifinalists for every iteration of the World Baseball Classic since the inaugural tournament in 2006.
In addition to football, cricket, and baseball, dozens of other sports have achieved popularity in Latin America. Basketball has a rapidly growing following in the region, Formula One racing has had its share of great champions, and tennis, golf, and rugby all have their own fan bases. In the United States, sports have a role as a unifier of our often highly divided society, and Latin American sports are no different. While fans are passionate about their teams, sports do more to unite countries than to divide them. And when sports give their fans something to root for beyond a team—when great humanitarians like Roberto Clemente and Enzo Francescoli rise above their games to improve the conditions of humanity—sport is something special.