Wednesday was quite a day to be in Buenos Aires. Aside from the national census - which was done by closing every business in the country and ordering people to stay at home to be counted rather than simply sending forms out and asking people to return them - the country's former president Nestor Kirchner died suddenly of a heart attack in the morning. This might not have been such a pressing issue in terms of national affairs, but for the fact that Kirchner was also married to the current president, and was widely expected to succeed her following next year's elections.
The effect on the country's football has been more tangible than it might have been had a former leader died in many other countries, to say the least. Whereas in Europe a minute's silence or applause might have been observed before matches, the Asociacion de Futbol Argentino (AFA) announced within hours of Kirchner's death that this weekend's matches would be called off across every division, postponed for one week. It's merely the most recent - and perhaps most harmless - in a long line of instances in which football and politics have mixed in Argentina.
The case of the 1978 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina, is of course already widely written about, not least the 6-0 victory over Peru in Rosario when the hosts already knew they had to win by four goals or more to qualify for the final ahead of Brazil. Even if you don't believe payments to the Peruvian FA were ever really made that day, or that Peru really threw the match (it's worth recalling that they hit the woodwork with the score still at 0-0), it's undeniable that the military junta in charge of the country at the time at least tried to rig the competition in favour of the home side.
In modern times, the same degree of fixing hasn't been attempted. These days when the national side win or lose it's down to what's happened on the pitch. That is not, though, to say that football is any less a political toy for the current regime in Argentina. It was ever thus. And at a time when president Cristina Kirchner's Peronism is likely to come to the fore more than ever, it's interesting to look back at how Argentina's dominant political discourse has previously had a say in footballing matters, and tried to use the game to its advantage.
The ruling elites have often used football to widen their popularity, and few used it better than the man who gave his name to Peronism, Juan Domingo Peron. Peron and his wife Evita (she of the passing resemblance to Madonna) used many policies to broaden their power base and appeal to the masses, among which was the appeal of the country's most popular sport.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, Argentina boasted perhaps one of the best national sides in world football. They did not, however, grace the World Cups of 1950 and 1954. After the nation had won the Copa America in 1945, '46 and '47 they stayed out of the 1949 edition, held in Brazil, due to disagreements between the countries' two football governing bodies.
After refusing to travel to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil for purportedly the same reason, Argentina also didn't take part in the 1954 edition in Switzerland. There's a widespread theory that this betrays a sense that differences with Brazil were less important than the lack of being able to 'guarantee' a tournament victory to give the then-president Peron some good publicity. Good though the team were, it was far easier to ensure a victory on home soil, or in friendlier countries, than it would have been in Brazil or Switzerland.
The 3-1 defeat of England in Buenos Aires in a 1953 friendly was useful as a propaganda tool though, and although stars of other sports - perhaps most notably the racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio - also saw their triumphs used to sell the government, nothing quite reaches the Argentine masses like football.
Coincidentally, both Peron and Nestor Kirchner were fans of Racing Club (Racing's stadium is named after Peron) with Kirchner once giving the squad four 42" LCD televisions for the club's complex after a clasico win against Boca Juniors. The Kirchners have been arguably the most successful exponents of Peronism as political discourse after Peron himself. Their most audacious move came in August 2009, when Cristina's government advised the AFA to tear up their contract with TSC, then rights holders for domestic league broadcasts, so that top flight matches could be shown on state television. Clearly a very populist and very visible policy (if not one that had much effect on Argentines' quality of life), this has since become perhaps the ultimate example of Kirchnerism, the couple's own modern evolution of Peronism.
There was also the decision late last year by people close to the Kirchners to strike a deal with most of the country's sizeable barra bravas so that, if they behaved well and - crucially - gave support to the couple's party on the terraces and outside stadia, the hooligans would get financial support and lodging to travel to the World Cup and support Argentina. It may not have been exactly populist, but the mind went back to Peron's empowerment of union leaders as a method of spreading his power base.
These are just a few examples, and one could write a book, not just an article, on the links between politics both Peronist and otherwise, and Argentine football, but all the same, even from a brief overview, it becomes a little less surprising that the AFA should have chosen to cancel all matches out of respect this week. This is a country where football is respected by those in power, after all. Unlike other countries, it's not as if football and government have ever paid each other mere lip service.