Politics and football have long mixed in South America, but not perhaps to this extent. On Sunday the “Copa Evo”, an international youth football tournament arranged by and named after Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales, kicked off in the country’s coca-growing tropics.
The buildup was dominated by political scraps, with the opposition questioning the involvement of the national football federation in a tournament that has Morales’s name on it.
Morales has said the purpose of the tournament is to support football as a form of integration. Six teams from Bolivia and another six from across the Americas are taking part.
Morales is an avid football fan. While president and in his 50s, he toyed with playing professionally in Bolivia’s top league. He promoted the sport by unveiling new artificial pitches around the country.
But with Copa Evo, some of his opponents reckon there is more to Morales’s motivation than love of the game.
On the political scene Morales is an important but diminished figure. Though he is leader of the governing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), he is no longer directly involved in government. And though he retains the staunch support of some sectors of society, notably the coca growers of the Chapare, he is not as broadly popular as he once was.
His monopolisation of power during his almost 14 years as president, and defiance of the result of a referendum on whether he could exceed the term limits and run again in 2019, made him a divisive figure, even within the MAS.
Morales won the 2019 election, which was disputed by the opposition who alleged fraud. The country seized up with protests before the army suggested Morales resign. He did, and then fled the country. After a year of political turmoil the MAS, under the former finance minister Luis Arce, was voted back in with a landslide, and Morales has since returned from exile in Argentina.
He is just one of several MAS candidates being mooted for elections in 2025, and some see the tournament as his latest attempt to keep his name in the running.
Members of the opposition threatened to complain to Fifa if the national football federation did not dissociate itself from a tournament they consider to be political. Fifa, with which Bolivia’s national football federation is affiliated, has a policy of neutrality. The national football federation clarified that it was just providing support with refereeing and equipment, and was not organising or publicising the event.
Opponents also questioned the source of the tournament’s funding, and the decision to hold it in the Chapare, a coca-growing region that they described as a “red zone” for drug trafficking.
In a letter sent to all the teams involved, opposition MPs warned them against tainting their reputation, and compared Morales to Pablo Escobar, who they said “used to bring teams to play in the back yard of his house”.
The organisers shot back, refusing to change the tournament’s name and declaring that it was paid for by sponsors and the Six Federations of the Tropics, the umbrella coca growers union. Héctor Arce, a representative of the MAS, accused the opposition of “stigmatising a whole region of drug trafficking”.
The Chapare, where Morales lives and his support is strongest, is one of two main coca-growing regions in Bolivia and is often described as a state within a state, where the first authority is the coca unions.
It was where Morales rose to political prominence as a union leader, at a time when the Bolivian government still followed the US-led “war on drugs”, with forced eradication of coca that often turned violent.
After the MAS came to power it ejected the US Drug Enforcement Agency and legalised a certain amount of coca cultivation. Violence fell and development came to previously marginalised places. But doubts hang over exactly where the Chapare’s coca ends up.
In recent months the drug trade has rarely been far from the news, with a spate of high-level corruption cases, multiple murders and drug busts, some not far from where the Copa Evo will take place.
Facing criticism, several teams have pulled out of the tournament, but the organisers have brought in replacements.
Meanwhile, Morales thanked the opposition for all the free publicity. “Without even trying,” he said, “Copa Evo has made it to Fifa.”