“Freedom through football,” reads the graffiti on the wall of the shack. Below it, inside a red star, a footballer performs a bicycle kick, a balaclava covering his face, a cartridge belt hanging from his shoulder.
In Chiapas, Mexico, football is not just the most popular sport; it’s a symbol of popular revolution. Since 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has been fighting, mostly peacefully, to obtain indigenous independence for five of the state’s regions. Whenever possible, they’ve also played football matches to raise support for their cause, entering the field in balaclavas and steel-toed boots, honoring the audience with left-handed military salutes.
In 2004, EZLN’s leader and head coach Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos challenged fabled Italian club Inter Milan to an exhibition game. According to his letter, addressed to Inter’s then-president Massimo Moratti, Argentinean legend Diego Maradona would referee, gay and lesbian activists would entertain with “ingenious pirouettes,” and the game would be declared over only when no player of either team remained standing. Although the match never materialized, Moratti responded sympathetically, writing back: “Every revolution begins from its own penalty area and ends in the opponent’s goal.” Today, the Zapatistas have assumed political and economic autonomy over their regions, but locals still live in poverty and complain of regular intimidation and surveillance by low-flying Mexican army airplanes. As their struggle enters its third decade, the footballers’ balaclavas stay on.