Chile's president gets a yellow card

Can a soccer scandal bring down the president who rescued the miners?

Soccer and politics

There are allegations that Piñera was involved in a coach's resignation ; Head coach Bielsa in November | Alex Ibanez/Presidencia de Chile; Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

The stunning rescue of 33 miners did wonders for Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. After the miners rose from the depths, Piñera’s popularity climbed by 10 points to 63 per cent, according to a poll conducted by Adimark, a government-commissioned polling firm. Now, his approval ratings may hinge on the future success of Chile’s national soccer team.

As he toured Europe shortly following the mine rescue in October, Piñera, who won the presidency last January, was treated as Latin America’s new star, still riding the crest of a wave of popularity. Until, that is, he found himself in the crosshairs of a controversy centred on perhaps the one thing Chileans will rally around more than 33 miners stuck underground: soccer. “Soccer is having an effect on politics, and the direct responsibility for this lies with the president,” said Mauricio Morales, a professor of political science at Diego Portales University in Santiago. “We have never seen this before in Chile. Never.”

For 12 years, Chile had been denied the opportunity to play in the World Cup. Soccer became a source of low national self-esteem instead of pride. Then, two men came along who changed that. Four years ago, Harold Mayne-Nicholls became the president of Chile’s national soccer federation, followed by Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, who stepped in as coach of the national team. Together, they worked to clean up the soccer business, and restored discipline and professionalism.

With superb coaching, Bielsa guided Chile’s team to the second round of this year’s World Cup and reinstated the country on the world soccer stage, becoming somewhat of a national celebrity. But as elections for the national soccer federation approached early this month, Bielsa threatened to resign if Mayne-Nicholls were to be replaced as president by Jorge Segovia, a Spanish businessman. Both things happened, and as a result, Chileans are in an uproar over losing the two men who gave soccer back to their country.

And in the midst of a drama that is grabbing headlines and provoking politicians to call for investigations sits Piñera. The self-made billionaire owns 12.5 per cent of the shares of Colo-Colo, the country’s most important soccer club—the same club seen as being behind lobbying efforts to oust Mayne-Nicholls (his reputation suffered among the bigger clubs because he sought to more equally distribute profits among small and large teams). Adding to the suspicions raised by Piñera’s part ownership of Colo-Colo, two national columnists wrote that their sources told them Piñera and members of his government had orchestrated Mayne-Nicholls’s defeat, and made calls to opponents encouraging their candidacy.

Piñera has denied the allegations. But whether they are true or not, the court of public opinion is pinning Chile’s soccer crisis on the president: 57 per cent of the population believes Piñera and other government officials interfered with the elections, according to a poll conducted by the consulting group Imaginacción and news agency Cooperativa.

That Piñera is dogged by conflict-of-interest suspicions is nothing new. Under pressure, he sold his interests in Chile’s Lan Airlines and the Chilevisión TV channel over the last several months. Until now, his personal business interests have rattled politicians and the intellectual class rather than the general public. “But with soccer and Piñera’s shares, this conflict of interest reached the people,” says Francisco Javier Díaz, a senior fellow at the Corporation for Latin American Studies (CIEPLAN), a Chilean think tank. So far, Piñera is far from ruined by the soccer scandal, but the high regard he enjoyed after the rescue of the miners is not buffering him from negative attention. “Any controversy, like the soccer controversy, can be very damaging, because his high popularity was built as a result of an accident, not as a result of continuous work,” says Patricio Navia, an expert on Chile who teaches at New York University.

Experts say there is much that Piñera can do to maintain his standing. In his favour is an economy that has experienced a seven per cent growth rate since he took office; his continued successful management of that will be important. Piñera can also address criticism over the slow pace of reconstruction efforts after last February’s earthquake by showing equal commitment and applying the same model of business-style efficiency as he did in the mining rescue—an approach to governing that was at the cornerstone of his campaign—says Díaz. “If he does this, and the economy is going well, Piñera can do well,” he says.

Even so, the president could still pay a political price for his alleged role in the replacement of Mayne-Nicholls, which prompted star soccer coach Bielsa to resign. But if so, he is likely to pay it later—in July, more precisely, when Chile participates in the America’s Cup. At stake in that tournament and others is a nation’s recuperated confidence and pride—and Piñera’s popularity. “If the football team loses, the people, instead of celebrating by going to la Plaza Italia, will go to La Moneda [the presidential palace] to protest the president,” predicts Díaz. Adds Navia: “Everything is contingent on how well Chile does in the America’s Cup next year.” However, he says, Piñera shouldn’t find himself in such a position in the first place. “The approval of the president shouldn’t depend on how well the soccer team does.”

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