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Sport clubs in the crosshairs? Argentina’s austerity measures prompt debate | Politics News

Marengo also describes them as a place of resistance. Now 72, he joined Franja de Oro in 1962, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who had been the group’s treasurer.

A decade later, in the 1970s, Argentina would descend into dictatorship, when the military and other right-wing forces took power. As many as 30,000 people were killed, as the dictatorship sought to wipe out political rivals, left-wing dissidents and anyone perceived as a threat.

Marengo himself was a leftist activist in his youth. Even though voting was prohibited under the dictatorship, he credits the clubs with keeping residents politically engaged.

“Neighborhood clubs served as the only venues for political discussions, effectively keeping the seed of democracy alive,” Marengo said.

“Democratic voting among club members made many realise that, through political debate, they could change their reality — even when the debate was about using a space for a soccer or volleyball field.”

Another member of Franja de Oro, a 77-year-old volunteer named Jorge Zisman, was also an activist at the time of the dictatorship.

Known by the nickname “El Ruso” or “The Russian”, he had been enrolled in the club since age two: His father, who was himself a member, signed him up.

Jorge Zisman stands in front of the trophy case at the sports club Franja de Oro.
Jorge ‘El Ruso’ Zisman helped organise activities at Franja de Oro during Argentina’s dictatorship [Melina Gómez/Al Jazeera]

The club became pivotal to Zisman’s activism. He told Al Jazeera that, in the 1970s, the club’s basement screened movies that were otherwise censored by the government. He and other members also used the club’s attic to shelter political activists from persecution.

Clubs like Franja de Oro “have always had a political component”, he said, “as their essence is to build networks”.

That, he added, allowed them to be a bulwark against the far right, in both the past and present.

“This resistance quality is not only observed during dictatorships but also during neoliberal economic crises, where the prevailing narrative is that of individualism,” Zisman said, in a nod to Milei’s administration.

Pacín, Franja de Oro’s treasurer, said the clubs’ ability to survive turmoil indicate the value of the community-based model — something he felt privatisation advocates would do well to note.

“Time has shown that neighbourhood clubs have always found a way to move forward,” Pacin said. “If they have been open for 120 years, we must be doing something right. Perhaps it is the big businessmen who should approach us to ask how we achieved this.”