/ 12 October 2007

Spirit of Che Guevara follows Argentina

Had things turned out differently, one of the seats in the press box in the Stade de France last Sunday night might have been occupied by a 79-year-old Argentinian newspaperman whose own rugby career was blighted by asthma.

He would have been recording the success of his fellow countrymen in reaching the last four of the 2007 Rugby World Cup for the first time. But life held different challenges for Che Guevara.

”We played rugby together for the first time when he was 14,” Alberto Granado, Guevara’s companion on the trip around South America, portrayed on screen in The Motorcycle Diaries, told an interviewer a couple of years ago. ”A lot of teams didn’t want him because he was asthmatic. But despite his scrawny figure, he was surprisingly strong and a very good tackler.”

This week marked the 40th anniversary of Guevara’s death in the Bolivian jungle, where he was captured and executed during a failed attempt at leading a peasant uprising.

Although he is remembered more for his role in the Cuban revolution than for his recreational interests, a typically Argentinian love of sport was among the significant themes of his early life. He was a football fan and a supporter of Rosario Central, one of his hometown clubs, but he was keen on rugby too and played as a wing three-quarter at school.

While at college in Buenos Aires, where he was studying medicine, he founded and edited a rugby magazine called Tackle, which lasted 11 issues. Granado remembered the Buenos Aires police paying a call to accuse Che of spreading communist propaganda after he used his column in Tackle to criticise the class structure within the game, which was then reserved for Argentina’s privileged elite.

At least one of today’s Pumas reveres the memory of Fidel Castro’s right-hand man.

”I’m proud to be his compatriot,” Agustin Pichot, Argentina’s captain and scrumhalf, recently told Jean Cormier, the veteran rugby correspondent of Le Parisien, whose books include a biography of Guevara. ”I also know that, during his guerrilla campaigns, Che used tactics that he learnt from our sport. For me,” Pichot concluded, ”he is Argentina’s emblematic figure.”

Rugby’s prominent fans have not always enjoyed good fortune. Benito Mussolini is credited with importing the game to Italy after watching a match in France in the 1920s and being impressed by its potential for building a nation of muscular fascists. Quite improbably, United States President George Bush played a few games for Yale University.

And more recently it appears to have become the favourite ball game of the House of Windsor.

But the game is growing in popularity in Cuba, the place with which Guevara will always be most closely associated. It began with the formation of a couple of clubs in the mid-1990s, received a boost with a visit from Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French rugby federation, and is now in line for associate membership of the International Rugby Board.

A Scottish club team recently visited the island to play three matches and, having also conducted clinics for children, returned with a glowing report on the skills levels and enthusiasm they found there.

And when rugby sevens is included in the Pan-American Games for the first time in 2011, Cuba will be able to send a team to Guadalajara to take part.

It can be a long haul to the top. It was in 1910 that Argentina played their first international match, against a touring British Isles team. Only now are they within 80 minutes of becoming the first side from outside the major powers to reach the Rugby World Cup final.

Should they pull it off, Guevara’s admirers will know the best way to celebrate: with a good Cuban cigar, rolled by a son or daughter of the revolution. – Â