Sophie Arie in Rome and Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Tuesday October 19, 2004
Football clubs have been known to show their soft side, supporting the poor and helping the sick and handicapped. But it is not often that a top European club hands its shirt and its cash to an army of balaclava-wearing guerrillas demanding autonomy in a large chunk of their country.
Inter Milan has donated €5,000 (£3,475), an ambulance and the captain's No 4 black and blue team shirt to one of the last strongholds of the ragtag Zapatista army in a gesture of solidarity for the indigenous people of Chiapas in southern Mexico.
Argentinian star Javier Zanetti, the team captain, talked his club into donating its changing room fines for late arrival or using mobile phones to help villagers rebuild after the village of Zinacantán was reportedly attacked by government military forces in April. "We believe in a better world, in an unglobalised world, enriched by the cultural differences and customs of all the people. This is why we want to support you in this struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals," Zanetti wrote in a note to the village, posted along with the first instalment of €2,500.
"We know that we are not alone on the path of this struggle," was the reply from the Zapatista supporters who invited the Italian football team to visit them in the jungle mountains of Chiapas.
The Mexican presidential office in charge of relations with the Zapatistas said yesterday there would be no comment on the Italian donation.
In June, Bruno Bartolozzi, Inter's team manager, arrived in the village of Caracol de Oventic with further donations and the blessing of the team and its oil baron owner, Massimo Moratti. The donations have helped the villagers to rebuild houses and water pipelines, and the club has offered to supply football gear and balls for budding Zapatista footballers. "Our team doesn't just play on PlayStations and computers," Mr Bartolozzi said. "We read in a Mexican newspaper about this attack. We wanted to help. Not so much with large amounts of money but with our sustained support."
The Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos - a non-indigenous university graduate turned rebel - has reportedly expressed his appreciation in an internet communique accompanied with a photo of him sporting the Inter captain's shirt. "Brothers and sisters of the Italian team, I wish you the greatest success in your sporting campaign," said the letter.
Mr Marcos and his Zapatista army - who began their armed campaign for indigenous rights in 1994 - are thought to prefer basketball to football, given the choice.
Hopes were raised for a solution to the conflict when Vicente Fox's government was elected in 2000, but Mr Marcos broke off relations with the government within a few months after parliament watered down a constitutional reform on indigenous rights demanded by the Zapatistas.
Zapatista supporters are concentrated in a few strongholds dotted around Chiapas where they insist they are putting their objective of indigenous autonomy into practice without waiting for government permission.