A non-negotiable part of life in my home country, Australia, is being the butt of jokes, often surprisingly cruel ones. The nastiest ribbing is often reserved for outsiders, be they the new kid at school or a migrant seeking a better life. It’s best to think of this as a twisted act of love – like punching your mate in the stomach so he can show you how tough he is. Unsurprisingly, this aggressive kind of humour doesn’t always translate across cultures. There is a reason our soap operas find more success overseas than our comedy shows.
But Aussie jokes rarely go down as badly as they did in Honduras this month. The two countries had been drawn to play each other for a place at the World Cup finals in Russia next year. Australian journalists took delight in dishing the dirt on their rivals. In 1969, Honduras went to war with neighbouring El Salvador after a football game turned ugly. In 2012, it had the highest murder rate in the world: 90.4 per 100,000 people.
One sports website offered visiting supporters a jocular guide, with images of urban unrest, urging caution inside the stadium “if you’re not murdered before the game”. The most cutting gag came from a comedian called Peter Helliar, who deadpanned in a chat with an Australian footballer: “so you beat Syria [in the previous round], now you’re going to the murder capital of the world; if you win this, I think you play ISIS.”
The words hit a raw nerve. “Australians seem to have a lot of fun with the social problems of other countries,” seethed one Honduran newspaper. Helliar said he received “one or two” death threats. I was in Honduras last week reporting on the country’s forthcoming elections. Everyone I talked to, from taxi drivers to CEOs, told me how mean and ignorant my country had been. Yes, Australian humour can sometimes go too far, but Hondurans took it particularly badly because it ridiculed a stain on the country’s reputation that it is desperately trying to wash away.
Honduras has been working hard to reduce violent crime. So far this year, the murder rate is more than half of what it was four years ago, at 42 per 100,000 people. San Pedro Sula, the industrial city where the match was held, had just 320 murders in the first 10 months of this year, compared with 1,411 in all of 2013. The economy is growing and the government is working with McKinsey, a consulting firm, to try to transform the country into a tourism hotspot. But before that can happen, Honduras needs to shake off old stereotypes.
Sport is a great way for embattled countries to broadcast a positive story. Afghanistan’s stunning entrance into international Test cricket is one example. It also creates moments of cultural exchange: international fixtures encourage people to learn about countries they might know little about. Unfortunately, Honduras’s time on this stage was doomed to be limited. Hondurans will be first to tell you their football team is a bit rubbish: the country has only ever made three World Cups, where it has never won a game.
I went to the match in San Pedro Sula. A paltry two dozen Australians had made the trip; their gold shirts a speck in a sea of Honduran blue. Some had flown 14,000km to see their team play. Others had been travelling in Latin America and took a detour. Someone had draped a banner with the words “Peter Helliar is a cunt” over the railings in front of them – more Aussie hilarity. The game finished in a drab scoreless draw. (Honduras was drubbed 3-1 in the return leg in Sydney on November 15th, missing out on a World Cup spot.)
After the final whistle the Australians mingled with the locals, taking selfies before heading off to the pub. They saw first-hand that middle-class millennials in San Pedro Sula don’t get murdered the moment they step outdoors, but stay out late in bars and clubs just like those in Sydney and Melbourne. Some Aussies stayed in Honduras, travelling to the resort islands off the country’s north coast, which boast sparkling beaches that rival any in the Caribbean. No doubt they posted their adventures on Facebook and Instagram, showing friends back home how much fun they were having in Honduras. This is how good news gets out: slowly.