People’s cup but politician’s stage

In football terms the jury is still out on whether Brazil 2014 will be the best World Cup ever but it is already perhaps the most globally politicised tournament in decades. From Barack Obama’s tweets of support for Team USA to Fidel Castro’s lauding of the virtues of Lionel Messi, politicians from across the spectrum have chipped in on an event that has generated bigger TV audiences and more social network chatter than any in history.

There have been – many would say absurd – right-wing rants in the United States against “socialist” football, and left-wing criticism in Latin America denouncing corrupt, capitalist Fifa. The Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (Brics) summit on July 14 to 15 presented Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff with an opportunity to invite China’s and India’s leaders, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, to watch the final at the Maracanã. Whether they take up the offer or not, Vladimir Putin will more than likely be there, eager to suck up the media oxygen that comes with hosting the next tournament.

Rousseff also has her own agenda: with an election to fight in October, she needs a successful tournament to boost her campaign for a second term. Activists who want her out will probably be protesting outside the stadium, ensuring the tournament ends as it started – with tear gas and stun grenades on the streets and placards decrying the corruption and bullying of Fifa.

Dave Zirin, author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy believes Brazil 2014 has prompted a level of political discussion not seen for many years.

“It’s profoundly more dramatic in this cup than any in the last 30 years or so,” he said. “You would have to go to 1978 with the shadow of Argentina’s dictatorship [which had taken control of the host nation in a military coup two years earlier].”

Intimate if uneasy relationship
The people’s game has always had an intimate, if uneasy, relationship with politics. Football or footballers have been blamed for wars (El Salvador’s conflict with Honduras in 1969) and credited for peace (Didier Drogba’s intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2006 and the Christmas truce in Belgium in 1914). It has been seen as a beacon of multiculturalism (France’s victory in 1998) and a hotbed of racism (almost everywhere in Europe). It has been used by dictators (Brazil and most of Latin America in the 1970s) and rebels (most recently the football clubs that joined the Arab Spring).

This World Cup, though, has attracted more than its fair share of protest and propaganda. The political controversy has been in the stadiums since the opening ceremony, where the kick-off was preceded by an indigenous child unfurling a banner calling for more land rights for native communities.

Since then, there have been pitch invasions by a German supporter painted with Nazi slogans and a self-publicist who claimed to be supporting the cause of favela children, as well as the display of a slogan attacking the socialist government in Venezuela.

Outside, the World Cup has been a lightning conductor for polemics on the streets, where there have been small but numerous demonstrations against Fifa corruption, excessive government spending on stadiums, homophobia, racism and forced evictions. In the wider world, the tournament has been tied into election campaigns, struggles for human rights and petty parliamentary squabbling.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani tweeted a rare off-duty photograph of himself in an Iranian team shirt and tracksuit bottoms following his nation’s narrow loss to Argentina. The Algerian team stirred up admiration and controversy by donating their prize money to the people of Gaza, and Russia manager Fabio Capello was summoned to the Parliament building in Moscow to explain his team’s early exit.

There have, of course, been similar stunts in the past. But what really makes this year’s tournament stand out is the unusually critical focus on Fifa, the increasing interest in the sport in the US and the scale of debate on social networks.

The attention has been global but perhaps the most impressive surge was in the US, where the heroics of goalkeeper Tim Howard and his teammates briefly dominated a national sporting dialogue that usually centres on basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey. The USA vs Belgium game drew the highest overnight TV rating on ESPN for a World Cup game and tens of thousands of fans packed the stadiums of the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys to watch live screenings. But the sudden enthusiasm for soccer has provoked a backlash among the more furious of the US right wing.

Moral decay
Columnist Ann Coulter claimed the growing popularity of the sport, which she blamed on an influx of Hispanic migrants, was a sign of US moral decay. Tea Party megaphone Rush Limbaugh, who later admitted enjoying a game, penned a piece titled: “Why the left loves soccer: You can win by trying and losing”.

For some, this is a source of hope: Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Paris Review: “For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions.” But now: “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it.”

The Latin left has also been up in arms about the “Anglo-Italian conspiracy” in the World Cup to ban Luis Suárez for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro called it a Fifa plot for revenge against a South American team that eliminated England and Italy. Uruguay’s President José Mujica called Fifa “sons of bitches” and the former Argentina player, manager and general legend Diego Maradona said the “unjust punishment” was a way of punishing Uruguayan clubs for demanding a fairer share of money from the sport.

Such mini-alliances on particular causes make it tempting to look for ideological fault lines in the global chatter about the World Cup. But the political boundaries are too blurred to do that with much clarity.

Instead it is probably more accurate just to say that there are more ways to chat, more people in the discussion, and more at stake than ever during this World Cup, so any politician worth his or her salt is trying to take advantage of this extraordinary platform.

Even the ageing Cuban revolutionary Castro, better known for his love of baseball, said in one of his increasingly rare public messages that he was watching Maradona’s World Cup TV programme to “observe the extraordinary level of that universal sport”.

And in typical style, he stirred up a little controversy with a salute to Messi, “a formidable athlete who gives glory to the noble Argentine people”, but nary a word for Neymar, now out with injury, nor the passionate hosts, Brazil. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts works from Bristol, England. Copywriter, Classics MA and author. Bristol, books, gigs, dogs. Jonathan Watts has over 100 followers on Twitter.

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