Sat, Jul 12, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The World Cup of politics and social media

The tournament has seen an unprecedented level of outrage and debate over poverty, FIFA, commercialism ... and occasionally soccer

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, RIO DE JANEIRO

Illustration: Lance Liu

The jury is till out, in soccer terms, on whether Brazil 2014 will be the best World Cup ever, but it is already perhaps the most globally politicized tournament in decades. From US President Barack Obama’s tweets of support for Team USA to former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s lauding of the virtues of Lionel Messi, politicians from across the spectrum have chipped in on a sporting event that has generated bigger TV audiences and more social-network chatter than any in history.

There have been, many would say, contrivedly absurd rightwing rants in the US against “socialist” soccer and leftwing criticism in Latin America denouncing corrupt, capitalist FIFA. A Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit next week presented Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with an opportunity to invite Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to watch the final at the Estadio de Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. Whether they take up the offer or not, Russian President 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 teargas 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. You would have to go to ’78 with the shadow of Argentina’s dictatorship [the host nation was subject to a military coup two years earlier],” Zirin says.

The people’s game has always had an intimate, if uneasy, relationship with politics. Soccer or soccer players have been blamed for wars (El Salvador’s conflict with Honduras in 1969) and credited for peace (Didier Drogba’s intervention in the Ivory Coast 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 soccer clubs who 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.

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