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.
Illustration: Lance Liu
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.
More widely, the World Cup has been tied into election campaigns, struggles for human rights and petty parliamentary squabbling.
Iranian 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 Algeria team stirred up admiration and controversy by donating their prize money to the people of Gaza, while 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. However, 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.
Brazil 2014 has broken records on Facebook and Twitter. The Brazil versus Chile match generated 16.4 million tweets, surpassing the record previously held by this year’s Superbowl. The tournament also racked up an unprecedented 1 billion Facebook interactions by June 29, with two weeks still left of the competition.
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 centers on basketball, football, baseball and ice hockey.
The US versus Belgium game drew the highest overnight TV rating on ESPN for a World Cup game, and tens of thousands of fans packed the NFL stadiums of the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys to watch live screenings. However, the sudden enthusiasm for soccer has provoked a backlash among the more furious of the US right wing.
Columnist Ann Coulter claimed that 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.”
“For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. However, 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 Uruguay’s Luis Suarez for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called it a FIFA plot for revenge against a South American team that eliminated England and Italy. Uruguayan President Jose 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 faultlines in the global chatter about the World Cup. However, 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 aging 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 program to “observe the extraordinary level of that universal sport.” And in typical style, he stirred up a little controversy with a salute to Lionel 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.
Additional reporting by Anna Kaiser
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