World Cup Brazil promo
Type
Article
Category
Politics

To boycott, or not to boycott, that is the question

When the World Cup came to my country, in 1990, it was preceded in very predictable fashion by large-scale corruption and massively wasteful public spending. Giant stadiums were built in cities that would never be able to fill them again. Workplace safety rules were relaxed in order to fulfil the brutal construction schedule, resulting in 678 accidents and 24 deaths (more than in Brazil, although fewer than the hundreds already recorded in Qatar). 24 years later, the national budget still includes over 60 million euros every year to repay the mortgages, some for stadiums that have since been demolished.

There were some protests, too, although not on the same scale of what has happened in Brazil over the last year, where an entire social movement arose around the slogan contra a copa, against the cup. It was the last thing anyone might have expected from such a famously football-obsessed nation, but perhaps it was also the most fitting. Na Copa vai ter luta: the Cup will have struggle. For how could a nation that truly loves football fail to see how it invests all aspect of public life? Thus the Cup became the fissure, the boundary from which to question the workings of the economy and the state, exert pressure and demand change.

But then what do you do when the games begin? Our editor, Jeff Sparrow, asked me this last week: ‘What do you say if you love watching football at the international level but you are appalled at FIFA and support the opposition in Brazil? How does one negotiate that?’

How does one indeed.

The way I’ve carried on over the last five days, during which I’ve watched or at least have had on in my living room every single one of the 17 marches games played, you’d have trouble telling me apart from your average politically detached fan. That is the ‘love watching football at the international level’ part. As for the ‘support the opposition in Brazil’ part, it must be pointed out that the movement stopped short of asking for a solidarity boycott. #NoVoyABrasil might have been the beginnings of one, although it was more specifically targeted to the travelling fan, but that too has died down (at least as far as it can be measured in terms of the popularity of the hashtag) since the tournament got going. What remains to be boycotted, for the football fan who was never going to go to Brazil in the first place, is the spectacle as it is packaged for the international viewer. One isn’t completely detached from the other – the spectacle, after all, very much depends on the conditions on the ground, the participation of local fans, and so forth – but the relationship between the two isn’t straightforward either.

In a very important sense, the broadcast product is the problem. There is no reason why you couldn’t play World Cup football in regular football stadiums, of which Brazil has an abundance. The demand to renovate or build from scratch so many venues derives from FIFA’s expectations of what a World Cup match should look like to the TV viewer, far more than the quality of the experience for the fans in actual attendance.

Football isn’t alone in this, but this trend in major international sporting events – which as far as I can tell dates back to the 1970s, along with the massively increased involvement of corporate sponsors – has given rise to a curious situation whereby the only form of public infrastructure investment that is guaranteed to appeal to governments of all stripes is the one involved in hosting these things, in spite of the fact that it’s usually massively costly (Brazil sits at $14 billion) and brings economic benefits that are highly debatable.

Greece may have bankrupted itself in order to host the 2000 Olympics, but it was simply never going to pass up on the opportunity. Old-fashioned peacetime nationalism plays a part in this, but so does the fact that these hyper-mediated sporting events are perfect vehicles for neoliberal economics, using the perception of a public good to redirect vast sums of public money into private enterprise just so the cameras can pan on perfectly disciplined crowds that are identical to those of past tournaments, in a show that always recycles itself anew.

So then, why? And I don’t mean why negate a gesture of solidarity to the protesters pelted with rubber bullets in the streets of Recife, so much as why even bother watching the games. What is left, of the art and truth of football, once you subtract these demands that are placed on it, these falsehoods? To which the answer, for me, would be: just enough.

Far more than at club level, where results are almost entirely determined by who can field the most expensive teams, international football amongst national sides still manages to express the talents and creativity of people from all over the world, in what is the most popular sport in the world. Virtually anyone can play football. And while economic means still play a part in the outcome – richer nations where players can get together more often, train better, etc, are at a significant advantage – participation is far more open. Which is why the group stage is always by far the most exciting, before the race to the finish is taken over by the powerhouse nations, whose historic cultural differences – in footballing terms – have been all but erased by the globalisation of the market for top players.

The football, this year, so far, has been great, but it makes little sense to speak about it in isolation. We should always reject the injunction to keep politics out of things, and the simple truth is that politics and sport cannot be separated. There is the athletic gesture, and then there are the conditions in which it originated, and the manner in which it is staged and shown to us, the public. There is capital exploiting almost every step of that supply chain. There is the futility of refusing to witness the best expressions of the sport that you played as a kid and grew up to love. There are the circenses, through which we are also ruled, and have been for a long time. There is the opportunity and the necessity to struggle when the behemoth of a World Cup wreaks havoc to your economy. All of these things exist together, in an uncertain and always fluctuating balance. Even by watching you make a stand on what you think that balance is, at that moment. This year, so far, I’m watching.

 

Comments

  1. ‘What do you say if you love watching football at the international level but you are appalled at FIFA and support the opposition in Brazil? How does one negotiate that?’

    Boycott. No question.

      • The issue of whether or not he watched the last one religiously is literally irrelevant to the question of whether it’s right to boycott this one. If I enjoy a steak today, is there any problem with me learning a bunch of stuff over the following week and then being persuaded to turn vegetarian?

  2. For my views on football and long history of enjoying it, see my post on same last year. It’s difficult to watch football these days and put one’s moral compass in a box marked ‘don’t touch.’ It’s as true for the Champions League as it is for the World Cup.
    I haven’t yet heard a good argument to defend the watching of contemporary football. Because the pleasure I might get out of watching or discussing it, isn’t enough.
    the argument that the group stage is interesting because it’s more open blah blah, is irrelevant, I think, in the context of the bloated, corrupt, racist, misogynist, exploitative, murderous event professional football has become.

    • I can’t really muster interest for top club football anymore, or pretend to believe in it, which is a shame, but I put that down to my finally losing interest, as opposed to a moral objection. And I’m really not saying one should put one’s moral compass away, I think you watch these things with an awareness of how the spectacle is constructed (which also applies to Hollywood films and all other forms of industrial entertainment). Or you don’t. But a boycott, it seems to me, especially when no-one’s called for it, is a politically different gesture to just saying ‘fuck it’. And that it also requires that a case be publicly made, and a campaign waged.

  3. Um, no. I can boycott, have thought-out reasons for doing so and not make a public case. And I don’t require others to call for it before I do it. I subscribed to the ‘have an awareness of the spectacle’s construction’ when I was younger, but not any more. The weight of suffering and duplicity just got too great in the end.
    It’s interesting actually that nobody has called for a boycott. Though one imagines that Qatar in 2022 might do it. One hopes.

  4. You don’t actually answer the question you set yourself. You don’t actually explain why you think it’s okay to watch the world cup. You say “This is all very difficult and complicated, but, fuck it, I’m going to watch.”

    I mean, look at this paragraph: “So then, why? And I don’t mean why negate a gesture of solidarity to the protesters pelted with rubber bullets in the streets of Recife, so much as why even bother watching the games. What is left, of the art and truth of football, once you subtract these demands that are placed on it, these falsehoods? To which the answer, for me, would be: just enough.”

    “Just enough”, I guess, to justify “negat[ing] a gesture of solidarity to the protesters pelted with rubber bullets in the streets of Recife”. Hope you enjoy it.

    Or how about this line: “Even by watching you make a stand on what you think that balance is, at that moment. This year, so far, I’m watching.” All this says is “Deciding whether or not to watch requires balancing different considerations, but, after listing all of the reasons why the world cup is horrible and awful, I’m now just going to tell you the result of my calculus, which is: I’m going to watch it anyway.”

    Such a disappointing piece.

    • “Just enough”, I guess, to justify “negat[ing] a gesture of solidarity to the protesters pelted with rubber bullets in the streets of Recife”. Hope you enjoy it.

      I courted this kind of response, so fair enough. I’d question my own premise though. Where there is organised sport on any large scale there is always violence: the violence of capitalism, the violence of the state. What the Brazil protesters were able to do, by seeking a direct confrontation, was to make this violence literal and visible. However, it’s not simply a matter of moral relativism to say that the violence is there anyway, and has been there for an awfully long time. Was football ever innocent? Was it ever something you’d hope anyone would enjoy? The second ever world cup was played in Italy and was already a tool of Fascist propaganda. But you don’t even have to go that far.

      What does it mean, then, to withdraw that enjoyment? What kind of gesture of solidarity it is, if it’s not called for, not public, not political?

      • Was football ever innocent? Was it ever something you’d hope anyone would enjoy?

        What are you actually saying here? What follows from the observation that sport has always been enmeshed with “the violence of capitalism, the violence of the state”? Are you saying that since it’s always been problematic, since it never existed in a pure state, its current problems don’t justify abandoning it?

        Because if that’s what you’re arguing, I simply don’t see the logical structure of that argument. Fine, it’s always been bad. Yes, it’s really bad at the moment. Neither of those truths justify the conclusion “so it’s fine to just tune out the bad stuff for a bit”.

        It doesn’t matter whether or not football was “ever innocent”. It’s not innocent now. Worse than that, it (in the form of the World Cup) is really, really guilty, and you shouldn’t support it.

        • It doesn’t matter whether or not football was “ever innocent”. It’s not innocent now. Worse than that, it (in the form of the World Cup) is really, really guilty, and you shouldn’t support it.

          How are you not supporting it, then? Because really what I am saying is that absent an organised political campaign – which will have to have some sort of aims presumably – to say you’re not watching it because you can’t stomach it is an individual psychological response of next to no interest to me.

          • The existence of an organised political campaign is a nice thing to have, but it’s not a necessary precondition on meaningful socio-cultural action. My partner doesn’t need to be part of an organised feminism campaign in order to change the views of those around her for the better, and I don’t need to be part of an organised anti-FIFA campaign in order to affect the way it is perceived, in order to affect the way people think about it.

            How do I “not support” the World Cup? I sure as fuck don’t watch it because I don’t want to give it the cultural capital it needs to thrive – in much the same way that you can “not support” , say, the blackface comedy of Jonah by refusing to watch it and chat about it around the water cooler the next day.

            It’s interesting that this has turned into a conversation in which you’re demanding that I justify my action of not watching the world cup, when YOU are the one who wrote an entire article about why it was okay for you to watch it.

  5. You sort of are making a public case right now, aren’t you? And that’s what separates you from a guy who just happens not to watch the tournament.

    Who knows what will happen in 2022. They played in 1978, didn’t they? And I grew up thinking that Cruyff had boycotted the tournament, when it wasn’t even true.

  6. I think it’s drawing a long bow to say I’m making a public case Giovanni. But I think it’s hard for football aficionados to accept that transnational capitalism has utterly ruined what seems to be a game that everyone likes to play and made it unwatchable.

        • Of course they are. Don’t be silly now. By all accounts the Italian team that won two consecutive world cups in the thirties played sublime football, as well as an ambassadorial role for Fascism. But that’s just a crude example. In the fifties and sixties – the decades that most people seem most nostalgic about – the game was far more culturally hegemonic than it is now in many parts of the world, including Brazil, where the 1950 World Cup final defeat was greeted as a national tragedy. As such, it was also a vehicle of deep social conservatism. There may be a lot I don’t like about the modern game, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go back to that.

          • Giovanni, a somewhat patronising ‘don’t be silly’ isn’t helpful. As I said, I haven’t heard any solid arguments as to why anyone could still watch the WC given the brutal conditions under which it is staged. And I don’t think you’ve come close to making a case here. It’s entirely possible I’m becoming less tolerant and patient as I get older,and less able to appreciate subtlety in arguments, but the revulsion I feel when I think of the WC isn’t something I can stare down or ignore.

          • I wasn’t trying to be patronising, it was a genuine reaction to the suggestion that the aesthetic dimension of football is one and the same with the political/ideological one. Not just because it is demonstrably untrue, but because it unduly romanticises football before (was it ever not brutally staged? I personally can’t see differences between Italy 1990 and Brazil 2014. Let alone Argentina 1978. Before, we’d find brutalities of a different kind.). Besides if it were true, it would render meaningless the important distinction between not watching football because it has been ruined by transnational capitalism, and not watching football because transnational capitalism ruins lives.

            That said, I realise that the title (which wasn’t of my choosing, but I was also fine with) might have set this up as a proper argument on what should be done, as opposed to more personal, less prescriptive reflections on the politics of watching football, or not watching it. I’m quite fine with people saying ‘fuck this’. Obviously.

  7. for what it’s worth, something’s rotten in the state of everything going by the arguments for and against boycotting here – and i don’t know that simply boycotting social spectacles is the solution – seeking to change social conditions is always the better option – whether from within or without corridors of power

    • further, the game (like most games) was never about the game, it has always been about men in suits high in the stands running the show and creaming off the profits

  8. Some of the arguments here remind me of cruder ones against formalism in literature.

    There *is* the occasional moment of great beauty in the game, and that is sufficient justification for watching it. I will continue to have to TV blaring, laugh at the desperate comments in The Guardian from English fans, and generally revelling in it. Tim Cahill’s goal against The Netherlands is not something I am willing to deny myself. And, despite that result, I look forward to seeing the Dutch go very far in the tournament.

    “The form of art is, to a certain and very large degree, independent, but the artist who creates this form, and the spectator who is enjoying it, are not empty machines, one for creating form and the other for appreciating it. They are living people, with a crystallized psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions” (Trotsky)

    I would agree that social conditions are *obviously* relevant to the production and appreciation of the game, but the (art or) game is not able to be reduced to those conditions. For a moment or two, it can transcend them: Bergkamp 1998.

    Go the foot-poets.

  9. The first paragraph which includes the statement “24 years later, the national budget still includes over 60 million euros every year to repay the mortgages, some for stadiums that have since been demolished

    That sounds incorrect to me, I’ve probably visited at least a 2/3 of them during the 00’s, a brief google search suggests that all the stadiums that were used in Italia 90 are still in use today.

    Can you enlighten me to which stadiums were demolished and now are not in use?

    • The Delle Alpi in Turin (demolished 2008) is probably the most well-known example. Whereas the cathedral-in-the-desert par excellence would be Bari’s San Nicola, designed by Renzo Piano. It’s still in use, but the local team’s gone bankrupt multiple times and for long stretches had an average attendance of 1000 (the stadium seats 60000).

  10. How did I end up here on a website overflowing with over intellectualized tosh?
    Why to watch the world football cup? Ha!
    When self defined lefties seriously argue over wasting time watching others engage in an event driven by rabid nationalism I know I have lurched blindfolded into a circus of fools.

    The destruction of communities and butchery & incarceration of their inhabitants that went down before this particular iteration shouldn’t need to be considered. A decision not to participate (observation=participation) having been made long before.

    Maybe if this cup was a competition between teams of football players who lived together and played together for the old-school style clubs run from the communities their paddocks were located, by the people who lived in those communities, such an event could be an enjoyable pastime for those who are either yet to play, or no longer play the game.

    But this event is emphatically not that.

    The players who are famous because they hawk their forks to the highest bidder then turn up and play having the minimum interaction with their team ‘mates’ they can manage, get gathered together under the same national banners used by the political elite of all sleazy stripes to distract mugs from reality and engender a jingoistic national rivalry those elites build up and store away until they are be dragged out when the elites decide its time to steal some other elites’ resources.
    National sports contests are a prelude to war.

    War where the less aware citizens kill and be killed people much more like themselves than the types who decided run that war.
    These mugs do this because they were sucked in by bullshit like the world cup.

    I spent a couple of years playing football when I was a kid at uni in england. The rugby team wasn’t worth spit and was full of dickheads, so I thought when in rome etc., and gave football a burl.

    I had a good time made some friends and generally did those things that I believed sport was for. eg got some exercise competing against other young blokes doing the same. Having a lot of fun and meeting good people.

    Ruminating over whether to sit on a couch watching inflated egos battle inflated egos has to be a no brainer.

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