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.