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The World and the World Cup

July 08, 2014
by:Gurmeet Singh
The World Cup is well underway, and media focus has shifted from social unrest in Brazil to the games themselves. Finally- all that noise is gone, and we can hear the ref’s whistle. The media’s attention span is not the focus of this essay, however, nor is the question of whether the tournament should have gone ahead in the first place. Instead, I’d like to explore a basic paradox at the heart of football, if not sport in general: it commands the attention of half of the world’s population, and yet is seen as outside of society.

Football (and again, sport in general) is treated as though it is an adjunct to society, a flighty combination of athleticism, entertainment, business and- dare I say it- art. To followers, football occupies its own reality, running in parallel to our terrestrial one, busying itself with the business of transfers, rumours, tantrums and more- while we get on with our daily commutes. Part of this illusion is a conditioned by the media (obvious organisational reasons aside, newspapers and media outlets still divide their contents by the headings “politics”, “culture”, “sport”, and so on), but a more serious point is that football behaves as though it belongs in an apolitical, asocial realm. Though the world can gaze through its windows, football is insulated from the world and indifferent to its concerns.

This perception helps obscure just how politically active football is. Indeed, FIFA, world football’s governing body, has acted less like a lobby and more of a rump parliament in Brazil, helping to create event-specific legislation that secures the interests of its corporate sponsors and the host nation, to the exclusion of citizens and local businesses. As in South Africa four years ago, FIFA has succeeded in creating legislation that dictates visa provisions, security forces, labour regulations, as well as commercial space.

Many Brazilian citizens and civil society groups that have rallied in protest have also been at pains to differentiate football and politics, claiming they are not anti-football, only anti-FIFA and anti-establishment. While the distinction is made in earnest, no doubt, it only perpetuates the problem; football is seen as somehow distinct from society, a value-free zone innocent of social connotation. However, football is not a visitor to our dull shores- football is a sport, and sport is inside society- football is politics.

By refusing the link between sport and society, the government is refusing accountability for social cost. However, they are all-too-ready to claim responsibility for social good. Indeed, it is the one reason why governments the world over are so ready to cater to FIFA to host the World Cup, as well as other major sporting events. They’re not simply “showcases” for the country- showing how well organised, logistically viable, how investment-friendly the country is- they add a sense of legitimacy to the country; a non-Western country that is refused the World Cup is still considered pariah, despite appearances. Colombia quietly withdrew their 2014 World Cup bid, in an attempt to limit the embarrassment and fallout FIFA’s inevitable formal rejection would have caused. Colombia has more severe poverty than Brazil- a greater percentage of its population live below the poverty line. And what kind of protests would that have led to? No, better that a nation like that continues to build on its transition to capitalism, and apply again in a few years. Both FIFA and the nation in question are aware of how political sport is- how it can legitimise a country, such as the case with India with the commonwealth games, South Africa with the 2010 World Cup, and the UAE with all other sports. This knowledge is very carefully stage managed with public displays of indifference or ignorance, and frequent tributes to the beauty of the human spirit.

Finally, there is a problem of the spectacle. The spectacle of the World Cup itself occludes the protests and social unrest by occupying that reality it has claimed for itself. Harking back to the earlier separation of society from sport in newspapers, the way in which the games are shown on television affirm the ‘game’ element of the spectacle. What is being shown is a sport, a game- not the subject of political events, not something that has entrenched and deepened social inequality in Brazil for at least a generation. And how could such a shift in context take place? For a simple connection to be made by public figures, by those in positions of responsibility, that sport is social, that football is political.

Article written by:
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Gurmeet Singh
Author, Contributing Editor