World Cup 2014: Politics, Identity, and the Global Game

lessons from latin americaIn their forthcoming book, Lessons from Latin America: Innovations in Politics, Culture, and Development, authors Felipe Arocena and Kirk Bowman dedicate the entire final chapter to the beautiful game. Here, Kirk Bowman provides a post-tournament summary of the politics and identity issues at play in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. 

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was one of the most dramatic in recent memory. The championship match pitted two soccer powers, one from Latin America and one from Europe. It is fitting that Argentina faced off against Germany, as the World Cup exhibited at least three fascinating battle lines involving Europe and Latin America.

Watching this year’s World Cup from Spain, I found the most interesting spectacle of the entire tournament to be the singing of the national anthems before the Chile and Spain group stage match. The Spanish national anthem is music without words as the peripheral regions of Catalonia, the Basques, the Galicians, and the Andalucians cannot agree on words that would satisfy the centralists in Madrid. The Spanish players look on uncomfortably at the anthem, not knowing if they should hum or sing “la-la-la-la” to the music. In contrast, the Chileans have a dramatic section of the national anthem with words but without music. The fans and the players become one as they belt out the words. In a sense, the fans become players and the players become fans in a sacred communion that is part of the continual construction of national identity. (The World Cup Chilean anthem can be seen and heard here.) Latin American countries are immigrant societies, and they are still in a process of forming national identity. Soccer is a major component in the creation of national identity in the Southern Cone. Latin Americans play soccer to build a sense of national identity, while Europeans play soccer to exhibit identity that was created long ago. This is why Brazil’s unexpected 7-1 humiliating loss at home to Germany was so painful. Brazil’s very identity rests on a national belief that the fusion of the Afro-Brazilian, the European-Brazilian, and the Indigenous created a new Brazilian people that are the best on the planet in soccer and winners of five world cups. It will be interesting to see if Brazil’s soccer shame will have any collateral effect on the Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, who is running for re-election this fall.

The Luis Suárez biting incident and the draconian punishment from FIFA highlights the perspective that Latin Americans are barbaric children who need to be civilized and tamed by the advanced industrial countries. While most observers agree that his nibble was uncalled for and that a red card and short suspension is warranted, the level of outrage and the call for blood from the English media and FIFA are exaggerated and can only be understood as part of the history of how the North sees the Global South. When Diego Maradona scored the Hand of God goal against the English in the 1982 World Cup in Mexico City, he was branded a cheat, a rascal, and a villain. In contrast, when Manuel Neuer, the German goalkeeper, admitted to intentionally “fooling” the referee to disallow a perfectly good English goal in the 2010 World Cup, he was referred to as clever, lucky, and quick thinking. While European players have broken noses with intentional elbows, broken legs and ankles with intentional kicks, and pulled their opponents down by their hair, it is only Suárez, whose nip could never cause injury, who is banned from playing soccer, practicing soccer, and even going into a stadium for four months. As one FIFA official stated, FIFA must discipline and teach the children.

Finally, the Brazil World Cup demonstrated the harmony of interests between the global elites and the elites of Brazil, while the people of Brazil paid the price. The level of corruption, busted stadium budgets, and failed infrastructure projects in this World Cup is scandalous. The people of Brazil will pay many billions of dollars for this orgy of sports and commercialism. This World Cup will leave a number of white elephant stadiums throughout the country, with local communities paying for maintenance and upkeep of largely unused stadiums for many years. FIFA earned some $5 billion from this World Cup, and will share none of that with Brazil, who pays all the costs. Besides FIFA, the other winners are Brazilian construction companies and their politician partners who will rake in exorbitant profits from the stadium and infrastructure projects.

Even with the corruption of FIFA and some poor execution by Brazil, soccer is still the global game and the greatest show on earth. Some forty billion cumulative television viewers have witnessed the agony and the ecstasy of the sport. If the fans are observant, they can also partake in the spectacle of politics and identity.

-Kirk Bowman, Georgia Institute of Technology