Over the next few weeks, we will see all that is beautiful and all that is damned in soccer at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Hundreds of millions will swoon at the sight of the gods of the global game — Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, England’s Wayne Rooney — plying their exquisite trade across the newly built or expensively refurbished stadiums on which Brazil, according to the Wall Street Journal, has spent $3.6 billion over the last few years.
The 32 national teams arriving in that country will, however, be confronted with another, far more sobering reality. Soccer-crazy Brazil has been in revolt over the World Cup — over, in particular, the staggering sums that have been siphoned from the public purse into a string of gargantuan, desperately-behind-schedule construction projects for the competition. Last year, there were protests, some of which were violently suppressed, in more than 120 Brazilian cities during the somewhat pointless warm-up tournament that the governing body of world soccer, FIFA, runs a year before the World Cup begins.
For lovers of the game, in his celebrated masterpiece Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano long ago caught the way the spectacle of soccer and the spectacle of reality intertwined. Of the Brazilian protests, he recently observed: “Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.”
Huge global sporting contests, their boosters promise, will transform the nature of the host country. The billions South Africa poured into hosting the World Cup were touted by some as a form of development. The result? The month-long euphoria of the contests was followed by the hangover of dealing with an expensive unused or underused stadium infrastructure scattered across that developing country. (Host countries pay FIFA for the privilege of hosting the competition, then foot the bill for most of the tournament, while FIFA takes most of the revenues.) Today, something similar is happening in Brazil where, as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi have noted, there has been “a transfer of wealth from Brazil as a whole to various interest groups inside and outside the country. This is not an economic bonanza. Brazil is sacrificing a little bit of its future to host the World Cup.”
This is just one symptom of a corporate takeover of “the beautiful game” that has reached the saturation point. Since the neoliberal 1980s, Brazil, like many other South American countries, has been in the business of exporting its soccer talent to the rest of the world. As Galeano once noted of his own country’s leg drain, “In Uruguay… soccer is an export industry that scorns the domestic market. The continuous outflow of good players means mediocre professional leagues and ever fewer, ever less fervent fans.”
Corporate sponsorship is officially prohibited from team shirts during the World Cup, but elsewhere, from the T-shirts on their chests to the laces on their shoes, even in one controversial case their underpants, the players are advertisements for the multinational apparel companies who make their uniforms. And the elite among them are employed as brand ambassadors by corporations during the tournament; so expect to see Messi and Ronaldo advertising soft drinks and airlines during gamebreaks.
We all need an antidote to soccer as big business; if you can’t take to the streets of Brazil to offer your own comment on the ways in which international sports leave misery in their wake, you must, at least, pick up Eduardo Galeano’s witty and rebellious history of the game, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. It already has a cult readership in the English-speaking world, but in the Spanish-speaking one it is considered a bible of soccer by ordinary readers and professional players alike. In the run-up to the games, TomDispatch offers you just a taste of that classic: five pieces that capture the marvel and melancholy of the world’s most popular sport.