By Sonali Kolhatkar
Soccer (or football, as the rest of the world refers to it) is the most popular sport globally. But can you love the game while hating the World Cup?
The 2014 World Cup tournament in Brazil has attracted record numbers of American viewers, with reports of 23 million people having tuned in to a single match between the U.S. and Portugal alone. Worldwide, the numbers are expected to be even more staggering over the course of the entire tournament, given that half the planet tuned in to the last World Cup in 2010.
Still, I refuse to watch, and here’s why:
1. It is a corporate feeding frenzy.
It is precisely because of the lucrative access to billions of eyeballs that the World Cup has evolved into a glorified delivery system of advertising from some of the world’s biggest corporations such as Coca-Cola, Visa, Budweiser, Microsoft, Volkswagen, Adidas, Marriott and Johnson & Johnson. FIFA (The Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the main governing body that organizes the World Cup, has come under intense scrutiny for its controversial, high-stakes approach to the multibillion-dollar business of soccer. This year’s World Cup is expected to generate a whopping $4 billion in revenue, with the majority coming from marketing and TV rights. That is 66 percent more than the last World Cup.
Advertisers are frothing at the mouth over the World Cup having “the power to be the most talked about subject in social media, ever,” according to a Johnson & Johnson representative. As one Coca-Cola executive told The New York Times, plans for advertising began three years ago, because of “the opportunity it offers” in that “the World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event.” Coke is attempting to equate its sugary, diabetes-inducing drink with soccer, because apparently, “Coke is everyone’s drink, and football is everyone’s sport.”
Even the players themselves are living, breathing vehicles for delivering advertisements, with one sports magazine ranking Brazilian player Neymar, as the most “marketable” athelete in the world. Marriott has signed deals with players Omar Gonzalez and Alexi Lalas, branding them as “Defenders of Travel.”
2. It is ridiculously expensive, has worsened poverty, fostered mass displacement and resulted in the deaths of workers.
Like most other major international sporting events, the World Cup comes with a set of financial infrastructure demands that displace people and turn government priorities upside down, all in the service of the international Sports Industrial Complex.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in host Brazil, where protests in the run-up to the games had “become an almost daily occurrence,” The Guardian reported last June when more than a million Brazilians demonstrated in 80 cities. A massive subway strike in the metropolis of Sao Paolo threatened to bring all transportation to a standstill. The Guardian added: “Many protesters are furious that the government is spending 31bn reals [more than $15 billion USD] to set the stage for a one-time global tournament, while it has failed to address everyday problems closer to home.”
Additionally, hundreds of thousands of poor Brazilians have been driven out of their homes in the favelas in the name of the World Cup. And a total of nine workers have died in Brazil over the course of the stadium-building frenzy to satisfy FIFA’s conditions.
Meanwhile, plans are underway for the 2022 World Cup tournament, which is to be held in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar. Qatar’s construction labor force consists of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from primarily South Asian countries. Given how many hundreds of workers routinely die each year while laboring on construction sites in Qatar, one investigation estimates that 4,000 workers may die from FIFA stadium construction alone. Fittingly, The Nation magazine’s Dave Zirin, in a new book and in ongoing reports on the 2014 World Cup, has maintained that the World Cup has turned into “a tool for neoliberal plunder.”
Fans of the game say it is possible to be critical of FIFA while loving the World Cup matches, but that is analogous to claiming one is a fan of the circus while heaping hate on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. It is the very fan base of this single tournament that keeps the pressure on to make the World Cup such a parasitic institution, and watching the games legitimizes the institution, not just the sport.
3. It is nationalist, and by extension, racist.
Like most high-profile international sporting events, the World Cup relies on fans identifying with their nations, many literally painting their faces the colors of their respective flags. As a child, the favorite sport of my family and friends was cricket, and that sport’s major tournaments are tainted by a similarly nationalist fervor. Friends from different countries whose teams played one another, such as India and Pakistan, would routinely undermine their friendships in favor of nationalist rivalries when the matches began. I hated seeing that animosity in the context of cricket, and it is no less disgusting to watch this year’s World Cup generate similar feuds.
True, in some cases, nationalist pride can help a country overcome internal political issues as last year’s Afghan soccer team showed. But since when is a soccer team’s unity a good enough substitute for real peace in a nation where decades of war has destroyed institutions, fostered grinding poverty and created a nexus for violence?
Nationalist tendencies among soccer fans are also on display when historical political relations are challenged on the field. Foreign Policy points out how “international football has few features more defining than the grudge match: that contest where the opponents brought together have a particularly seething historical enmity.” While it is certainly satisfying to see the team of a former colony beat its onetime colonial master on a soccer field, a World Cup match is simply not a good enough substitute for real justice.
Nationalism is based on the premise that one’s country is superior to others’—a sentiment consistent with racism. It should come as no surprise then, that the nationalist fervor of the World Cup has brought out the racists in full force, as seen at Russia’s match against South Korea and Croatia’s game against Brazil. During both those contests, neo-Nazis in the crowd displayed fascist symbols on their banners. Two Argentine soccer fans were reportedly arrested for taunting Brazilian players as “little monkeys.” And perhaps most egregious of all are the instances of German fans wearing blackface to mimic Ghanaian players at a match between the two countries. In all these examples, it has been the fans who were responsible rather than FIFA, which claims it has a zero-tolerance policy on racism.
4. It is a celebration of manhood. By extension, it generates sexism and homophobia.
It is an obvious fact but worth stating anyway. Billions of women, men and children around the world are watching a total of 736 men (32 teams of 23 players each) kick a ball around a field. Yes, Women’s World Cup soccer is popular too, but not nearly as popular as men’s. In fact, note that the men’s team grabs the default name of “World Cup,” while the women’s version of the same sport is qualified by their gender.
One female journalist writing in The Guardian newspaper said, “Men’s football is loved … simply because the players are men, and men like watching other men play football, and what men like to do and like to watch is, de facto, culturally important. Even the fact the men’s World Cup is not explicitly stated to be a men’s competition erases women.”
Women comprise only three out of 28 members on FIFA’s executive committee, and one survey of women working in the world of soccer found a whopping two-thirds of respondents said they had experienced gender discrimination in the workplace.
As a result of the sport being almost exclusively the domain of men, it often generates patriarchal and sexist fervor. World Cup advertising tends to target mostly men by playing up sexist stereotypes. Some of the advertising seen during this year’s World Cup includes, The Independent notes, a “rash of regressive marketing campaigns, apparently from the imagination of 1950s ad men,” “a talking beach towel that leers at women in skimpy bikinis” and women who are “generally cast as either nags or window dressing.”
It should come as no surprise that World Cup soccer fever also encourages Internet memes like this Twitter image of “Rules for Women During the World Cup” that includes the decree, “You are welcome to watch the game with me as long as you are SILENT.” One study of three of the past World Cup tournaments found that incidents of domestic violence significantly spiked during the tournament, especially when male fans’ favorite teams lost. Suzanne Martin, a lecturer at the University of London, wrote, “there must be a particularly base version of masculinity that’s espoused in the football experience. Football provides a context in which gang culture dominates and women are viewed as trophies and commodities.”
In fact, World Cup camera operators constantly hunt the crowds at games to profile attractive female fans, as this sports blog describes: “The camera operators of the 2014 FIFA World Cup have two jobs: Document the soccer tournament for the benefit of fans all over the world, and pick out attractive women in the stands—because sports are entertaining enough, but it doesn’t hurt to throw in a little cheesecake from time to time.”
Hand in hand with the testosterone-laden culture of the World Cup is homophobia, as evidenced most dramatically in a recent match between Mexico and Cameroon when Mexican fans chanted the derogatory homophobic word “puta” against the Cameroon team. The use of the word was defended by the Mexican team’s coach as “not that bad” and a term that should be accepted because “it’s something [fans] do to pressure the opposing goalkeeper.”
5. It is a distraction from things that actually matter.
Workplaces, coffeehouses, restaurants, bars and even doctors’ offices are tuned in to World Cup soccer matches these days. At my own workplace, staff members shout and yell up and down the hallways during games. At my local coffeehouse, the TV is permanently set to ESPN while customers stare up at the screen and pound their fists into the air during near hits and misses. My Facebook feeds are dominated by capitalized exclamations of the latest breathtaking goals.
Meanwhile, in the past week alone, Iraq is spiraling out of control. Israel has launched airstrikes on Syria. Nigeria’s government has given up the search for hundreds of kidnapped girls. Afghanistan’s elections are wracked by fraud. Thousands of undocumented children from Central American countries are being housed in horrendous conditions in the U.S. Three people were executed in Georgia, Missouri and Florida within 24 hours. Thousands of residents in Detroit have had their water supplies cut off.
But most Americans, like people the world over, are fixated on the World Cup. That is not to say they would be mulling social injustice were it not for the tournament. However, the games offer a soothing salve in which the worst thing that can happen is that your favorite team loses. Ultimately the World Cup is nothing more than a commercial extravaganza infused with elevated levels of nationalism, racism, and misogyny, and honestly acknowledging that puts the spectacle into a much-needed perspective.
So I refuse to watch the World Cup. Some of the reasons I list here are similar to why I refuse to also watch the Olympics, Super Bowl or any one of the world’s moneyed high-profile sporting events. Based on the responses I have gotten from friends who are avid World Cup fans, I expect this list will generate howls of anger and vociferous defenses of the tournament. What I don’t expect is for soccer mania to wane anytime soon. The lure is just too strong, the emotional stakes too high.