Really, there's only one World Cup team
‘Dilma, this is ugly,” reads a protester’s sign aimed at Brazil president Dilma Rousseff, one of the many thousands who continue to take to the streets of major cities across the South American country. What began last year as small protests against the rise of public transportation fares has come to encompass a broader range of dissatisfaction with the government — and has gained significant momentum thanks to the Fifa World Cup taking place there.
Seems like Thailand isn’t the only country where political protests have been downplayed lately. We aren’t the only ones overly concerned or overly ecstatic about where public funds are allocated concerning the World Cup. As the world turns its eyes to Brazil in celebration of one of the world’s most popular sporting events, local protesters struggle to turn the spotlight from Spain’s early elimination to their cause instead.
For a country so in love with football, it’s just a tad ironic that a poll conducted shortly before the start of the World Cup showed that as much as 61% of Brazilians did not wish to host the tournament because it uses money which should instead be used for public services, most notably education and healthcare. There have even been reports of Brazilian citizens rooting against their own national team as a result of their disagreement.
“We want schools and hospitals on Fifa’s standards,” the protesters demand. They want a “Brazil without corruption”. They hold signs: “Only education changes a nation” and “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
The government has spent an estimated $11 billion (360 billion baht) to host the cup. The stadium in the city of Manaus alone cost $270 million to build and will host only four games. Hundreds of families in favelas (slums) in Rio de Janeiro have been displaced to make way for construction of stadiums and parking lots (and many more are being uprooted for the construction of the Olympics Village for the 2016 games in Brazil).
Protests during the World Cup and the Olympics are by no means unique or new. South Africa faced similar issues when it hosted the football tournament in 2010. In 2008, the country’s then-president Thabo Mbeki resigned due to conflict within the African National Congress.
Nearly every Olympics or World Cup is wrought with controversy, whether it be questionable state expenditure or human rights violations by the host country’s government. The games might be said to unite people across racial and political lines, presenting (at least an illusion of) a single common humanity through sports. But world sport events have always been intrinsically tied to political and social moments in history — even the televised broadcasting of the World Cup in Thailand is politicised.
I cannot imagine how sports could ever be divorced from politics. Football as a sport, in countries like Brazil and South Africa, can be traced back to racial discrimination, to apartheid.
The Olympics itself has a long history of protests and demonstrations. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was dubbed “The Genocide Olympics” because of China’s role in the Darfur conflicts. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg pulled out of his role as artistic adviser, and artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who helped conceive the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, boycotted the games because of China’s human rights violations. In 1948, Germany and Japan were not invited to participate in the London Olympics because of their roles in World War II. In 1968, medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute as the US nation anthem was played.
The World Cup in Brazil might be ugly, as protesters claim, but it has inadvertently provided a platform that has united the country’s people to speak out against the corruption and exploitation they have endured for decades. The Brazilian government, whether or not it will still be led by Rousseff, has a lot to prove when it hosts the Olympics in two years’ time. It is only in the spirit of the game to keep the international spotlight on Brazil even after the World Cup is over. Because, if not humanity, what are you rooting for?
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post.