By Sarah Lipkis
The sport of soccer (known as football in much of the world) has proved to be a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it allows for the formation of a national identity that centers on a shared adoration of each nation’s team. Fans dressed in team colors, waving flags, and shouting slogans, all contribute to a sense of belonging and nationalism. They are proud of their team, their home, and their country.
Through massive construction projects, upgraded infrastructure, and a host of related projects, hosting countries have the opportunity to paint a picture to the world of tremendous growth, exciting opportunities in terms of economic development, tourism and simply a sense of deeply-held nationalism. Soccer, though played professionally by about 4 percent of the world’s population or some 280 million people, with at least 3 billion expected to tune in to the matches in Brazil this month, does not necessarily guarantee the formation of a positive sense of nationalism. It can cause massive unrest, of the type currently unfolding in Brazil. Instead of a symbol of patriotism, the World Cup games of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have become symbols of public disillusionment as Brazilians take to the street in protest against government spending, lack of social welfare, and other injustices.
The World Cup “offers a rare chance to actually see one's nation on the pitch. For a time the players really seem to embody the hopes of the country,” says Duke University professor Laurent Dubois, founder of the blog Soccer Politics/ The Politics of Football. “So their individual backgrounds, personalities, and trajectories can take on all kinds of larger political and symbolic meanings.”
Slogans, chants, and paraphernalia are just some tools used to create a sense of pride during soccer matches. From the stands, fans are dressed head to toe in their teams colors waving flags and banners. Countries competing in the World Cup have created official slogans to represent their teams and their countries. Argentina believes its squad is “Not just a team, we are a country”, demonstrating a sense of unity. The team is a deeply woven part of the national fabric. Moreover, during the actual games, fans typically use chants to show their support for their home team or as a way of discouraging the other team. During the Germany-England game in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, English fans started chanting, “two world wars and one world cup.”
If the national team wins there is a sense of jubilation, and countrywide celebration, as seen in Spain after the 2010 World Cup game. The win also created a temporary sense of unity between such regional identities as the Catalans, Basques, and Galicians. The opposite is also true. Losing a game can plunge an entire nation into mourning.
James Dorsey, senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, says that while it is common to rally around the national team, whether to promote a sense of unity and collective identity, or as a distraction from everyday life, “rallying around nationalism is not automatic. It’s what’s happens in most places, but it’s not a given.” Citizens don’t always root for their national team, nor does hosting the World Cup necessarily translate into national pride. In Brazil and earlier in South Africa, hosting the World Cup seems to have produced the opposite effect—at least during the lead-up to the event. Instead of rallying around the flag, and the national team, hosting the game has led to protests against the national government and FIFA.
The period before the opening of the 2010 games hosted by South Africa were marred by pervasive anger over the spending of public funds to build stadiums, the proposed construction of a mall (replacing the 100 year-old market in Durban), high unemployment, lack of infrastructure, the destruction of poor neighborhoods to make room for stadiums, the loss of local vendors’ revenue due to their exclusion from the stadium, and the presence of FIFA licensed goods, driving out local products. All these issues led to a range of protests during the lead up to the games. Still, the completion of stadiums, new transportation infrastructure, successful security arrangements, and overall enthusiasm for the games, led to the South African World Cup period to be considered, in retrospect, a success.
As for Brazil, “there is a back-and-forth between soccer and national identity. For many decades the national team, its heroes, its triumphs and tragedies, its style of play, have all been held up as mirrors to the national soul,” says Dubois. Soccer has, in the past, united Brazil, and created a sense of nationalism. Soccer fans wear the national colors, paint flags on their body, and wrap themselves, and their fellow fans in Brazilian flags, all in solidarity with the team. These are moments of national fervor, where people come together, regardless of ideology, to support their home country.
However, there is something different about the nationalism created by the 2014 games. “In some ways the fact that Brazilians so obviously love and own football as their national passion has perhaps also enabled them to protest FIFA and their own leadership in the handling of the Cup,” says Dubois. Rather than spawning a rally around the flag effect, with the country uniting in celebration and excitement, preparation for the games have instead created discontent, with widespread condemnation of the Brazilian government as well as FIFA.
A Pew Research survey found that 61 percent of the population feels that hosting the World Cup is bad for Brazil. Instead of money going to education, healthcare, and other such services, money is being funneled into World Cup spending for stadiums. Rather than creating a sense of national pride and, unity, the World Cup has enraged large segments of the population due to the cost of hosting the game. Though a different form of nationalism, and unity, Brazilians have come together to protest what they view as rampant waste and corruption. As the Word Cup continues it will be interesting to see how the protests affects Brazil’s attitude towards the game, or whether patriotism and national feelings can reverse the sentiment as seems to have happened in South Africa.
Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photos courtesy of Flickr]