The FIFA World Cup, and football (soccer) in general, is hands down the most popular sporting event in the world. No other individual sport comes close to competing with it.
Its popularity, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, is no coincidence. Governments, companies and even the military have played a role in securing the masses’ obsession with the game. That’s not to say that it is not entertaining and often beautiful, but that the passion we sometimes feel for the game and our teams may become exaggerated due to underlying factors that we are not aware of.
Since the game began to take hold of the collective Latin American and Caribbean conscious in the early 1900s, political elites have played a major role in football. Notice that when a major trophy is being awarded, there is always a top politician or member of the ruling class presenting it to the winning team, a practice that has been true since the early 20th Century.
Brazilians, for instance, did not achieve their monopoly of world football simply through being “naturally” the most superior ballers. The political and economic interests that served as the impulse for the game in Brazil were a crucial factor behind its popularity among the masses, effectively contributing to its legendary development.
In sports historian Tony Mason’s 1995 book “Passion of the People,” he shows how Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas used football to instill national pride (of the fascist type) in the population and poured huge amounts of the national budget towards its development and popularity. Vargas refined the already popular idea that nationwide passion for football could be used to win political support as well as give Brazilians a sense of national pride, despite the appalling conditions suffered by the majority of the country’s population.
It must also be pointed out, however, that just as the ruling classes have used the game and in many ways developed it to serve their interests, the people’s interests have often, too, been represented by left wing or left-leaning figures such as Diego Armando Maradona. The Argentine soccer legend has been a close friend and supporter of the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Similarly, legendary Brazilian footballer Socrates would often defy official FIFA rules at the World Cup to stand up to U.S. imperialism, once wearing a headband that said “Yes to Love, No to Terror” after the U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986. He would often also use press conferences that were meant to focus on previous or coming games to demand better education and healthcare for the poor masses, reminiscent of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests.
Today, as the World Cup makes its way onto the television sets of billions of people across the world, football is undoubtedly still one of the most powerful tools to distract the masses, depoliticize them and create a false sense of national pride.
Be that as it may, we would not go as far as calling for a boycott of the game altogether, just as we wouldn’t try and persuade religious and spiritual people to become atheists. What we would suggest and call for is a critical and contextualized view of the game, projecting a future in which we are able to take hold of our people’s collective conscious in a similar manner but with the contrasting goal of making the sport represent national pride in actual social, political and economic achievements.
Here’s for a future in which the trophy is lifted by a team of players who love their country, not because of the colors on a flag, an outdated national anthem or an emblem. But because they want to or have achieved justice for their people and workers.
Enjoy the games — I’ll be rooting for Iran.