As the dutiful daughter of soccer-crazed immigrants from Latin America, the World Cup was, and will always be, a sacred time of year for me. Early in the morning, before my father would head off to work a long day at the post office, before the games would begin, and before the scorching New Jersey summer sun would rise, he walked me over to the local park to teach me how to master a header or slick Carlos Valderrama’s latest moves. There were even family rumors that my father could’ve made some professional team had he remained in his native Ecuador, but they were nothing more than that: rumors—one of a myriad of “what if’s” circulated by immigrants trying to make sense of all the racism and poverty in the First World, now and then second-guessing their trek up north for the long awaited Better Life. Apart from the sheer thrill of the game, this is what the Copa Mundial and its global celebration of soccer elicited for my loved ones and me: diasporic dreaming of both belonging and returning. Mostly, though, it was just fun.
But this year was different (but not too different from the last Cup in South Africa). Yes, I dutifully watched (most of) the games (apart from Brazil vs. Germany, which, in retrospect, was quite a good call on my part). But knowing that my friends and comrades were inhaling noxious tear gas and getting beaten by armored riot cops and the military on the streets of Rio and São Paulo in protest of the millions spent on this month-long advertisement for foreign and Brazilian capital made it harder to stomach. When not getting assaulted on the streets, over 35,000 poor Brazilians were evicted from their homes to make way for shiny stadiums and highways leading to them, according to official estimates published by the federal government. “Sometimes soccer is a pleasure that hurts,” writes Eduardo Galeano. In Brazil (as in Russia and especially Qatar, the sites of future World Cups), some were indeed hurting more than others.
For soccer-loving, committed leftists, the challenge was, and remains, how best to balance love for the beauty of the game and its transnational cultural significance while maintaining solidarity with comrades and those affected directly by this beautiful mega-event monster that is the World Cup. That is, to be real about this pleasure that hurts.
From el Centenario to White Elephants
“Modern sport,” writes sports historian Tony Collins, “is as much a product of capitalism as the factory, the stock exchange or the unemployment line.” Of course, the World Cup is no exception. Yet, the first games ever to be played in the history of the Cup arrived at one of the shakiest moments in the long history of capitalism: 1930, in the wake of the world financial meltdown known as the Great Depression. Held in Uruguay, which at the time boasted the world’s best soccer team, most of the games were played in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, named to celebrate the country’s centennial, a proud display of Uruguayan nationalism.
But far from today’s reality of countries viciously vying each other to qualify for the Cup, FIFA officials had to beg European countries to make the journey down south for the inaugural games in Montevideo. In the end, the financial crisis, the much too long voyage across the Atlantic, and the fact that players would have to miss two months of games back home eventually led the vast majority of European teams to forego packing their bags. Uruguay even offered to pay the costs of travel and accommodations! Finally, only four European countries bit the bullet: France, Belgium, Romania, and Yugoslavia whose players were nicknamed “Ichachos” in Uruguayan newspapers because of the preponderance of Serbian players with last names ending in “-ić.”
So much has changed since that first game in el Centenario. Wars, revolutions, dictatorships; the birth of global mass corporate media, marketing, and advertising; some blows here and there, but always a rampant revitalization of capitalism. Fast forward to the late 2000s: South Africa (2010) and Brazil. Just a fresh sixteen years after the fall of Apartheid, South Africa was the first African nation to host the cup in FIFA history (remember Shakira’s annoying if catchy line “It’s Time For Africa!”). Yet, in sharp contrast to South Korea, Japan, or Germany, countries who had previously hosted the Cup, the social and economic circumstances of (post-apartheid, developing) South Africa made the reality of hosting this corporate behemoth quite, quite ugly. Across the country, thousands of poor South Africans, like the Brazilians after them, were bloodily evicted from their homes in a mass “economic cleansing” to keep tourists and capital happy.
And after the dissipation of tear gas, after the construction of roads leading to fancy hotels and stadiums, after the evictions, the new post-World Cup landscape settles in, featuring a new crowd of silent but difficult White Elephants: giant, costly stadiums that are just too giant and costly to maintain after the mob of raucous tourists have returned home. Among them is the $600 million Cape Town stadium that has been described as a “cavernous ghost town.” Apparently, the rent is so high that even the local rugby team could not afford it, and for now, the stadium sits mostly empty.
Or, among other stadiums in Brazil is the Arena de Amazônia built in the city of Manaus, located in the dead middle of the Amazon jungle and at a cost of $300 million. Largely geographically isolated from the rest of Brazil (to this day, you can only get to Manaus via boat or plane), Manaus was among the first cities to get electricity in the history of Brazil thanks entirely to the ruthless violence of the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century. Despite not having an established soccer team, and being based in the blistering Amazon jungle, the construction of the Arena de Amazônia was given a green light.
After the Cup, what lies in store for the Arena? Shall it mirror Cape Town’s fate as an empty shell hosting B-level fashion shows and weddings? Local judge Sabino Marques even suggested that the Arena be used as a prisoner-processing center due to overcrowding in the public jail. “I see no other better place, even temporarily, to receive detainees in Manaus,” he argued. Of course, the relationship between sports stadiums and prisons has its own dark history in Latin America: in 1973, under orders by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the military held, tortured, and killed thousands of political prisoners in the Santiago’s National Stadium.
Next in line are Russia and Qatar. A reported $20 billion is supposed to be spent on the Cup in Russia, a country already boasting a zoo of white elephants from hosting the Sochi Olympics earlier this year. Meanwhile, rumors of bribes surround the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a country run by the Al Thani royal family with a practically non-existent soccer culture and unimaginable summer heat (it can get up to 120 degrees). The head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has decried Qatar as “a 21st century slave state,” for its maintenance of the kafala system, a sponsorship system that essentially keeps migrant laborers (who make up literally half of the population of 2.068 million) in debt-peonage with their employers. Working under the brutal desert sun, it was recently reported that migrant workers building the first stadium are earning as little as 75 cents an hour. The ITUC estimates that nearly 4,000 migrant workers will die before the 2022 Cup. Such is the pain of the beautiful game.
Before and After the Cup: Solidarity and Building Collective Power
From Zurich to Bangalore, people across the world came together to show solidarity with comrades in Brazil in the days leading up to the Cup. Around Exarcheia square, the famous radical neighborhood of Athens, the walls were plastered with posters that read “BOYCOTT BRASIL 2014” and others advertising the city’s second annual Antifa League playoffs held at the same time as the Cup. In Mexico City, protestors burned a replica World Cup trophy, while others held a protest in front of the Brazilian embassy in Istanbul. Back in the US and elsewhere, there were also calls to boycott the Cup altogether by refusing to watch the games. But I couldn’t accept this one either. In response to this, a comrade named Pablo Barbanegra based out of Philly expressed it best in his open letter on Facebook: “Dear leftists and radicals in the States planning on boycotting the World Cup by not watching it: just don’t. Your well meaning at best, self-righteous at worst, symbolic gesture ain’t doing s***. Transnational social movements organizing and coordinating anti-World Cup actions might, but individual boycotts won’t. So if you really want to do something, how about throwing a World Cup watching party? Invite co-workers, neighbors, or any other group of people you might want to struggle alongside now or in the future, and use the World Cup and the protest to organize in ways that are relevant to your life.” Indeed, like our comrades in Brazil who created the Popular Committees to organize against the Cup in each of the host cities, it is critical that we use these moments to build popular power.
And even though the Cup is now over, activists in Brazil are continuing to expand upon these popular mobilizations. Tiago Almeida, an organizer with the Popular Committee for the World Cup in São Paulo, told me that organizing in his local is part “of a process that goes far beyond denouncing problems of the FIFA World Cup 2014,” and that “social movements have been increasingly strengthened and placed ever more clearly against the economic model that transforms the city into a large negotiating table for business interests, taking away the most fundamental rights from the people.” Not only did the Committee, Almeida says, allow for “greater organization of popular movements,” the energy has continued in recent days in mobilizations by the housing movement organized through the Homeless Workers’ Movement, and more attention has been paid to the deeply repressive nature of the police, who have “arbitrarily placed political activists in prison in an attempt to disrupt [this] grassroots organization.” In São Paulo, the committee will continue to organize since the city will host the 2016 Olympics.
As part of their larger campaign, the Committee in São Paulo also held the Rebel Cup as an alternative to the World Cup, highlighting “how it is possible to have an opposite model to the FIFA World Cup, with effective popular participation, without forced evictions of people from their homes, without prohibition of workers and no use of repression in social organization.” Meanwhile, from August 7-10, the Alternative World Cup was held in Dünsbach, Germany. Of course, there are earlier precedents to these events, such as the Poor People’s World Cup, created by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa in 2010, which had 36 teams from communities affected by the evictions and repression as a result of the Cup. Whether in South Africa or Brazil, or watching the Cup on our television screens back in the U.S., it is imperative that we creatively use these opportunities to build collective power.
Dreaming and Organizing
“Play has become spectacle,” writes Eduardo Galeano, “with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching.” “And that spectacle,” he continues, “has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not to facilitate play but to impede it.”
Yes, Eduardo, you’re right. But I have to admit: I know it’s pathetic, but when it comes to soccer, the World Cup is all I got. You see, in the United States, we simply don’t have a rich, popular tradition of football clubs as in Latin America or Europe (see Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics). As a dutiful daughter of Latin American immigrants, I’ve been playing since the day I was born, with a brief stint following the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now known as the tastelessly titled New York Red Bulls) in the late 90s. And I’m too lazy to find on whatever pirated site fuzzy La Liga games that I have to restart and start again because they lag too much or cut off at the most inopportune times. So, I suck it up and wait a hard four years for the next sacred month. In the meantime, you can find me dreaming and organizing.
Yesenia Barragan is a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University. Based out of NJ/NYC, she is the author of Selling Our Death Masks: Cash-for-Gold in the Age of Austerity forthcoming on Zero Books.