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The beautiful game needs better stewards


2014 World Cup promotional graphicFIFA World Cup Brazil 2014 is in the knockout stages. Brazil’s team is through to the quarter finals, much to the joy and delight of home fans. Yet to what extent can Brazilians actually celebrate? The tournament has come at much social and economic cost.

Before the tournament a string of protests called the Brazilian government to account for misplaced spending due to the World Cup. The government of President Dilma Rousseff's Workers Party has put health, education, anti-poverty and transport spending on the back burner. In one case a stadium was built in an area where there is no locally based team. FIFA was rightly criticised for taking all ticketing and broadcasting revenue, meaning Brazil would find it hard to recoup its costs (some $11.3 Billion US – including what FiveThirtyEight calculates as ‘over $1000 of stadium construction costs per fan in attendance in four years.’) Brazil was simply told to benefit from a short term tourism uptake, only some of which makes its way into government revenue.

Watching on from Australia, we see brilliant players at work. We see stunning goals from Messi, Neymar and Cahill. We see teams striving to bring strategies and formations together. We marvel at the skill of the Dutch, the fall of Spain and the surprise of Costa-Rica. We see coaches trying to pull off a result with well timed substitutions. We see ‘the Beautiful Game’in action.

Between matches, we also see a little cartoon of sorts, where an idealised version of Brazil’s football loving society is presented as it hosts the Cup. There is wonder, hope and harmony. A boy scores a goal, the Amazon is fitted out with stadia, fans are full of a joy which leaps into the heavens. Social injustice and upheaval is out of sight, out of mind.

The disjunct between what we see and what we don’t see echoes a story by Ursula Le Guinn that Moira Rayner referred to in Eureka Street last year. In The Ones Who Walk Away From The Omelas, there is a society where everyone treats each other well, living harmoniously and happily. Yet the glorious city has a secret. Locked in the middle of the city lives a scapegoat child treated oppressively. When citizens come of age, they are given this knowledge. It is a terrible knowledge, calling each person to a fundamental choice about how to respond. The masses agree to keep the society going by choosing acquiescence. A few walk away in conscience.

FIFA is an unaccountable body which commands nations to spend massive amounts of money in order to have the ‘privilege’ of hosting the cup. Poor host nations end up redirecting money away from social programs that benefit those in need. For FIFA, the benefits of hosting are channeled back to head office; whispers of corruption accompany its deliberations; it has one billion dollars in reserve yet is listed as a charitable organisation; its current president Sepp Blatter is seeking his fifth consecutive term. Money rather than justice seems to guide this organisation, making a mockery of the match day slogan “FIFA Fair Play.”

During his World Youth Day trip, Pope Francis last year visited the Varginha favela, one of the many slums of Rio de Janeiro. Francis, by his presence, gave his blessing to the needs of its residents, many of whom had joined the protest movement. It was here that the effects of the last few years’ massive investment in football stadia and associated public works were felt strongly. Anger and discontent were bristling under the surface.

He sought to console those desiring justice, it being so easy to despair. ‘Dear young friends, you have a particular sensitivity toward injustice, but you are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good. To you and to all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished.’

The pre-tournament protests were born in righteous anger and a hope that the common good may soon overcome. For as St Augustine said, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.’

Let’s enjoy the rest of the World Cup. But let’s also remember it is a show which financially benefits the few at FIFA to the expense of the many in Brazil. The Beautiful Game needs better stewards. Will its current leadership have the courage to listen to their consciences and walk away? With justice, transparency, and leadership, FIFA’s quadrennial World Cups could well be a time of celebration for all.

James O'BrienJames O'Brien holds a BA in Politics from Macquarie University. He is currently enrolled in a Diploma in English Literature at Sydney University. Formerly a Jesuit novice, he enjoys writing, football and the cello. He welcomes tweets @jpeob.

Topic tags: James O'Brien, FIFA, football, soccer, World Cup, sport, corruption, welfare, Brazil



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Existing comments

Th logo above and the accompanying cartoonistic TV ads say it all - escapism - showing an idealising, white-washed, idealised, bubbly, caricuratised version of life in Brazil. To a certain extent, sport is about escapism... a benign and idealised tribalism at its best, and at it's worst...? Well, it's just big business like any other - using slick marketing to get away with its exploitative nature.

AURELIUS | 01 July 2014  

Agreed - staging the World Cup in Brazil brings these issues of inequality and justice you mention into the fore, in a way that weren't in past tournaments in rich countries like Germany and Japan. It's reasonable to question at what cost to to its people is this country staging these games. We see the green-washed grass, the smiling faces, the advertisements in which players morph into machine-like Gods. We don't hear of the children and young people who toiled to build the stadiums, to make it all happen for little pay. And yet we are conditioned to turn a blind eye, to ignore the suffering which seems a world away...

Rose | 02 July 2014  

A game played by obscenely paid sooks who cheat by faking injury and interference to gain a free shot at goal, administered by a corrupt overpaid mob open to bribery, and staged for the world to see in the most corrupt society in the world. Of course the poor are not going to benefit and will indeed become poorer in the aftermath while those responsible will expect others to pay the bills.

john frawley | 02 July 2014  

The poor in Brazil seem to be unfortunately invisible to Australian sporting fans. What they do see, and what might do soccer more harm in the long run are the back-arching dives, the comic writhing on the ground, the cute trailing leg to mime a trip - in short the headlong rush of 'the world game' towards the caricatured nonsense of professional wrestling. The game is killing itself, sadly, and more sadly, hurting the poor in places like Brazil as it goes. It seems to be a game of the very rich and of cheats, what used to be a game of honest skills and working-class values.

Barry Breen | 02 July 2014  

President Dilma Rousseff, with her background, should hang her head in shame. FIFA, like the International Olympic Committee, is basically a rip-off organisation, providing a lifestyle for its controllers which they manifestly don't deserve. Getting rid of Sepp Blatter, in itself, would only be window dressing. These self-perpetuating tax free oligarchies should be radically reformed. It is a pity they do this to a game which is played from the favelas of Brazil, through the shanty towns of Africa, to the august playing fields of Westminster School and Charterhouse, uniting all colours, religions and social groups in their love of it.

Edward Fido | 03 July 2014  

The soccer world cup and all elite level sport is symptomatic of capitalism. Sport is used by business and media organisations to make money. Most sports fans are working class people who are ignorant of the economics and politics of the sports industry. Most sports fans in all countries are interested in sport as an escape from the stresses of their home and work life. I think it is reasonable for poor people in Brazil to demonstrate the extreme range of emotions when their team wins and loses. Most people in Australia who follow the soccer world cup are not interested in the lives of poor people in Brazil and this apathetic attitude is the reason that the status quo will continue for sports entertainment around the world.

Mark Doyle | 11 July 2014  

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