Football is not just a game (in Brazil)

Football is not just a game (in Brazil)

The world’s most popular and attractive sporting event, the FIFA World Cup Tournament, is starting today with a kick-off game between Brazil and Croatia in São Paulo, Brazil, amid the protests across the country. What was started as an opposition to increased public transportation fares in São Paulo last year has quickly turned into a general protest over the government’s handling of issues and spending priorities, quickly spreading around the country during the Confederations Cup.

The social unrest in Brazil mostly stems from people’s demands for better working conditions, public services, as well as wages. A wave of strikes by teachers, bus drivers and subway workers hit Brazil and locked down the country just last week. Although the demonstrations were more restrained and smaller when compared with the last year’s events, they nevertheless forced the sponsors of the Cup and the FIFA officials to seek further assurance from the Brazilian government to prevent them from developing into mass protests.

For the disgruntled people of Brazil, the World Cup provides an opportunity to register their displeasure with the government on a global scale. For President Dilma Rousseff, just ahead of the presidential elections in October, it will be a test for her ability to garner popular support. Hosting such a complex undertaking will be an opportunity for the government to show its capacity and competence, as well as Brazil’s level of development to the world. It will also try to use the magic of football once again to unite the country’s divided population and give them an opportunity to forget their other problems, albeit briefly.

According to Forbes, the World Cup in Brazil will generate $4 billion of revenue for FIFA, 66 percent more than the previous one in South Africa. Broadcasting rights for the tournament alone will generate around $1.7 billion. More than 3.2 billion people, almost half of the global population, watched live coverage of the 2010 Cup for a minimum of one minute. The figure will be much higher this time. It is no wonder that, with its planet-wide revenues, widespread audience and effects on people, football has always attracted the attention of politicians and became a tool to placate people’s demands and complaints.

Argentina is the classic example from Latin America to show how the politicians have used football to further their political purposes. In the midst of the economic crisis in 2002, the Argentinian people forgot their problems, at least in the first two weeks of the tournament, and united around their national team, even though it was eliminated in the first round of the tournament. Two decades ago, General Jorge Rafael Videla, the then-leader of the military junta, successfully used the 1978 World Cup to divert people’s attention from his ruthless campaign of political killings and forced disappearances.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of the Brazilians think hosting the World Cup is a bad idea for Brazil, as it diverts resources from public services to unnecessary investments. Brazil has already spent around $11 billion for the infrastructure and sports facilities to host the tournament. It is not certain whether it will recover these even though the event generates huge revenue for its sponsors and FIFA.

Hosting the games in the cradle of football, home to legendary players such as Pelé, Socrates, Zico, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, will test the validity of the tradition of using football as a tool of politics. Although Brazil is not among the favorites this time, winning the cup for the sixth-time and playing the final against Uruguay to avenge the 1950 loss might easily change the results of the forthcoming presidential election.