By Paul Gardner
A mere seven years ago, you may remember, we were being invited -- though at times it seemed almost like being commanded -- to appreciate the wonderful social benefits of soccer.
Throughout the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and in all the later assessments (particularly the official, FIFA, ones) the barrage of praise swelled. Soccer, miraculously it seems, had “brought the country together.”
It’s hardly necessary to amplify that. You know what comes next, how soccer is so much more than just a sport, how it is part of the fabric of life, how it is beloved of the masses, and so on. Much of that praise, as it happens, is perfectly true.
Nevertheless, the praise -- when applied to Germany -- felt wrong. Yes, there was plenty of evidence that the tournament had turned into one big party, that people were enjoying themselves. They were certainly spending a lot of money. Which is where the source of the discomfort lies.
Germans, with one of the highest standards of living in the world, had money to spend. They could take in their stride this extravagant circus that enveloped them for a month. More than any other World Cup that I can recall, Germany 2006 made it starkly, unattractively, clear that the days when soccer was the sport of the masses, of the common people, were well and truly over.
This World Cup version of the sport was for those with money. Of course it flourished in Germany. But it was nothing to be proud of. We soon got a reality check when the circus moved on to South Africa four years later. We learned rather quickly, if we didn’t already know, of the poverty in that country, of the high crime rate ... and we learned of the measures taken to ensure that even glimpses of that poverty, of the poor people themselves, did not upset the party, that same party that had been such a smash hit in Germany.
The rich Germans could afford it. But, South Africa? Well, we’re not going to know, are we? Because the organizers, the politicians who brought the tournament to South Africa, and the FIFA biggies, led by the voluble Sepp Blatter, talked of nothing but the advantages the World Cup was offering, how it was helping South Africa to gain recognition as a first-world power. All because of soccer.
That didn’t sound right, not least because South Africa has very little background in soccer, very few soccer traditions to rally round. When its team got eliminated in the first round (the first time that has ever happened to a host nation) a strange thing was seen. Television -- one of the biggest of the partners in this huge, expensive party -- continued to show its obligatory crowd shots during the games. And there they were, the South African fans were still there, in their multi-colored get-ups, honking on their vuvuzelas, grinning widely, enthusiastically dancing and prancing.
There was something worrying about that, too. There was no escaping the fact that the fans were always looking straight into the TV cameras. What could that mean, when there was an important game going on?
Just as in Germany, a lot of money was being spent in South Africa. Was this money that the country could really afford to lay out to pay for huge new stadiums (stadiums whose future use was always questionable), to ensure the safety of the fans (including hordes of foreign visitors)? What does South Africa have to show for it right now?
And so we come to Brazil, a huge, hectic country, and one with a devotion to soccer unmatched by any other. Yes, there is money in Brazil, but there is also plenty of poverty. And now, as we progress, be that the right word, from the wealth of Germany, through the comparative calmness of soccer-lite South Africa, we arrive in a country that is evidently not going to allow soccer to pose as the solution to all its problems.
Because the Brazilians know all about soccer. What they see, as World Cup time approaches, bears little resemblance to what they have grown up with. Here, visiting them for just a month, comes staggering wealth, accompanied by the high-prices that put this soccer, this FIFA-controlled, sponsor-driven, money-soaked version of the game beyond the reach of the ordinary fan.
And so we come full circle, from soccer the miracle-sport that brought Germany together, to soccer as a sybaritic spectacle that simply soaks up money that should be spent on more important things. So the Brazilians are in the streets by the thousands, with their totally legitimate protests about rising prices and inadequate public services. And soccer is seen by many of the protesters as a big part of the problem.
Of course this is unfair to soccer. FIFA does try to keep in touch with the grassroots of the game, it does spend a lot of its wealth down at the lower levels of the game. But if the sport, at least in Blatter’s vision, is “here to unite people, to generate excitement, to bring hope” then it’s going to have to find a way to play a much larger social role, and to moderate the gaudy financial excesses of this World Cup extravaganza. At the moment, the World Cup has taken on the look of a very doubtful benefit for the Brazilian people.
Blatter, as usual, has managed to make matters worse. However well-meaning he may try to sound, there is no escaping the tone of patriarchal superiority that flavors his pronouncements. He tells the protesters how they should be behaving, and he reminds them that FIFA did not “force the World Cup” on them. True, it was sought by Brazil, just as it has recently been sought, unsuccessfully, by the USA. Which seems to mean, to Blatter, that the Brazilian protesters should simply shut up and show nothing but thanks and obedience to FIFA.
That’s the way it worked so splendidly in 2006, in rich Germany. It didn’t work that way nearly so well in South Africa in 2010, because the contrast between the lavish World Cup spending and the poverty of so many of the people it was supposed to help was there for all to see.
The FIFA voice comes from remote mountainous Switzerland and increasingly it has a dictatorial air about it. FIFA has gotten quite used to tangling with sovereign governments around the world, of meddling in their internal affairs “in the interests of the game.” Frequently, FIFA gets its way, and the attitude of superiority grows, the attitude that allows FIFA to tell the Brazilian government that it is not living up to FIFA expectations, the attitude that allows Blatter to tell the Brazilian protesters to calm down and count their blessings.
The Brazilians are not so sure about those blessings. So, from the most devoted soccer nation in the world, come the inevitable protests about this massive spending spree, about a tournament that has simply got too big for its boots. A rich tournament that fits comfortably only in rich countries.
The end point, or the low point, of that journey was reached in December 2010 when FIFA voted to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar -- a country with no soccer traditions whatever, but a country with a hell of a lot of money. Assuming that the 2022 World Cup does take place in Qatar, you can be sure there will not be thousands of ordinary Qataris taking over the streets in protest.