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Five Reasons Why I Refuse to Watch the World Cup

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Posted on Jun 26, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  A city worker sweeps next to an Adidas advertisement featuring Uruguay’s soccer striker Luis Suarez near Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday. FIFA banned Suarez on Thursday from all soccer activities for four months for biting an opponent at the World Cup, ruling him out of the rest of the tournament. AP/Matt Dunham

Soccer (or football, as the rest of the world refers to it) is the most popular sport globally. But can you love the game while hating the World Cup?

The 2014 World Cup tournament in Brazil has attracted record numbers of American viewers, with reports of 23 million people having tuned in to a single match between the U.S. and Portugal alone. Worldwide, the numbers are expected to be even more staggering over the course of the entire tournament, given that half the planet tuned in to the last World Cup in 2010. 

Still, I refuse to watch, and here’s why:

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1. It is a corporate feeding frenzy.

It is precisely because of the lucrative access to billions of eyeballs that the World Cup has evolved into a glorified delivery system of advertising from some of the world’s biggest corporations such as Coca-Cola, Visa, Budweiser, Microsoft, Volkswagen, Adidas, Marriott and Johnson & Johnson. FIFA (The Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the main governing body that organizes the World Cup, has come under intense scrutiny for its controversial, high-stakes approach to the multibillion-dollar business of soccer. This year’s World Cup is expected to generate a whopping $4 billion in revenue, with the majority coming from marketing and TV rights. That is 66 percent more than the last World Cup.

Advertisers are frothing at the mouth over the World Cup having “the power to be the most talked about subject in social media, ever,” according to a Johnson & Johnson representative. As one Coca-Cola executive told The New York Times, plans for advertising began three years ago, because of “the opportunity it offers” in that “the World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event.” Coke is attempting to equate its sugary, diabetes-inducing drink with soccer, because apparently, “Coke is everyone’s drink, and football is everyone’s sport.”

Even the players themselves are living, breathing vehicles for delivering advertisements, with one sports magazine ranking Brazilian player Neymar, as the most “marketable” athelete in the world.  Marriott has signed deals with players Omar Gonzalez and Alexi Lalas, branding them as “Defenders of Travel.”

2. It is ridiculously expensive, has worsened poverty, fostered mass displacement and resulted in the deaths of workers.

Like most other major international sporting events, the World Cup comes with a set of financial infrastructure demands that displace people and turn government priorities upside down, all in the service of the international Sports Industrial Complex.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in host Brazil, where protests in the run-up to the games had “become an almost daily occurrence,” The Guardian reported last June when more than a million Brazilians demonstrated in 80 cities. A massive subway strike in the metropolis of Sao Paolo threatened to bring all transportation to a standstill. The Guardian added: “Many protesters are furious that the government is spending 31bn reals [more than $15 billion USD] to set the stage for a one-time global tournament, while it has failed to address everyday problems closer to home.”

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of poor Brazilians have been driven out of their homes in the favelas in the name of the World Cup. And a total of nine workers have died in Brazil over the course of the stadium-building frenzy to satisfy FIFA’s conditions.

Meanwhile, plans are underway for the 2022 World Cup tournament, which is to be held in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar. Qatar’s construction labor force consists of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from primarily South Asian countries. Given how many hundreds of workers routinely die each year while laboring on construction sites in Qatar, one investigation estimates that 4,000 workers may die from FIFA stadium construction alone. Fittingly, The Nation magazine’s Dave Zirin, in a new book and in ongoing reports on the 2014 World Cup, has maintained that the World Cup has turned into “a tool for neoliberal plunder.”

Fans of the game say it is possible to be critical of FIFA while loving the World Cup matches, but that is analogous to claiming one is a fan of the circus while heaping hate on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. It is the very fan base of this single tournament that keeps the pressure on to make the World Cup such a parasitic institution, and watching the games legitimizes the institution, not just the sport.

3. It is nationalist, and by extension, racist.

Like most high-profile international sporting events, the World Cup relies on fans identifying with their nations, many literally painting their faces the colors of their respective flags. As a child, the favorite sport of my family and friends was cricket, and that sport’s major tournaments are tainted by a similarly nationalist fervor. Friends from different countries whose teams played one another, such as India and Pakistan, would routinely undermine their friendships in favor of nationalist rivalries when the matches began. I hated seeing that animosity in the context of cricket, and it is no less disgusting to watch this year’s World Cup generate similar feuds.

True, in some cases, nationalist pride can help a country overcome internal political issues as last year’s Afghan soccer team showed. But since when is a soccer team’s unity a good enough substitute for real peace in a nation where decades of war has destroyed institutions, fostered grinding poverty and created a nexus for violence?

Nationalist tendencies among soccer fans are also on display when historical political relations are challenged on the field. Foreign Policy points out how “international football has few features more defining than the grudge match: that contest where the opponents brought together have a particularly seething historical enmity.” While it is certainly satisfying to see the team of a former colony beat its onetime colonial master on a soccer field, a World Cup match is simply not a good enough substitute for real justice.

Nationalism is based on the premise that one’s country is superior to others’—a sentiment consistent with racism. It should come as no surprise then, that the nationalist fervor of the World Cup has brought out the racists in full force, as seen at Russia’s match against South Korea and Croatia’s game against Brazil. During both those contests, neo-Nazis in the crowd displayed fascist symbols on their banners. Two Argentine soccer fans were reportedly arrested for taunting Brazilian players as “little monkeys.” And perhaps most egregious of all are the instances of German fans wearing blackface to mimic Ghanaian players at a match between the two countries. In all these examples, it has been the fans who were responsible rather than FIFA, which claims it has a zero-tolerance policy on racism.


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