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The People’s Game, Part Three: The 2014 Copa do Mundo as a Window to the World

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Posted on Jun 28, 2014

By Alan Minsky and Meleiza Figueroa

  A protester plays with a soccer ball as riot police stand guard in Sao Paulo, Brazil. AP/Dario Lopez-Mills

This article is part of a series. Read part one here, and part two here.

The World Cup is the world’s most popular spectacle and, as such, speaks volumes about the state of humanity today. This year’s event is far more than a soccer tournament in Brazil. It encompasses millions of social and civic gatherings across the globe, a tsunami of digital posts and communications, a physical and virtual carnival. This gives us a month-long window into the mind of the global masses in 2014, and also into how the global 1 percent takes control of the most popular human activities and puts them to use for its own purposes. Even if Brazilian protesters were not taking the opportunity presented by the World Cup to challenge the very logic of the globalized neoliberal economic order and its spectacles, we’d argue that anyone who calls him- or herself a progressive or leftist should sit up and take note of the World Cup and its global audience.

Before offering some observations on what we can discern from the hundreds of millions who are fervently following the tournament, we want to discuss a few massive “constituencies” who do not make up the traditional base of World Cup fanatics: women, India and China, and the U.S. If the World Cup’s tremendous global popularity tells us something about the people of the world today, then it also reveals insight into the people less drawn to this spectacle, which is now being projected into almost every sizable community across the globe.

The relation of women to sports and, in particular, male-dominated spectator sports is, of course, a subject far too large to do justice here, but it is an essential component to address if we are to get a grip on humanity’s most popular spectacle and what it tells us about ourselves.

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Although there are nuances and exceptions across the globe, on balance the culture of soccer fans has been male dominated and highly patriarchal throughout the history of the sport and remains so to this day. Thus, the fact that the men’s World Cup is casually recognized as the world’s most popular event, and that the gendered nature of the spectacle is accepted as the norm, speaks volumes about the state of gender relations globally. 

The World Cup is, of course, much more than the games themselves; it extends to the social spaces where the games are watched and into the advertising blitzes that accompany the tournament—which in both cases are almost universally constructed to welcome the “real men” fans of the game, while marginalization and objectification are as often as not the order of the day for women and other fans from historically subjugated social groups. This, of course, should be called out and fought in every manner possible, as a global community must welcome all people to the party equally.

The two authors of this essay have experience with soccer culture in two of the sport’s core countries: Meleiza in Brazil and Alan in Italy. In both cases, club soccer culture is highly gendered and at times frighteningly sexist. However, the hyper-sexist culture of club soccer fans is only somewhat replicated during the men’s World Cup, which many more women follow in both countries—a trend that appears to be true across the globe. Thus, in many ways the men’s World Cup tournament provides an opportunity to observe patriarchy in action around the world as well as to critique and combat it.

Of course, the great hope for soccer as a means to combat global patriarchy lies in the rise of the women’s game. As rapidly as the men’s game is growing, it is surpassed by the rate of growth of women’s soccer, as more and more girls and women the world over are playing organized soccer. Certainly both the Olympics and tennis provide examples of sports in which fan interest, and resource investment, is more balanced than soccer (though neither are yet equitable). It’s very possible that women’s soccer will become the most popular sport among women to the same degree that it prevails among men. It will no doubt take considerable struggle against entrenched patriarchy, but due to soccer’s phenomenal grip on the public’s imagination, there is considerable potential for it to become one of humanity’s chief weapons against gender inequality in the coming decades.

Shifting gears to the question of China and India: Detractors of soccer’s claim to be the global game point out that neither China nor India (which account for over a third of the world’s population) are traditional soccer hotbeds. However, soccer is now recognized as the most popular sport in China and second in India (to cricket), and both countries have seen tremendous growth in television viewership of top European leagues over the past four years, leading to speculation that this year’s World Cup will be more popular in both countries than ever before. (Though it should be noted that the substantial time difference between Brazil and those two countries will undoubtedly depress live TV viewing numbers; if the growth of the sport continues apace in China and India over the next four years, expect the 2018 World Cup in Russia to shatter the global all-time viewership records for this reason.) Still, the question of whether soccer will capture the imagination of the Chinese and Indian populations in a manner comparable to Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East remains an open question; and just how popular this year’s tournament will be in the world’s two largest countries will be interesting to follow. At any rate, it is clear that a growing number of Indian and Chinese people have caught the soccer bug, and greater access to satellite broadcasts means the sport is well on its way to overcoming another barrier on its messianic mission to unify humanity.


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