Starting today, the world’s attention turns to Brazil, where the 2014 World Cup begins. From cafés in Ramallah, to bars in Kampala, to a pub in Cambridge (where I’ll be watching), people of all ages will be shouting frantically at televisions, sometimes screaming in agony, other times delighting in joy.
A truly global moment, the World Cup is an event of, to use sociologist Émile Durkheim’s term, ‘collective effervescence’. It is an experience we can share together both physically and in our imaginations. It is a magical time when, for example, a name like ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ simultaneously rolls excitedly off tens of thousands of tongues of men, women, and children all across the globe. It allows us to feel a certain connectedness of being with each other, offering the hopeful possibility of briefly transcending everyday social divisions such as race, class, gender, sexual identity, and nationality, among others.
What is often forgotten in this social fervor, however, are the socio-political tensions that accompany such a global event. Anti-World Cup protests, which are likely to occur throughout the games, have drawn attention to the vast amount of money that has been poured into the tournament in Brazil, where poor populations have been displaced to create tourist infrastructure, and most everyday citizens feel excluded from the competition, which they see as a plaything of and cash-cow for the elite.
For these alienated Brazilians on the ground, such a ‘global’ celebration is seemingly more about profit-generation, be it capitalist or corrupt. The already heavy pressure on FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, over these protests has increased with recent allegations that votes for Qatar, elected to host the 2022 World Cup, were bought for about five million dollars. What is a simple game played and enjoyed by millions across the world is increasingly a commercialized form of capital.
While the extent of the sport’s commercialization may seem startling to casual fans, soccer fans across the world have seen these changes first-hand over the past few decades. As an anthropologist and soccer fan, I have studied some of these changes through ethnographic research in Brazil and England.
In the past 30 years or so, a sport that had been largely played and watched by the working-class, particularly across western Europe, was transformed into a business. In the early 1990s in England, for example, drastic changes were made to the game. Ticket prices went up; soccer clubs were given permission to become profit-oriented businesses; and the ‘Premier League’ – England’s rebranded, top-flight division – was born.
The sport became gentrified, as middle- and upper-class fans replaced working-class fans whose wages could no longer buy them a season ticket. Increased revenue through satellite TV deals meant that games were no longer always kicked off at the regular time of 3 p.m. on a Saturday, but moved to different times and to Sundays and Mondays, too, to cater to global audiences.
Out went players that once came from local communities and shared buses home with club supporters; in came multimillionaire celebrity superstars from all corners of the world who drove themselves home in their Lamborghinis. The people’s game was no longer really the people’s.
While some have accepted and even embraced these changes, often citing the higher quality of soccer on display, others have resisted and even fought back. From São Paulo to Manchester, fans unhappy with the way in which ‘their’ clubs have been wrested away from them have formed fan-democracy movements that struggle against the commercialization of the sport.
As types of fan ‘unions’, they have protested for a greater fan voice in making club decisions and for lowering of ticket prices, among other changes. Many independent fan organizations, particularly in England, have even formed their own democratically-owned and managed clubs, such as FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon, which operate in a manner similar to cooperatives.
Some question the point of fans causing such a stir over a once or twice-weekly form of recreation. But, as perhaps only soccer fans know, the intense passion they feel about their clubs motivates them to take such drastic actions. Moreover, these actions are not only about a sports team. In them, fans also open up possibilities for new forms of political formation and citizenship, and new understandings of themselves as political agents with meaningful voices.
In studying fan movements in Brazil, I got to know many supporters of São Paulo-based team Corinthians who found themselves first politicized through the game, feeling like citizens with real political say not as Brazilians but only as members of their clubs. Similarly, spending time with FC United fans, I heard how fans imagined their democratically owned soccer club as the latest event in a long history of working-class movement in Manchester – a city that has hosted Marx and Engels as well as the Chartists. As these fans remind us, sports are not just games for many people – they are a form of political democracy and a way of articulating political needs and demands.
When the first ball is kicked later today, there will be plenty of exciting goals, unbelievable misses, and controversial decisions on the pitch to entertain us. They will spark endless conversation with everyone from our friends and family to our local grocer over the next month.
As we enjoy the collective effervescence we experience throughout the tournament, we would do well to lend an ear to those protesting in Brazil. By listening to their concerns, we can join in a different but similarly magical connectedness – a shared experience in democratic citizenship, one that could last long beyond the tournament’s end, and with greater hope of transcending the differences that keep us apart in the first place.
For that hope, we may very well have a small leather ball to thank.