BUENOS AIRES – The eyes of the world, and especially those of South America, will be on Brazil when it stages the World Cup in June and July. Even weeks before the event, soccer stories have been dominating the media, and not just in the sports pages. Advertisers cannot get enough of it; companies are altering production lines to cater to it; and politicians are postponing all but their most essential meetings until after the final.
Football’s magnetic force will soon draw supporters worldwide into intricate discussions over the validity of a goal, the intention behind a foul, or the missed opportunities of an attack. Such debates will be especially animated in South America’s three main footballing countries – Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay – whose people view success on the field as signifying more than just sporting prowess.
“Football is the one area in which we can compete with the big countries of the world as equals,” remarked Daniel Passarella, Argentina’s former national coach. This is certainly true for Argentina and Uruguay; in the case of Brazil (which has won the tournament more often than any other country), it is, if anything, an understatement.
Latin American pride is justified. Uruguayans still derive immeasurable satisfaction from their soccer successes, including two World Cup triumphs (albeit back in 1930 and 1950) and a semifinal in South Africa in 2010. Argentina has twice held the trophy, and boasts two of the game’s greatest players ever, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. And Brazil’s roll call of heroes includes Pelé, Garrincha, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Neymar, to name only a few.
However, the competition also has its detractors. People will talk of nothing else, while pressing social, economic, and political questions are left to fester. Brazil’s highly organized anti-World Cup protesters want to divert some of the vast sums spent on the tournament into social programs. In Argentina, opposition groups worry that the government will use these crucial weeks to bury bad news.
While these concerns are undoubtedly valid, the broader question is whether protesting, boycotting, or banning such events encourages or impedes social and political change. For example, Argentina’s military dictatorship, which staged the 1978 competition, sought to bolster its own position by sharing in the host team’s ultimate victory. But, with the world’s media attention focused on Argentina, Dutch journalists were able to publicize the plight of the Madres of Plaza de Mayo – the mothers of the disappeared – thus revealing to the world the regime’s grotesque nature.
To separate political activism from love of the game is a false distinction. The two are often intertwined, sometimes in the most extreme circumstances. Opponents of the Argentine junta were still keen to know the outcome of matches, even when they were locked away in clandestine detention centers. Indeed, torture survivors recount eerie exchanges with their torturers about team formations and goals scored.
For today’s activists, the choice may not be whether to support or oppose the tournament, but how to use it to further their ends. Surely, the unprecedented global attention must provide opportunities. The business community certainly understands the potential, given the masses of soccer-related consumer goods, high retail mark-ups on sportswear, and blanket advertising both on and off the pitch. Non-governmental organizations working for social improvement can, and sometimes do, find ways to draw attention to their campaigns through soccer.
At the same time, we should not overestimate the longer-run impact of football’s “feel-good” factor in influencing political and social events. After all, Argentina’s hated junta collapsed just four years after the country’s World Cup triumph (following its military defeat by Britain). Although football victories have sometimes united bitter opponents, such truces have been all too ephemeral, and usually end soon after the final whistle blows.
It is tempting to seek greater social, political, or economic meaning in football. But the fact remains that it is just a game – beautiful, escapist entertainment, but a game nonetheless. Great soccer may sometimes carry the narrative power of a novel, the rhythm of poetry, ballet’s mesmerizing sense of wonder, and the adrenalin rush of a rock concert; but, unlike great art, it struggles for influence beyond its realm.
It is unreasonable to expect a World Cup by itself to generate lasting change. The tournament’s ability to turn the eyes of the planet onto a single ball is truly impressive but ultimately meaningless. For the duration of the match, we are entranced; afterwards, everything returns to how it was.