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Beautiful game, grotesque extravagance: A demonstrator shouts slogans during a march in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Beautiful game, grotesque extravagance: A demonstrator shouts slogans during a march in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)


Beautiful game, grotesque extravagance Add to ...

Who would have thought it? There were Brazilians, protesting outside soccer stadiums against hosting the World Cup in 2014 – even as their national team was thrashing Spain in the Confederations Cup final. It was as if Roman Catholics were to protest outside the Vatican against picking a new Pope.

What cuisine is to the French, soccer is to Brazilians: a matter of the highest national pride. Regardless of their economic, racial or political differences, all Brazilians are uplifted by having the best team in the world, winning the World Cup many times and reinventing “the beautiful game.” Staging the next World Cup in Brazil, as well as the 2016 Olympics, seems logical, even though the soccer tournament alone will cost up to $13-billion. Rio de Janeiro is where soccer belongs.

So what possessed the 19-year-old Brazilian man who told reporters: “We don’t need the World Cup. We need education, better health services, more humane police.” Many feel the same way. Have millions of Brazilians suddenly lost their passion for the game?

If so, it’s not the game itself they have forsaken, but rather the kind of game it has become: a billion-dollar business, a prestige object for louche plutocrats and an extravagant showpiece for corrupt governments and international sporting organizations.

Soccer was once a popular sport, rooted in local communities. Working-class boys played for local clubs that inspired fierce loyalty among fans. Football chauvinism always contained an edge of violence, for it often included an ethnic, religious or class component: Protestants versus Catholics (in Scotland); “Jewish” clubs (in Amsterdam, Berlin, London and Budapest) taunted by fans who opposed the “Yids”; posh clubs (like Galatasaray in Istanbul) and resolutely proletarian sides (West Ham in London); clubs that took pride in a strong regional identity (Barcelona) and clubs that were close to the centres of power (Real Madrid).

Some clubs were financed by industrial corporations in order to promote loyalty among their workers: Philips sponsored the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, for example, while Fiat played the same role for Italy’s Juventus. But regardless of sponsorship or location, fans felt close to most of the clubs, as well as to their national teams. They were part of people’s “identity.”

This is still true to some extent, but something crucial has changed: Soccer has gone global. There are probably more supporters of Manchester United in China than there are in Britain, let alone in the city of Manchester. Teams are now like multinational franchises, with coaches and players from all over the world.

But this alone does not account for the kind of alienation expressed by the Brazilian protesters. The game’s worldwide reach was preceded by that of the Olympics, and it is here where we should turn to understand the corruption of globalized sports.

Unlike soccer, the Olympics were always closely associated with elites: amateur athletes recruited from universities, and so on. The father of the modern Olympics, Baron de Courbertin, was a French aristocrat who promoted sports to reinvigorate the men of France after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. His aim for the Games was to embody a noble ideal of world peace and brotherhood through athletics.

How easily this ideal could be corrupted by distinctly ungentlemanly politics was already clear in 1936, when Coubertin’s doddering speech about peace and fair play was played over the loudspeakers of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin while Hitler and his henchmen saluted the Nazi flag.

But even without noisome politics, the sheer amount of money required to stage the Olympic Games – stadiums, transport infrastructure, hotels and other razzmatazz – was bound to produce a culture of bribery and kickbacks. An international elite of Olympic officials arose, living in a self-contained bubble of wealth and privilege.

I once had occasion to watch these men as they trooped in and out of first-class hotels in an Asian capital, sleek figures in gold-buttoned blazers. It was striking to see how often the most prosperous-looking ones came from the poorest countries.

Soccer is now much the same, except that even more money is involved. Clubs have become the status symbols of newly rich tycoons, and international competitions have become occasions to bolster the prestige, and sometimes even the legitimacy, of national governments. Such events reinforce the tendency of modern political regimes to measure themselves in monumental building projects – giant new stadiums, gargantuan shopping malls, huge conference halls – which are often not needed.

As a result, developers, architects, politicians, tycoons and international sporting officials are now in charge of the beautiful game. Once they have staged their spectacles, at vast expense to the host country, they move on. This is especially galling in countries where much of the population is poor and deprived of decent services.

Millions of Brazilians have made clear where their priorities lie. They haven’t fallen out of love with football. On the contrary, by protesting against the grotesque manipulation of the modern game, they are trying to take it back.

Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College.

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