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Fans reduced to extras in FIFA’s lucrative reality show

We watched Brazil play Mexico sitting in rickety plastic chairs in the midst of a main favela thoroughfare. The bar was too crowded. Luckily, it had no front wall.

Every once in a while, a truck would pass through and we'd pick up our chairs and move to the side to stand in a puddle.

A couple of gringos attracted a small crowd. There were five of them in a little gang. Maybe 7 or 8 years old. All in bootleg Brazil jerseys and flip-flops.

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They stood right behind us, waiting patiently for breaks in play. Their hands were clasped behind their backs like old men. They wanted very badly to have a conversation.

These were the free-range children of the Third World. Unlike North American kids, they haven't been trained to fear strangers. They don't have much, but they maintain the most potent gift of childhood – curiosity.

At the half, they all began speaking at once in Portuguese. We responded as best we could in English. So, not very well. Their eyes widened. They had the look of people who think they're being put on. They kept going in Portuguese. We shrugged. An impasse. One of them wandered off to smash a vicious-looking piece of lumber against the bumper of derelict car. The rest of us sat there silently for a while, stumped.

Eventually, one of them pointed up to the TV. There was an Adidas ad on.

"Dani Alves," he said.

"Dani Alves," I repeated. "Barcelona."

He turned delightedly to his comrades. He'd found a way to communicate with this illiterate savage! "Messi," he said.

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"Messi," I agreed. "Barcelona."

"BARCELONA!" they all screamed.

This went on for five glorious minutes. They said the name of a player and his professional club. We concurred with elaborate gestures and courtesies. ("Ronaldo!" "El Gordo? ('Fatso'?)" "No, no. CRISTIANO Ronaldo. Real Madrid.")

We were not talking, but we were communicating.

This is the true power of football. It's not the glamour or the big show or any of the notions that get pushed out front to sell you things.

Football is the world's lingua franca. It's our last real piece of common ground.

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While that will never disappear, the opportunity to gather together and say the names is vanishing. We can argue about where Brazil 2014 stands in the World Cup pantheon. What did become clear over five weeks here is that this was the last great, global football tournament.

As it started, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter told a gathering of delegates "more than 400 billion fans will watch the games through televisions around the world."

He hasn't bothered to explain that improbable figure, which assumes that just about every one of us on the planet watched all 64 games. But you get his point.

When they last held the World Cup here, in 1950, about 200,000 people attended the final at the Maracana. No one is precisely sure of the number because tens of thousands sneaked in. This was a pre-souvenir culture. Tickets for that match were collected at the gate, and then discarded. A few weeks ago, FIFA traded a pair of seats to Sunday's final for an unused 1950 ducat. It will be displayed as a museum piece.

That was the last untelevised World Cup. Eight years later, the organizers of the World Cup in Sweden would complain that their total gate revenue (roughly $1-million) hadn't met expectations. They blamed TV for leeching away their audience.

They squared that accounting circle pretty quickly.

The total value of the broadcasting and marketing rights for this World Cup amount to roughly $4-billion. Every nickel of that goes into FIFA's pocket.

Increasingly – and that's really saying something – FIFA's focus is on wringing every red cent from their once-every-four-years cash cow. They erect tax-free bubbles around the stadiums. Having spent a fortune to prepare, host nations get nothing out of this other than prestige (and that's debatable).

We are long past pretending that holding a World Cup is a smart bottom-line proposition. That myth died in South Africa.

This has created a vicious economic circle. FIFA will not substantially share revenues with the hosts. As a result, the hosts are encouraged to do this on the cheap. Everyone talks a good game about the fan experience and infrastructure improvements, but it doesn't materialize. The hosts shrug. Having put them in an impossible situation, FIFA stops pretending to care about preparations as soon as the journalists begin arriving.

If you're on the ground, you're on your own.

It still works. Sort of. If you're willing to put up with a good deal of hassle and spend a great deal of money, you can get around. But it's not easy.

On the night Chile qualified for the second round, I caught a midnight bus out of town. The dingy terminus was heaving at that hour, rammed with Chileans waiting to catch the third-class cattle car home. Santiago is a 48-hour drive away over the Andes. That's dedication.

Tens of thousands of Argentines flooded the country. Many came without tickets or the money to buy them. They were happy to be in the vicinity of the games.

A combination of those neighbouring zealots and a general Brazilian enthusiasm made this tournament vibrant. For four weeks, you felt you were near the main source. That's not always the case. And, I suspect, may never be the case again.

In four years time, Russia will be Brazil with twice the hassles and a fraction of the charm. The distances are vast. In an effort to spread around the graft, Russia initially proposed 13 host cities. The only way to get between them is in the air.

Russians root for one thing – Russia. Their team is crap and shows no hint of getting much better. The atmo at the 2018 World Cup will be D.O.A.

In 2022, it will be even worse. This assumes that Qatar will still be host (a big assumption). You can't just roll into Qatar to soak up the vibe. The average daily high is 40 C. If you're on the street, you're going to die.

There's also the issue of moral peril. Who wants to vacation in a graveyard for itinerant workers?

By 2026 – after two consecutive gong shows – nobody sensible is going to want this hassle any more. Of course, that means Canada's already declared its interest. That'll never happen. We're too straight. We won't grease the right people. There won't be any sketchy legal wiggle-room for the usual shakedowns.

No, this will end up going to some desperate, half-crooked government that will be happily robbed blind in exchange for a month's worth of agit-prop. That pattern has been very good to FIFA. The organization will do even less for the fans, because that's the trend. This thing is charting a line into human oblivion.

In choosing Russia and Qatar, FIFA declared this is no longer about people. Those two countries will function as sound stages. All that matters any more is how this looks on television. That's why the only spend that matters to organizers is the arenas.

The super-rich will still come. They've taken over this thing. They pay for the hospitality suites and drive the in-stadium revenues. If you want to really feel your place in the socioeconomic pecking order, come to a World Cup. Don't forget to bring your own jet.

If real fans don't show up to pad out the attendance, they'll do what they did in South Africa – paper the joint with freebies for locals.

Travelling fans and local enthusiasts were once essential partners in this venture. They paid for it. Their presence gave it meaning. No longer.

Once they stopped figuring in the bottom line, they became a necessary annoyance. They've been reduced to extras in the world's most lucrative reality show.

With that future in mind, you spent the five weeks here trying to commit to memory what this is supposed to look like. At street level, when you gather this much positive human energy, the pavement vibrates. At its best, the World Cup is not about the love of football. It's about the many ways in which football allows us to really see each other, if only briefly. It's a vital link.

Ahead of Brazil's semi-final disaster, Rio resembled the Fall of Saigon, but in reverse. Everyone was trying to get in to town. Up the street from us, someone had pulled a TV out onto the street, onto a traffic island. It was getting set to pour, so they'd propped an umbrella over it. I have no idea how they were getting a signal.

I wandered over to catch a bit of the pre-game. A guy walked up beside me. He looked at me and said something. I did the international no hablo sign (point at ear; shake head).

We stood there happily in silence. Julio Cesar's picture popped up.

"Julio Cesar," he said.

"Toronto FC," I said.

One last chance for all of us to come together and share the sacred names.

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