For a football without FIFA

June 12, 2014

As the World Cup gets underway in Brazil, Shaun Harkin examines the contradictions built into the "beautiful game," in an article written for El BeiSMan.

FRANKLIN FOER makes the case that football can explain the world. He calls it "an unlikely theory of globalization."

Foer's book (How Soccer Explains the World) is a fascinating read that, through the prism of football, exposes the contradictions, problems and "failures" that globalizer-boosters such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman breathlessly tell us we are rapidly shuttling away from on a neoliberal train through the integration of markets, nation-states and technology. Top-down, for-profit globalization, it can be seen, reinforces blight, rather than leads to its eradication.

World Cup 2014 in Brazil epitomizes these contradictions. There is probably no place on the planet where football is loved more than in Brazil, but today, there is a rebellion against the priorities of the FIFA-organized World Cup.

The host nation is the spiritual home of football and the most successful World Cup-winning nation. Football arrived in Brazil in the 1890s with the Union Jack, portraits of Queen Victoria and the expanding industry of the British Empire. However, as Eduardo Galeano tells us in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the game was "tropicalized in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo by the poor who enriched it while they appropriated it. No longer the possession of the few comfortable youths who played by copying, this foreign sport became Brazilian, fertilized by the creative energies of the people discovering it."

Protesters against the 2014 World Cup dramatize conditions at hospitals in Brazil
Protesters against the 2014 World Cup dramatize conditions at hospitals in Brazil

Brazil is a rising economic and regional geopolitical power. The Amazonian nation now has the fifth-largest economy in the world, and growth is generating tremendous wealth. Brazil is no longer viewed only as a football powerhouse of the developing world. With growing economic weight, Brazil's military might and reach will be felt as well.

A 100-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro, but there has been little mercy for the city's poorest residents. To get Brazil ready for the World Cup, they've been evicted from their homes, harassed by police units and surveillance, and made to feel strangers in their own neighborhoods.

Instead of plowing the country's great wealth into hospitals, schools, housing, transportation and poverty eradication, it has been wasted on ripping down football stadiums to create new so-called "FIFA standard" stadiums for the estimated 4 million people who will travel to Brazil for the World Cup games. The price of tickets and reductions in the capacity of stadiums will make sure millions of Brazilians are excluded. The excluded millions are the victims of Brazil's rise to power. Under the gaze of Rio's Christ, Brazil's opulent elite is crucifying the favela poor and World Cup stadium builders for the gods of the global corporations, financial gain and power-nation aspirations.

The dissent and mass protests rocking Brazil are not just about the way in which the World Cup has been brought into the country like an imperialist occupying army, but about the grievances tens of millions people feel between the promise of the new Brazil and the priorities of its rulers. In Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight For Democracy, Dave Zirin writes:

When I traveled to Brazil, most people in the community of social movements agreed that these sporting extravaganzas would leave behind major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security, and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous, given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor.

EVERYTHING WE produce contains contradiction. We create in order to survive and to add meaning to our lives. Everything also has a price determined by impersonal market forces penetrating every corner of the globe. Football developing in tandem with the market could never escape its imperatives and, like virtually everything else in society, is thoroughly commodified. In Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, Marc Perelman makes the case that the:

sporting institution is consequently integrated into the capitalist mode of production as a specific branch of the division of labor. In parallel with sports "merchandising" a mass sporting spectacle is created, with its peripheral industries--equipment, regalia--advertising in stadiums for mass-market products, indirect taxes through gambling games. Nevertheless the sporting institution's development lurches from crisis to crisis in its crazed pursuit of exploitation and hegemony over the entire world, all the time.

Yet for hundreds of millions of people across the globe, football is the "beautiful game," or "futebol-arte" as they call it in Brazil. It is art, it is passion, it unites, it is escape, it gives joy and, sometimes, like Maradona's Hand of God, revenge.

However, for the owners of the international corporate-sports industry, football is a product geared towards profit maximization for a tiny minority. Football exists to turn a profit, not to meet a deep human need. Profit for profits' sake, to paraphrase the revolutionary Karl Marx.

Global corporations are parasites on the beautiful game, contorting it and us in the process, dividing both to conquer each, as they chase and compete for profits down every available avenue. These two competing desires co-exist, mediate each other and war with each other. One impulse is human; the other destroys humanity.

Football, as in all commodities, contains within it the decisive contradiction of our society: the class struggle. Capital versus human labor; profit versus human needs; joy, freedom and love versus competition, war and annihilation. Held by a ruthless few, the commodity chains the majoritarian soul of the beautiful game, but its internal war creates the seeds of its own destruction: its own gravedigger.

Our global interdependent collective labor, needs and passions struggle against capital and investment returns to determine control of the "beautiful game" we produce. We make football. We make it on the pitch, we build the stadiums, we work in the factories that produce the boots, the balls, the shirts and everything else that makes football. We control nothing of what we produce, from the pitch to the stadium to the stores full of football gear. However, without us, there is no football; there is no World Cup.

Today, FIFA and global corporations control everything we produce that makes the game. Including, of course, the tremendous profits the game generates. Their priorities warp and distort us and the beautiful game. Brazilians can love football, but the FIFA World Cup alienates and repels. We are asked to gaze upon the dazzling spectacle, but our participatory democratic input is not solicited.

Our global collective labor sustains life, but the vast majority of producers have no control over what is produced, how we produce or what is done with the fruit of our labors. As a result, our society is warped and distorted by intense inequality and injustice. Football and the World Cup, as priced commodities integrated into the world capitalist order, reproduce inequality and injustice.

The struggle for the soul of football is synonymous with the struggle for the kind of society we deserve to live in. The struggle over the World Cup in the streets, hearts and minds of Brazil is much more than a struggle over football. We should imagine what a football liberated from the chains of FIFA and profit could look like. To do that, we need to imagine and fight for a world that can make us fully human and free.

First published at El BeiSMan.

Further Reading

From the archives