11
Jun
14

why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?

Enh.

If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):

2010WorldCup_Budweiser

And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.

 

Oh, and Argentina will win.

 

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