Monday, June 30, 2014

Love Football, Hate FIFA

This piece was originally written for The Bulletin, the freesheet of Portsmouth Socialist Network.

With the World Cup underway in Brazil, protests against the government and FIFA have erupted across the country.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets, demonstrating against the cost of the tournament, which is hardly surprising when you realise staging the World Cup comes with an $11.5 billion price-tag. They carry placards saying, “We want FIFA quality schools and hospitals”. The slogan “We have the circus, now we want the bread” has become hugely popular.  In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, transport workers have gone on strike, demanding additional payments for the extra work they face. The Homeless Workers Movement has held protests, turning out tens of thousands of people.

As the protests have gathered momentum the government has responded with brutal repression. More than 200,000 police officers and soldiers have been mobilised, demonstrations have been baton charged and tear gassed, undercover cops have fired live ammunition in the streets. In the run up to the World Cup the Brazilian government demolished homes to pave the way for stadiums and infrastructure, whilst arresting people they suspected of being political activists. Yet the people have refused to stay silent.

Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny minority of the population. Millions of the poorest Brazilians live in shanty-towns, favelas, quite literally in the shadow of the riches and opulence of the ruling class. Their ramshackle homes are flanked by open sewers; education and healthcare are of terribly low quality. The money spent on the World Cup could have transformed the lives of countless people in Brazil.

With such a crushing level of poverty it is not surprising that Brazilians are chanting, “FIFA Go Home!” Not that this has troubled Sepp Blatter, the head of football’s world governing body, who previously told protesters to stop blaming FIFA for Brazil’s social problems. Blatter is widely and rightly despised by football fans around the world. This is a man with a history of sexist and homophobic outbursts, and who thinks that racism can be resolved by “a handshake”. He is more than happy to turn a blind eye to inequality and injustice, whilst raking in $1 million a year from his role as FIFA’s bigot-in-chief.

All of this comes at a time when FIFA has been embroiled in yet more scandal. Their award of the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar has caused major controversy, and many people are familiar with the allegations of bribery and corruption. While this news has made headlines the real tragedy is happening in Qatar itself, where hundreds of migrant workers have been killed on the construction sites of World Cup stadiums.

With Brazil scheduled to host the Olympics in 2016 it is unlikely that the protests in Brazil will subside anytime soon. If anything they will continue to grow. History shows us that the costs of staging the Games are likely to dwarf even the staggering amounts spent on the World Cup. More stadiums will be needed, more changes to the country’s infrastructure will be made, more five-star hotels will be required to satisfy the visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

Sport has become a plaything for the rich. The games that billions of people know and love are little more than vehicles for the interests of multinationals, administrators and politicians. Sport is an investment opportunity for big business interests, and a passion to exploit for sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonalds. Hosting a mega event like the World Cup or the Olympics is a way for presidents and prime ministers to showcase a country to the international markets while simultaneously ignoring the plight of millions of people in that country.

These are not the priorities of football. These are the priorities of football under capitalism. These are the priorities of FIFA. But it need not be this way. Every football fan should be as interested in what happens on the streets of Brazil as with what happens on the pitch. Marvel at the dignity and bravery of the protesters as much as the talents of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. And continue to love football and hate FIFA.