By Diego Ponce de Leon
Just a week ago I sat near Kenya’s Lake Naivasha watching the Brazil vs. Chile game. Chile was the underdog, and after having easily walked over Spain, they were the clear favorites inside the bar. In fact, every Kenyan I met that day was cheering for “red hot Chile.” I was amazed how well they knew the Chilean and Brazilian players (beyond Alexis Sánchez and Neymar) and found myself to be the only one cheering when Gonzalo Jara hit the bar and lost the game. The mood was incredible: halfway across the world, I was sitting at a table with Egyptian, German, American, and Kenyan friends watching a futbol game in peace. After leaving my home country of Mexico more than a decade ago, I am equally proud to be Latin American as to cheer for Giovanni Dos Santos’ goals. Although that night I was proud to see everyone cheer for Latin America — I haven’t seen anyone here cheer for Europe, it’s Latin America all the way — I was equally aware of how the World Cup has eclipsed glaring social inequities in our side of the world.
Don’t get me wrong — I love futbol, and the World Cup is even more amazing. Watching the sport in itself is incredible, but watching an emerging economy take on a historical empire and take it out of the World Cup is inspiring. This year in particular, the underdogs have put up an incredible fight. Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico, who all played their hearts out, arguably deserved to win their knockout matches. Many across the continent and throughout the rest of the world share this fervor for underdogs.
This sentiment is not shared, however, when evaluating social inequities in the region. FIFA and the mainstream media have ignored protests against the World Cup in Brazil, while some governments (including Mexico) have used the event’s popularity to surreptitiously contrive and implement widely unpopular political reforms. Even my own friends who are attending the World Cup, members of Latin America’s well-educated middle class, take only glossy photos of their trip, avoiding situations and images that could potentially spoil their experience. Despite the goals and some comradery, this failure to note social tensions in the host country has left a sour taste. With Brazil’s devastating loss against Germany in the semifinals, there will be no comfort — nor justification — for the thousands of Brazilians who were displaced to make way for tourists in major cities.
This World Cup has also highlighted yet again the pervasive discrimination that exists throughout Latin America. Mexican fans partook in deep ignorance cheering “P***” in unison at referees and team opponents throughout their games, arguing that the latter was not a homophobic remark but merely a colloquialism contextualized by situation. FIFA, in one of its most remarkable moments of utter absurdity, was tempted to sanction Mexico for discriminatory remarks — an unbelievable statement, given that the organization will host the next World Cups in Qatar and Russia, countries where it’s borderline illegal to be gay. Juan Camilo Zuñiga, the Colombian player who fractured Neymar’s vertebra has been receiving racist death threats, and a Brazilian candidate for congress went as far as suggesting that he should be assassinated.
In Brazil, a country where 60 percent of the population is either mixed or black, their absence is glaringly omitted from stadium stands (while some of the Brazil players dye their hair blonde and the black and mixed population sells beer and souvenirs to people on the street).About $US 4.2 billion have been spent on stadiums as well as on urban tourist infrastructure (airports, roads, renovated stadiums, athlete villages, and telecommunications), but little has been spent to improve basic services such as access to quality healthcare, education, and public transportation. Surveys around Brazil before and during the World Cup suggested that more than 60 percent of Brazilians think that the World Cup will not help the country.This imposition of mega-events without public consultation is the epitome of how politics is done in Latin America – and futbol is no exception. Traditionally the people’s game, the sport has long transformed itself through FIFA into a smoke screen and favorite tool for corruption, gentrification, and political obfuscation.
When Argentina wins the World Cup this Sunday, let’s remember those players who have used futbol to stand for something bigger than shoes, t-shirts, and cars. Let’s remember Socrates (Brazil, Corinthians), Caszely (Chile), Predrag Pasic (former Yugoslavia), Mekhloufi (Algeria), and Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast). In the words of Pablo Gentili, an Argentine academic and education reformer who has spent the last 20 years in Rio de Janeiro:
Understanding football is a way of understanding popular culture. There is an oppressive football that aims to colonize the hearts and minds of the poorest people, and sometimes it succeeds. But there is also a liberating football that, like emancipating dynamite, shudders the popular soul, filling it with affirmation and pride.
Lets hope Brazil can recover from this event, and that the 2014 World Cup wasn’t just an excuse for white elephants and the tearing away of social fabric. If Argentina doesn’t win, let’s just forget this World Cup ever happened. If Argentina does win, let’s hope that Messi and company have the class to party with Brazil and the rest of Latin America in this historical triumph.
Diego Ponce de Leon is a Ph.D. student in the Energy and Resources group who is working on smart urban energy infrastructure in Nicaragua. He is also a National Geographic Energy Challenge Grant Fellow, you can follow him on Instagram. Site: dleonb.com
Douglas Engle is a freelance still and video photographer based in Rio de Janeiro.