Written by Werner Krauss
Structural anthropology has been good at explaining sports as a social context for belonging: my soccer club, my national team. Events like World Cups or Olympic Games made sense of a global world inhabited by a united humanity, simultaneously exhibiting and transcending differences of race, class, nation and sex. But long gone are the illusions of sport as a form of philanthropic idealism. The global football federation, FIFA, is an umbrella organization that hosts a traveling circus that originated in England, travels soon to Brazil and is scheduled to land in places like Russia and in Qatar. FIFA controls the marketing of this multi-billion dollar business; it sets the rules for its staging, and it is an organization that does business with dictatorships as comfortably as it does with democracies; it gives illusory hope to small and developing countries that yearn to appear on the world stage, just as it pays fealty to the soccer dynasties in Europe and Latin America. The World Cup is a carnival that has turned into a global commodity, organized by semi-official and semi-legal institutions that resemble mafias much more than they do the UN. The World Cup will take place in Brazil, a powerhouse on the pitch and on the global field of changing power relations, a battlefield for climate politics and an emerging domestic middle class. This is why Brazil decided to stage this global ritual on steroids.
To understand tribal rituals, structuralism had to somehow conjure away the omnipresent colonialism; to understand the quadrennial ritual of the World Cup, the anthropologist once again is tempted to surrender a measure of professional skepticism. The World Cup is a crystal ball reflecting and fueling the unending spectacle of power, violence and corruption that surrounds the matches on the pitch. Even the professional commentators, whether they are anthropologists or their siblings, the sports journalists, are sucked into this maelstrom. They are part of a globalizing event that by definition no longer has an outside. The World Cup is global without providing the comforts of the domestic sphere, apart from the fact that one somehow feels at home amidst the stereotypical folklore of the global Brazilian.
This stadium is where we see the FIFA bosses surrounded by the representatives of global capital, of American, Russian or Saudi Arabian investors who sell oil and gas and buy players and soccer clubs. In doing so, they change the global maps of belonging and of politics. Perhaps they, too, are baffled by the transformation of club players into representatives of nations situated far from their workplaces. The permanent tournament of the European Champions League has reduced the soccer world to a few clubs located in cities where stock markets and capital as well as the tourist industry thrive. Global capital and ambitious investors connect Madrid, London, Paris, Milan or Munich and turn them into global playgrounds, superseding mere nations and linking them to markets in Asia and elsewhere. Players like the Portuguese Ronaldo in Madrid, the Argentinian Messi in Barcelona, the French Ribery in Munich, or the German Özil in Chelsea now play for their respective countries, while oil magnates clasp hands with soccer functionaries and heads of states, as an enormous globalized sports industry looks on with approval. Meanwhile, the black Brazilian player Dani Alves eats the banana thrown at him in Milan, known for its racist supporters.
After Olympiads in China and Russia, the global sports public has gotten used to the panicky preparations and the purging of the lower social orders that prepare the way for these mega-events. In Brazil, it is the military police invading favelas, while social protests against extravagant government spending set the tone during the ConFed Cup rehearsal. On these unusual occasions, dissatisfied and unruly populations point to the scandalous coexistence of social poverty and the fantastic costs of global sports spectaculars. What about the starvation wages, the social injustice, and the endemic corruption that constitute the backdrop for the spectacles and parades of the billionaires? Ultimately, the players on the pitch are pawns of the magnates who own their contracts. The bribed sports functionaries enjoy glasses of champagne and hearty handshakes with their political and commercial partners. Behind the scenes, the Brazil government tries to fight the evils of corruption, of criminality and of a woefully inadequate infrastructure on its way to modernity, to the dream of a real middle class, to membership in the club of developed nations. Soccer is a ticket on this trip into a future that may be as devastating as it is promising -- for the future of the native peoples of the Amazon, for the global economy and climate, and even for your own life and senses of belonging.
Rituals are said to create identity and avoid change by incorporating what is new into existing structures. They are conservative by nature. The World Cup in Brazil is no exception if we look at it from this perspective. It is a global ritual, following the same rules that do not change, satisfying a global spectatorship and conferring certain kinds of meanings on individual lives. We are all part of this ritual on steroids, this global maelstrom of corruption, dirty handshakes and shameful compromises; we watch it unfold with our emotions invested in our teams and dreams, commenting upon the latest scandal along with the chances of the newly assembled teams of stars from the capitals of soccer. We become accomplices of a world gone mad and reassure ourselves that soccer is a game played by 22 players, with Germany winning in the end. Or, perhaps, we post a banana selfie on Facebook to support Dani Alves' protest against racism.
Dr. Werner Krauss is a cultural anthropologist at the Institute of Coastal Research in Germany.