Curtain Raiser

Joy & World Woes By the Cup Full, Colltalers

The monthlong 2014 World Cup, which closed in Rio yesterday with Germany’s victory over Argentina, had its fair share of ecstasy, agony, fulfillment and heartbreak. As it goes, it also reflected, with frightening accuracy at times, the troubled and deeply divided world we all live in.
For even before it started on June 12, it’d already collected a number of ominous signs revealing more than its organizers, Fifa and the Brazilian confederation, would like us to see, about brutal realities hidden just behind the exuberance of the game of football in modern times.
Good and bad, the cup will leave lasting impressions, as any event of such magnitude, memories to recollect, lessons we’d better not forget, and an index of sorts for some of the most nefarious and persistent ills of our age.
Displays of racism, homophobia, neo-nazism, evidence of social exclusion in game attendance, ticket fraud, corruption of national confederations, violence in and out of the field, it was all out for anyone to see.
As the host, Brazil led the charge, and last summer, as the warm-up competition Confederations Cup was in progress, Brazilians staged the first massive rallies since the end of the military dictatorship, in the 1980s, in protest against Fifa and the government’s preparations for the cup.
By then, it’d become clear that in the five years since Brazil had been chosen to host both tournaments, huge investments supposed to fund them and flood the economy had already been diverted. On the ground, the only palpable sign of their influx was in the construction or rebuilding of mammoth stadiums, some of them in cities without a team in the Brazilian soccer league, and, it was found later, mainly funded by taxpayer money.
So where was their money? asked thousands of citizens. It’d certainly not gone to Brazil’s decaying infrastructure, hospital facilities, or in the building of much needed schools. Such an explosive realization, which served as the trigger for the rallies that ebbed and flowed up to the World Cup this year, got then a temporarily relief, relatively speaking, as Brazil won the Confederations. Now that it lost the big prize, it’s all up for grabs again.
When a group of German black-faced fans showed up for the game against Ghana, or another one ran into the field with a Nazi SS tattooed on his body, their intentions were clear. And so were chants of ‘monkey, monkey,’ and a homophobic call from Mexican supporters during other games.
Brazil’s social inequality was also exposed during the cup. Critics pointed to high price tickets as one way to keep the poor out of the stadiums, and for the predominance of white Brazilians attending the games, in higher percentages than the social and racial mix of the nation’s demographics.
Such social divide was at display in the ‘silent army‘ of garbage pickers, hired by the organizers to collect and sort the average five ton of garbage generated by every game. As hundreds of thousands of Brazilians already make a living out of ‘mining’ landfills, in a country with few recycling programs, their presence was considered a positive one, even if it doesn’t cover up for the inherent indignity of the have-nots’ lot in life.
Another black eye that may be credited to cup organizers is the alleged elimination of stray dogs from the streets of some host cities in Brazil. Just as it happened in Sochi, Russia, the Humane Society has received reports of the animals being ’rounded up and removed,’ no one knows to where.
But the biggest scandal that broke during the games has been the allegations that a company partner of Fifa, Match Hospitality, was running a giant ticket scalping scheme, worth a few million dollars. Brazilian authorities arrested its CEO, Raymond Whelan, who promptly escaped custody and is now the target of a police manhunt. Despite denials, Fifa is expected to answer to an official investigation into the ring.
Fifa is also involved in two other somewhat revealing matters: the suspension of the Nigerian team from international appearances, until the government reinstates the entire soccer governing staff that it fired for poor performance in Brazil. And a copyright dispute with giant Hispanic broadcast system Univision.
In both instances, lack of sensitivity and the zeal protecting its interests were typical. In the case of Nigeria, despite the expected venal government truculence, it’s hard to find winners in the decision, since the players are the ones ultimately punished by it. As for Univision, well, that’s big enough of a corporation that certainly doesn’t need us to take its side, regardless of who has the most rights over the labor exercised by, again, the players.
It all sounds minor, compared to what Fifa has been accused by community groups, from supporting the displacing of thousands to install its ‘Fan Fests,’ to forcing the lift of a ban on alcoholic beverages at stadiums, so to help its sponsors, to being generally oblivious to the demands for social justice just outside the game venues. But it compounds to the tournament’s picture emulating what the best and worst the world has to offer.
Take the contrast, for instance, between the request for asylum by a group of Ghanaian fans, who are Muslim and persecuted at home, and the Brazilian government’s invitation to watch the final in Rio, sent to some notorious African dictators.
Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who’s ruled since 1979, Ali Bomgo Ondimba, whose family controls Gabon for decades, and Joseph Kabila, of Democratic Republic of Congo, in power since 2001, are among the official ‘dignitaries’ invited. All rule with an iron fist three of the world’s poorest nations, even though their personal wealth is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. As for the asylum seekers, Brazil is still considering their request. So much for fairplay at the closing ceremony.
This cup has also been chockfull of curious tidbits, some almost predictable, some verging on the bizarre, and others just plain discouraging. Thus, the two most expensive teams, host Brazil and 2010 champions Spain, had also startlingly disgraceful performances and stopped being contenders before anyone expected. Among the early departed were Russia, Chile and others which had paternalistic banned sex for their players during the cup.
But the most excruciatingly incident to be remembered about this edition was the biting of an Italian player by Uruguayan serial biter Luis Suarez, a brilliant but unbalanced striker. Fifa has dutifully punished him out of the competition but, just the past week, he was ‘rewarded’ with a multimillion dollar transfer and a multiyear contract with prestigious Spanish team Barcelona. Apparently, his two prior biting incidents were not a factor.
The episode, a pathetic public display of savagery broadcast around the world, and its follow up of sorts, certainly marked a missing teaching moment, sending the wrong message and all that. Unfortunately, that’s part of the game, along with player theatrics diving and referee mistakes.
New World Champions Germans, however, proved in every instance that they had been cut from another stump, as social networks and the local press have documented. Upon leaving the Bahia facility they’d built and lived during the cup, they’ve gave it away to the local community, along with a fully equipped ambulatory van, a soccer field, and an undisclosed amount in donations to their school. Truly champions indeed.
This has been an exciting month, and Colltales has been swept, engaged, lifted, and emotionally drained by the coverage demands. We wouldn’t miss it for the world, though and hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did. Now, we must go back to our regularly scheduled duties. Good luck to y’all. WC


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