Brazil is hosting the Confederations Cup, an eight-team tournament that serves as a kind of warm-up for the World Cup, which kicks off in about a year. Brazil is also hosting a series of increasingly controversial demonstrations: in the last week, Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest everything from high bus fares to government corruption to the construction of football stadiums.
These protests represent a rare phenomenon: the news story that gets as much coverage in the New York Times (bastion of high-quality journalism) as on ESPN Soccernet (The Worldwide Leader in Misplaced Commas) and the BBC Sports website (employer of Alan Shearer). Football has always influenced world politics – read Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against the Enemy – but, truth be told, the Times’ hard news and ESPN’s football analysis almost never overlap. This is an unusual situation, and it’s generated some interesting contrasts.
On Saturday, the Times ran a front-page article titled “How Angry is Brazil? Pele Now Has Feet of Clay.” The article notes that while Brazilian football “has long been a source of unparalleled pride, a common bond uniting a disparate nation…these days, Brazil is finding little comfort in the ‘beautiful game.’” Compare that to Ben Smith’s recent BBC Sports piece: “The Selecao remain the one issue that all of Brazil can agree on in the current climate. They are a unifying presence, a beacon of hope for a population that is angry with its leadership.” ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti, arguably the world’s most influential football writer, insists that “all this griping doesn’t have much to do with the World Cup….The love affair between Brazil and football continues.”
The Times argues that “Brazil’s soccer obsession has become a potent symbol of what ails the country” and quotes one protester complaining, “Pele and Ronaldo are making money off the Cup with their advertising contracts, but what about the rest of the nation?” On the other hand, Smith’s Brazilian interviewee says that the players “are very rich and we don’t have any money, but we are all facing the same problems as Brazilians.” Presumably, that guy didn’t join his fellow protesters in chanting “A teacher is worth more than Neymar.”
I’m not reporting from the streets of Rio, so I don’t know which account is more accurate. However, I do know that it is in Soccernet’s interests to cast Brazil as a happy and enthusiastic host and to make the 2014 World Cup, which both ESPN and the BBC will broadcast, seem fun and exciting.
And I also know that “all this griping” (a singularly churlish way to describe democracy in action) actually has a lot to do with the World Cup. Perhaps Marcotti was trying to say that the protesters are angry at FIFA and incompetent Brazilian sportocrats rather than at football itself. In places, the Times appears to have conflated anti-FIFA sentiment – which is widespread, entirely justified, and one of the reasons Brazilians are marching with pickets – with criticism of the national team, which is fairly commonplace in Brazil and, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with the protests. The Times’ claim that “soccer obsession” and “a historical low of No. 22 in the FIFA rankings” have helped cause the recent turmoil is just as misleading as Smith’s assertion that Brazil’s group-stage success is a “unifying source of pride.”
The protests are inextricably linked to the World Cup – that’s indisputable, whatever Marcotti says to the contrary. But it’s also true that the Brazil team’s Confederations Cup games have attracted a huge national audience, both in the stadium and on television, and that plenty of protesters want both hospitals and football stadiums. From my American vantage point, it seems that Brazilians have neither turned against football nor united around it.