Who needs the World Cup anyway?

Very few people trust my intentions when I tell them that I will be traveling to Rio de Janeiro this summer to learn Portuguese, at the very same time that Brazil will be hosting the World Cup. They put air-quotes around words like «research» and «language classes», assuming that I will be spending more time in stadiums  and bars than classrooms and archives. The truth is, despite my interest in culture and sports in Latin America, I know very little about soccer. While I am sure I will watch a lot of the games when I am down there, I am not planning on blowing half my grant money for a chance at some nosebleed seats.

The second thing people usually bring up is safety. Rio has not always had the best reputation in that department, and the widespread reporting on the anti-World Cup demonstrations have only fueled that fear. Images of protests and street art criticising the Brazilian government for spending so much money on a soccer tournament have grown more and more intense as the event draws closer.

With the eyes of much of the world on Brazil, the organizers are trying to paint an inviting image of the country, while many Brazilians are using the oportunity to bring attention to the inequalities they face daily. As Kahled A Beydoun writes in his column on the protests:

The unholy trinity of samba, sex, and soccer will draw millions of tourists that pour in billions of dollars into the nation’s economy during the World Cup’s month-long competition. Dollars likely not to trickle into the communities that gave us Pele, Romario and Rivaldo, nor earmarked at improving the quality of life of millions of poor and working class Brazilians.  

In a brutal clash between national identity and national membership, many Brazilians are asking «Copa pra quem?» If this many Brazilians don’t want to host the rest of the world this summer, then why is it there? Who needs the World Cup anyway?

This is by no means a reflection only of the Brazilian situation. While these international mega-events are supposed to serve as symbolic unifiers, more and more they are highlighting the worst parts of our world. Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, has reportedly been the site of terrible human rights abuses and the deaths of a large number of migrant workers brought in to help construct soccer stadiums.  Once an international status symbol, the IOC may have trouble finding a host for the 2022 Olympic Games, as public referendums and financial issues have already caused two of finalist cities to withdraw their bids, with the possibility of more withdrawals on the horizon.

The World Cup is an incredible spectacle of athleticism and pride, with people from all over the world waving flags for their respective nations. But let’s not let that hide the fact that there are much more pressing issues in the world than who wins a soccer game. It will be great to see what happens as the Brazilian team advances, as the spotlight gets brighter and brighter on Brazil. Which screams will be louder: the ones celebrating goals or the ones calling for social action? That, more than final scores and highlight goals, is what I’m excited to see this summer. I’ll do my best to report back with some of the sights and sounds that catch my attention– you know, when I’m not doing schoolwork.

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