A Beautiful Game Gone Bad: Race and the World Cup, Part 1


Preparations for Brazil’s World Cup have displaced and dispossessed many poor and Black Brazilians. (Image source: http://www.loves.domusweb.it)

Note: This article is the first in a two-part series.  Part 2 will appear on Sunday.


The 2014 FIFA World Cup concludes this Sunday when Argentina and Germany face off in the Final.  Brazil’s World Cup has been a lightning rod both on and off the pitch.  Brazilian protests against immense government spending on the tournament were the big story coming into this year’s Cup.  However, news coverage surrounding the protests gradually dwindled as the tournament progressed. 

Last year, when Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup – basically a small-scale warm-up for the World Cup – millions of protesters marched on the country’s streets.  Activists envisioned even larger protests for this year’s World Cup, but the demonstrations were mostly suppressed.  Brazil’s government and police forces cracked down on those efforts.  Nevertheless, the demonstrations persisted anyway, even if they aren’t as large in numbers.  “There won’t be a Cup!” was a slogan circulating around the country as the soccer world converged on Brazil before the opening match.

On the world stage, the highly anticipated soccer matches drowned out the demonstrators’ grievances, which range from poor living conditions, corruption, low wages, inflated costs, substandard services and unemployment to poverty, displacement, police violence and recognition of land rights.  The wide range of issues spurred many different demographic groups to take the streets.  One common sticking point for all protesters however, is the outrageous $11 billion Brazil’s government has spent on the World Cup while ignoring education, health care and public housing for its people.    

Despite FIFA and the Brazilian government’s attempts to paint very real concerns as banal compared to the grand spectacle of the beautiful game, the World Cup has still attracted global attention to the country’s issues.  On the surface, Brazil’s problems seem like local and national geopolitics.  Yet given their racialized nature, these issues are globally relevant. 

Last year, as Brazilians protested during the Confederations Cup, concurrent demonstrations were occurring in Turkey and Egypt.  Anger over privatization and the widening wealth gap was clear last year and is equally apparent today as the World Cup winds down and fans head home.  Thus, the 2014 World Cup became a petri dish for global inequality. 

Racial Themes in the World Cup 

As I’ve watched the tournament and followed the protests, I noticed three distinct but intersecting racial themes or currents.  The protests are the first current.  Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup triggered a systematic campaign to violently dispossess and displace Brazil’s poor people, most of whom are Black and Brown.  Indigenous groups from around the country were also vulnerable; consequently, they mobilized to demand better treatment and recognition of their land rights. 

The other two themes relate more to the nations represented at the World Cup.  Oftentimes, European nations have the most skilled and successful World Cup teams.  Aside from South American nations Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, no non-European team has ever won the World Cup.  The competitive disparity between the Third World and the West in soccer parallels the global wealth gap.  With few occasional exceptions, the most consistent soccer powers often hail from the world’s wealthiest countries.  African and Asian countries are marginalized in the World Cup scene, just as they are elsewhere.

Finally, the increase of non-whites representing the U.S. and European countries at the World Cup directly correlates with those countries’ growing immigrant populations.  There’s a troubling hypocrisy in the fact that Western nations are doing everything in their power to curb immigration, and yet, are simultaneously exploiting it to sustain their competitive edge against the ravaged Third World. 

So what’s the relationship between the three themes?  The World Cup is the collision point for these seemingly separate issues.  Because the last two currents are sports microcosms for global racism and economic inequality, each issue relates to capital and its concentration in certain areas of the world.  The flow of capital not only helps us to distinguish between the wealthy and poor; it also indicates migration patterns and the geography of wealth.  As such, the distinction between the “West” and the “Third World” corresponds to this geography. 

The politics surrounding the World Cup reveal what many already know: capital is racialized.  In other words, wealthy individuals and nations are invested in whiteness because the world’s most impoverished people are non-white, and particularly Black.  The capital that the World Cup generates will mostly benefit white individuals and institutions.  On the other hand, notes activist Friar David, “This World Cup has been very, very bad for Black Brazilians.”    


Many of the above stadiums were built on land that was formerly inhabited by Brazil’s poor. (Image source: http://www.chinlandtoday.info)

Building a Soccer Powerhouse is Easier in the West

Similar to the Olympics, the World Cup is celebrated as a gathering of countries from around the world.  The world’s greatest sports spectacle is portrayed as a tournament in which every country attends on the same footing.  In reality, the narrative of equal opportunity is a myth. 

Like any other social venue, opportunity for success greatly depends on wealth and capital.  As capital amasses in certain countries and regions, greater opportunity will be found in those same places.  Sports are no exception to this rule.  An examination of the 32 World Cup teams helps us to understand how economic disparities play out on the field. 

Wealthier countries are capable of allocating more resources to their national sports industries.  For example, if the U.S. hypothetically earmarks twenty times the funding to its national soccer program than does Costa Rica, then U.S. players will by extension receive better athletic training (with higher-paid coaches), work in better facilities and travel more efficiently than the Costa Ricans.  The U.S.’s entire infrastructure will be better equipped to raise young athletes through a rigorous system.  Moreover, the Western powers which have enjoyed extreme wealth for generations have built up their infrastructures over time and established training systems that regularly produce refined players.  Even if Third World countries had the resources to compete at the highest level, their infrastructures would still be decades behind.

Favorable Treatment for Europe

The World Cup’s qualification process is also heavily weighted to benefit Europe and the Americas.  Europe’s soccer body has 53 member associations (associations are basically countries, with a few exceptions).  Thirteen of the 53 teams qualified for this year’s World Cup.  Africa also has 53 members, but only five teams qualified.  Likewise, of Asia’s 46 members, only four qualified

These disparities expose the fallacy that every team in the world enjoys equal opportunity.  South America qualified six teams (including hosts Brazil) despite having only ten members.  That’s 60 percent of its teams compared to less than ten percent from Africa and Asia.  Europe qualified four more teams than the two continents combined.

Instead of arguing against the blatant imbalance in representation, some critics actually complain that Asian and African teams are awarded too many slots.  After struggling at this year’s World Cup, Asia’s teams and the entire continent are under scrutiny.  One critic is Akitomo Kishina, who wrote, “Given such a fierce competition in Europe, Asian teams have to deliver at the World Cup and prove their worth to the world. Otherwise, any criticism that they are receiving unfair, favorable treatment, is valid.”

The short-sighted view that Asian teams are “receiving unfair, favorable treatment” fails to identify European nations’ inherent competitive advantages.  Kishina doesn’t consider why European teams fare better and have more talent.  Success is the only relevant factor.  According to this logic, because European teams excel, they deserve a larger share of the World Cup pie.  By disregarding the context which creates competitive disparities, critics like Kishina justify erasing Asia’s qualifying chances.  Furthermore, the meritocracy argument ignores how competitive inequality runs much deeper than sports.

Capital, Migration and Competitive Inequality

Global politics undeniably impact the World Cup.  Countries that have their resources stolen by colonial and imperial powers lack the capital to build consistently competitive national teams.  The gap between Western and Third World countries competing in the World Cup is clear, but this doesn’t even account for teams that failed to qualify.  Most teams that qualified from Africa and Asia, like Japan, South Korea, Australia, Nigeria, Iran, Algeria and Ghana, are better-off compared to other African and Asian countries.  (Of course, the above countries are also home to large impoverished populations.)

Stolen resources translate to fewer opportunities in the Third World.  As a result, people emigrate, following the flow of capital in order to seek out better economic opportunities.  This explains the meteoric rise of immigration in various countries and regions.  The U.S. and Europe have especially experienced large immigrant influxes over the last generation. 

As migrant workers leave home hoping to find better lives, the U.S., Europe and other resource-rich countries become their destinations.  The newly arrived immigrants subsequently give birth to and/or raise first- and second-generation children who identify this new land as home.  In effect, much of the athletic talent cultivated in Europe and the U.S. comes from recent immigrant populations.  Take Germany for example.  When the Germans take the field on Sunday, their starting eleven will likely include Sami Khedira (half Tunisian, born in Germany), Mesut Ozil (Turkish, born in Germany) and Jérȏme Boateng (half Ghanaian, born in Germany and whose brother played for Ghana’s national team this year).


Pictured above are Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng and Mesut Ozil from the 2010 World Cup. (Image source: http://www.francisgonz.wordpress.com)

Ironically, as American and European teams employ first- and second-generation immigrants in increasing numbers, the same countries make calculated efforts to not only stop incoming immigration but also to deport recent arrivals.  Thus, while the American, English, French, German and Italian rosters are diverse and boast about their diversity, those countries still aim to maintain a white character. 

Relating Racial Politics On and Off the Pitch

How do these dynamics relate to the Brazilians’ protests?  Favela demolitions and the ensuing widespread displacement of poor Black people reflect the flow of capital.  Up to 1.5 million people have been or could be displaced due to the World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Where there’s potential to make money, the state capitalizes at the expense of poor people.  The displacement of poor Black Brazilians resembles the U.S.’s gentrification and immigrant deportation campaigns, where people of color are expelled from economically opportune areas.  And if they aren’t expelled, the capital itself moves elsewhere (i.e., is outsourced). 

Moreover, Brazil is also invested in whiteness.  Along with the Brazilian government’s forced removal policies, the wealth gap between Blacks and whites signifies this investment.  Statistics from 2005 showed that Black Brazilians were more than twice as likely to live in poverty compared to whites.  At that point, 30 percent of the Afro Brazilian population lived under the poverty line.  To add insult to injury, Black fans are few and far between at the World Cup matches.  Thus, the World Cup’s arrival in Brazil not only led to the Brazilian government building huge, spacious stadiums on inhabited land, but it also resulted in an image-based racial cleansing campaign.  This meant removing many poor Black neighborhoods from potentially tourist heavy sites, while celebrating the myth of a racial democracy.


The systematic demolition of favelas has decimated many communities throughout Brazil. (Image source: http://www.proof.nationalgeographic.com)

Journalist Dave Zirin, who has closely covered the politics surrounding the World Cup and written a book entitled Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, explains:

Seizing land and homes, running roughshod over the rights of those of African and Indigenous descent, opening the doors for foreign plunder, the buzzsaw development of the Amazon, exporting Brazil’s culture, declaring an end to public space, militarizing the cities: all of these can be facilitated through laws described as “states of exception,” like those historically passed for the Olympic Games in which the usual rules (and constitutions) no longer apply. This is why mayors like Michael Bloomberg in New York City and Richard Daley in Chicago—both cities pinnacles of gentrification—wanted the Olympics so desperately and why Lula fought so hard for them at the end of his presidency. In a rush of excitement, the land grab and the privatization of public space could proceed with abandon.

In the short term, Brazil will likely lose money from hosting the World Cup.  But the long-term gains will cover those losses.  Unfortunately, that money will stay with the government and corporate actors.  Displaced Brazilians will never be fully and fairly compensated for the economic losses and human degradation they’ve experienced. 

FIFA will soon leave Brazil and set its sights on Russia for 2018, but the World Cup’s legacy will remain.  It’s a legacy of enforced racial and economic oppression, an ugly result for a beautiful game.


Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.

Follow on Twitter @OvertheLine1 and contact at overthecolorline@gmail.com

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