Humanity’s competitive nature has always been an advantage to political leaders. The Roman gladiators were not only an example of human cruelty and violence, but also an instrument of political control. Centuries later, this method hasn’t changed and as the biggest sporting event in the world approaches, the Brazilian people are subject to the too well known intersection of sports and politics.
This intersection is well known in Brazil, albeit forgotten since the military dictatorship ended in 1985 because of the establishment of democracy. But while a democracy implies freedom and a people chosen government, political manipulation is present in all kinds of political systems. The clever political PR that can be drawn from the World Cup comes at the optimum time for Brazilian politicians: 2014 is presidential election year.
In 1970 Brazil was prosperous but violent. While the economy was growing by 10% every year, the military dictatorship leaders unceremoniously silenced the press, tortured, murdered and exiled members of the opposition. President Emílio Garrastazu Médici was one of the cruellest politicians in Brazil – hundreds of people were killed during his term.
The middle class was growing, but Brazilians lacked basic human rights such as freedom of speech and press freedom. The people were becoming richer, but many didn’t like this lack of rights. Médici created an image of a populist, soccer crazed president who resonated with Brazilians. He claimed to be ‘a man of the people’ and often said he was passionate about football.
This might not seem like an efficient tactic of political control to outsiders, but in a country that has been used and abused by European colonizers and then further explored by the USA, the people often need some help with their self-esteem. Back then, Brazilian football was still golden: we were the best in the world and that’s really all we had. Médici’s image combined with a growing middle class placated the naysayers.
Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win provided Médici with the best kind of political propaganda. Nationalism was the norm, and slogans like ‘Brazil, love it or leave it’ and ‘Nobody can hold this country down’ increased the people’s self-esteem and distracted them from the dictatorial reality. Brazil became the first country to win the World Cup three times.
Maybe this is why Brazilians rely so heavily on winning the cup. When we lost in 2010 the value of our country went down in the streets. After watching the match in Copacabana’s FIFA Fan Fest, walking home was incredibly sad, people were throwing Brazilian flags on the ground and street sellers were letting their Brazil-themed products go for much less than a dollar.
The current climate in Brazil is mixed. I’ve met people who are excited for the soccer matches and people who have nowhere to live and complain about the government’s negligence towards the poor. Some people are in the street yelling ‘There won’t be a World Cup’ and burning FIFA’s official sticker albums, while others quite happily buy the stickers until they complete it.
In 1970 the intersection of politics and sport was very significant, but in 2014 it might be even more so. Social media and a globalized coverage of the World Cup and the issues surrounding it have given unhappy Brazilians an opportunity to be heard by the rest of the world. The huge difference is that in 2014 the championship is interfering directly with internal policies on housing, health and education. It is emphasizing the negligence the Brazilian people suffer. The clever plan to control the people in this way might have backfired.
Yet the danger of it working out for the current government is still present. If Brazil wins, public approval will sway towards the party that is currently in power, despite its negligence. In history, we can refer back to instances where this type of political propaganda has worked: the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany was used to ‘prove’ the superiority of the Arian race and it succeeded. It played a significant part in the holocaust.
Of course, this intersection can be used for good. In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a black gloved fist in a Black Panther salute, a gesture in opposition of white supremacy and for civil rights. And just last year during the Winter Olympics in Russia LGBT rights activists and supporters made a point of boycotting and speaking out against Putin’s anti-gay policies – and journalists made sure the Russian Olympic Committee got laughed at around the world by tweeting photos of their unfinished rooms and disgusting running water.
The real consequences of the 2014 World Cup will only be seen by the end of the year. It’s innocuous to think the result of the championship will have no political bearing in the choosing of future leaders. But I sincerely hope that the global focus in Brazil will be used for good and that the big political dogs will not win. Maybe a win for Brazil will mean Brazilians recognize they deserve better.