The Dark Side of Football


I stumbled upon the realisation that the World Cup keeps me extremely intoxicated on, at times, highly unproductive euphoria. This insight came only after Cameroon was defeated by Mexico in a group match. Immediately thereafter I began to agree with all who say that the World Cup is all about capitalist gain through the destruction of the homes of the poorest of the poor in already impoverished areas. I was even willing to settle with those that believed there is a conspiracy against African teams in the World Cup.

   Then Didier Drogba’s Cote d’Ivoire beat Japan and thus hope returned accompanied by another wave of jubilation. I justified my thoughts of poverty and destruction by telling myself that even if I do not watch the World Cup, it will go on and my not watching will not give the Brazilians back their homes.  Then Ghana got a whipping from the USA and gave the conspiracy thought against Africa significance again. That is how my self-destructive abusive relationship with the World Cup continues, as almost every other national, international or personal matter fades in and out of my awareness without being given the proper attention for about a month in every four years.

I have tried, since the start of the preparation of this year’s FIFA World Cup, to block out images of fathers carrying their bleeding children in the favelas of the Brazilian cities. 

I just chose to refuse to see that this beautiful game that transcends nations and languages should have its focus on something that is so ugly and destructive.

 The previous Cup, which was held in South Africa, was even worse for me in terms of my denial. I told myself that for once the Cup was held on the motherland and we could finally show the world some African hospitality and prove to them that other black South Africans besides Madiba are about love and harmony. 

Forgotten were all the headlines that carried stories of the beggars and the homeless being moved out of the cities to not let the world see that ugly albeit real aspect of the rainbow nation. Back in 2010, I chose to believe that those headlines were just rumours used to try and discredit South Africa as the host.  When Brazil was chosen to host World Cup 2014, Brazilians protested against it. I was tweeting in their support. 

I even admired the Brazilians for being expressive and clear about their demands. I respected that they thought that their economy should focus more on healthcare and education rather than creating opportunities for foreign investment at the expanse of the Brazilian people. 

And yet four years later, I joined the world in watching J-Lo and Pitbull give an unforgivable yet very forgettable display in the form of the opening ceremony song of the FIFA World Cup 2014. And I remained glued to the screen watching Brazilian “hospitality” translate into them scoring their first own goal ever.  

I remembered having read of the racism that Afro-Brazilians and other players of African descent experience especially when playing in European cups. Sometimes bananas are thrown at the players in racial mockery. Players like Brazilian Dani Alves tried to take it lightly by eating the banana, while others like Neymar chose to completely deny their African heritage. Alves’ behaviour is praised all around the world. 

This praise makes me uncomfortable, as those dealing with racism are always encouraged to turn the other cheek or be meek, humble or funny to appear civilised and a good sport. A few of us may remember the part that the cameras quickly turned away from when Ghana played against Germany in this year’s second group match. 

At first I thought a naked fan had stormed the field. This German site though informed that it was a fanatic with Nazi abbreviations on his upper body. Racism will not let anything stand in its way of expression. 

The own goal by Brazilian defender Marcelo also made sure that the ugly head of racism that keeps readily lurking in anticipation got an opportunity to reveal itself again. A number of Brazilians, including those that announced themselves as not racist took furiously to social networks to point out how typical it is that something like an own goal would happen because of a Negro or Preto as Afro-Brazilians are known as.

Watching television, one could easily forget that Brazil has the highest population of black people outside the African continent. 

The stadiums were packed yet black faces were conspicuously few. Besides the occasional handfuls of African fans that had travelled with their teams, the majority of spectators were white. 

While this is not surprising, as wealth is still divided on racial lines, it is disturbing not to see more Afro-Brazilians in the stadiums in a country with such a large population of black people. On the other side, when one looks at the pictures of evictions in the favelas and wherever police brutality is applied, the faces are black. The black face in Brazil ties in with the universal picture of poverty and injustice. Also not unexpected is the reality that the traditional food vendors that FIFA apparently tried to discourage from selling outside the stadiums are mainly black.

One of the reasons I became interested in what is going on in this FIFA World Cup is that Brazil ‑ known for its love for football and is famous for football legends such as Pele ‑ is not embracing the international celebration of the sport they love. Brazilians perhaps understood what Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona meant when he said “Things are neither clear nor clean in football right now and many people recognise this reality.”

I still do not know when and if I will ever stop watching the World Cup. Nevertheless, even as I do, I will address those issues that bother me and should trouble many of us. I do not know how to make things right for those suffering because of the FIFA World Cup, however, I will speak out and raise issues that can perhaps be addressed and improved, starting with dialogue. 

Maybe with this I am doing a Dani Alves, but I guess like him I am trying to make the best out of a bad situation. And most importantly I wait for the day Africa brings the Cup home. 

July 2014
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