Do You Think the World Cup Is Just About Soccer?

While the international game plays out on the fields of Brazil, there are a lot more political, economic, racial, and women’s issues spinning behind the scene.
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In Northern Ireland, opposing pro-England and pro-Ireland flags have grimly marked territory for decades, showing who is welcomed and who might be refused service—or beaten. But this month, even the hardest of the island’s hard men are lifting their pints in pubs decked out with a “We Are the World” array of colors, from the familiar emerald green of Brazil to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s stylish gold and blue triangles.

We're into the first full week of the World Cup, the world’s largest single sport event. Held every four years, the soccer competition includes 32 national teams that have won qualifying rounds over the past year. Gathering in the host nation, Brazil, are international phenoms like Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng (hot), Spaniard Gerard Pique (Mr. Shakira), and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (the highest paid player in the sport’s history), among many others. You can see the full schedule here.

Beyond the mega-stadia, sports commentary, and ad barrage, however, deep politics are at play. Each game is as much about history and current events as a score. “Everyone always says ‘sport isn’t political,’ so that makes sports a great place to do politics, especially at the World Cup level,” says Laurent Dubois, a historian at Duke and the author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France —who happens to pull for his native country, Belgium.

Well before the first match between Brazil and Croatia (Brazil won 3-1), Brazilians were marching to protest the millions in public funds spent on the celebration and not on desperately needed health, school, and transportation services. At $11 billion, this is the most expensive World Cup ever. Until just before the opening ceremony, Sao Paulo metro workers were on strike, their marches brutally repressed by police.

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff is an unlikely proponent of big-time commercial sports. A former Marxist guerrilla and torture survivor, Rousseff made headlines last year when she postponed an official visit to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama. Why? She wanted an investigation into reports, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been snooping on her phone calls and emails along with communications from the state-controlled oil and gas firm Petrobras.

Rousseff’s one of three powerhouse female presidents in the region, with Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, a physician and Socialist just elected to her second term. Bachelet and her mother are also torture survivors, and her army general father was tortured to death by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. All three are center-left, yet have to find a way to effectively narrow the gap between rich and poor.

That gap is notorious in Brazil. Millions live in favelas that surround the major cities, some too dangerous for even heavily armed police to enter. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, more people are murdered in Brazil than in almost any other country and most of those crimes go uninvestigated, let alone solved. Rouseff’s handling of World Cup preparations has been almost universally panned. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) accused Brazil of being behind on preparations for predictably massive crowds of enthusiastic—and sometimes inebriated and violent—fans. Even as the tournament opened, fans sang Brazil’s anthem then roundly booed the Jumbotrons when Rousseff’s face appeared celebrating a goal. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, security is suffocating, and allegations of massive corruption are routine.

Dubois points out that this is nothing new. Soccer and politics have long been intertwined. “The World Cup poses a beautiful question,” Dubois says. “What is our nation? There are 11 people on a team and how they perform then determines whether everyone in that nation celebrates or mourns. If there’s an individual who stands out, like a Maradona, the Argentine star, or a Zidane, there’s an incredible merging of the individual and the state. It seems like a player’s whole life was aimed at this moment.”

We're seeing another major development play out on the soccer field, with the female players. FIFA became the first global institution to address the wearing of the veil as a human-rights issue. The veil was banned by local soccer federations first in Quebec and then in France, a decision that FIFA upheld. Then Middle Eastern countries—including Iran and Jordan—pushed for a revocation of the ban to allow their women to play. Now FIFA allows women to play while wearing the veil.

“It’s a contradiction, to be sure,” says Dubois. “You have conservative regimes insisting on the right of women to play sports on an international stage, but they can’t be out there playing without the veil. On another level, you would think that they wouldn’t want women playing at all. Soccer has the capacity to bring people into these interesting positions. Of course, countries also want their teams to play at these levels, a desire that can trump other concerns. Iran, a country that still doesn’t allow women to attend soccer games, advocates for the right of women to play soccer.”

Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup makes no excuses for featuring professional athletes only. On the pitch are some of the highest paid athletes in the world, including Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who earns $29 million every year from Real Madrid, a Spanish team. (The Los Angeles Lakers’ forward Kobe Bryant makes $30 million per year.) Yet both competitions emerged at the same time, in the early 20th century. The World Cup founder, Jules Rimet, insisted that the game be played by professionals since he considered the Olympics elitist.

Most players don’t come through universities, a practice unique to the United States and its college teams. Stars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi, for instance, may join a team as a young teen, then groom for international play. Messi, who was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency (or idiopathic short stature) as a child, signed with top team FC Barcelona at 13, and attended their prep school. The team even paid for the costly HGH, a growth-hormone treatment that allowed him to develop normally.

Messi is not alone in lacking an action-hero physique. Soccer is unique because there’s no single body type necessary to play well. Unlike basketball (which requires height) or football (which requires heft), soccer can include anyone. One of Brazil’s greats, Mané Garrincha, was born with a deformed spine and bowed legs, none of which stopped him from helping bring Brazil the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

Even a casual fan like me will notice a fascinating racial diversity on the pitch. Though “old Europe” teams—Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, and Germany—continue to dominate, many players don’t look like stereotypical locals. Increasingly, descendants of immigrants from Europe’s former colonies dominate the sides, a bit of history woven into the game. One of France’s all-time greats, for instance, was Zidane, a child of Algerian workers. Famously, he head-butted Italy’s Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final, after Materazzi allegedly trash-talked Zidane’s sister.

This year, all eyes will be on Italy’s Mario Balotelli, the child of a Ghanian couple who was abandoned, then fostered by a Jewish family in Brescia. Known as both brilliant on the field and volatile off it, Balotelli once drove into an Italian women's prison just to “have a look round.” Europe is currently undergoing an anti-immigrant backlash, with new parties like England’s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and France’s National Front gaining ground with promises to reintroduce borders and reduce immigration. Balotelli has been a lightning rod for racism, which he’s said he faces “every day” as Italy’s first black player. He’s was the object of racially motivated attacks as recently as May, while he and his team mates trained for the World Cup outside Florence.

There’s also a new team competing, Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia. Their star midfielder is Miralem Pjanić, a Muslim who is the child of Bosnian refugees. One of Pjanić’s cousins was a rebel killed in 2014 fighting Syria’s government.

Repeatedly, results of World Cup matches can define a generation. Sometimes, it feels like the fate of a nation rests on the outcome of a game. For instance, when Uruguay defeated Brazil in 1950, it became a major national trauma. Others simply want a certain team to lose and lose badly, as if history’s moral judgment can still put the necessary spin on the white ball. As the Three Lions, England’s nickname, geared up to face the “azzurri,” Italy’s blues, friends in predominately pro-Ireland Derry packed the pubs to root for England’s defeat, as if the trajectory of a ball will help tip the scales of history ever so slightly in their favor. 

Watching soccer at this level is a bit like watching the world, bounded by a football-size field. It’s a window onto where we’ve all come from, as well as where we’re headed. One country celebrates; one country mourns. Then everyone looks forward to the next tournament in four years, when the world comes together again to watch the beautiful game anew.