Football, Violence and Protest from Istanbul to Rio

Football can appear to take on much too much importance in people’s lives at times. It can seem as if it matters more than pretty well anything else on earth to some. Football too has the potential (which it frequently and consistently achieves) to be a conservative, socially negative, regressive force in society – often it is far from the people’s game. But in recent times, as civil disobedience on a huge scale has presented itself in Turkey and Brazil, in one instance football played a positive role through the combination of various footballing groups against a heavy-handed police force and in the other, was the focus of many people’s ire, costing Brazil (and by that read its most vulnerable) more money at a time when it has slowing economic growth.

Fans of different Turkish clubs during recent protests in Istanbul. Source: EuroNews
Fans of different Turkish clubs during recent protests in Istanbul. Source: EuroNews

In Turkey,as things first began to heat up early in June, that expert on Middle Eastern soccer  James Dorsey saw in the unified front of the supporters of Istanbul’s big clubs, Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray a spirit of opposition deriving from

Secularist suspicion is also what prompted militant, mostly secular Turkish soccer fans used to fighting each other, to unite much like they did in Cairo. The fans were driven by an instinctive dislike of the police that makes them sensitive to excessive use of force, particularly when it is aimed at suppressing legitimate expression of dissent.
Tension was already mounting between the police and the fans before their entry into Taksim Square. Police last month attacked Carsi, the militant Besiktas JK club’s support group and the most politicized of the supporters, as they marched after a final league match to celebrate the end of the season. The clash was sparked by the fact that the fans were getting to close to Mr. Erdogan’s Besiktas office near the club’s stadium.
Following what happened in Egypt, where football supporters played such a prominent role in many of those events, a few weeks on from Dorsey’s initial analysis of what was happening in Turkey, it seems he is perhaps lucky that the supporters of the Istanbul clubs were not more central or more aggressive than they appear to have been. The story though has rightly been less about who was doing the protesting (the point came quite soon that just about everyone was) and more about what was causing the protestations – initially, it was about the park itself but it became as these things so often do, more about the plan for the park represented (Erdogan’s apparent increasing autocratic mode of operation) than about the plan for the park itself, although that too seemed like a thoroughly objectionable plan in its
own right.
If the football fans of Turkey were just one group among masses objecting to a leader they didn’t want, then the masses that have recently been gathering in Brazil are in many cases using football not as the main focus of their efforts, but as one among many touch papers to show their own disgust, their own anger at the state of their country. As the Confederations Cup, that dazzling dry run now held by World Cup host nations a year beforehand continues on, many Brazilians, voice their concerns about a country where the price of transport goes up and the government spends billions on new football grounds for the great summer carnival of football.hi-brazil-protest-cp-046023 (1)
As that excellent work by Kuper and Syzmanski, Soccernomics, has shown, the World Cup and similar major sporting events are less about an excuse to build world class facilities that can be utilised by communities after the event, less even about more prosaic matters such as making money – inevitably they cost more, and often more than budgeted for, they are essentially very expensive advertisements for the host nations and cities – they are (meant to, at least) show that the hosts belong on the world stage and are capable of handling one of the great sporting mega-events of the modern era. That they increasingly appear to be taking place in new places like South Africa, now Brazil and shortly in Russia and then Qatar, you’d be hard pressed not to think that many of these places would do well to worry less about putting their best side to the world and sorting out bigger issues first – this is especially the case when it has the potential to be an unmitigated disaster at least in terms of being framed not as a celebration of how far Brazil has come, but as an excessive indulgence of the powerful when things are beginning to level off.
In a place like Brazil, where football means so much, where it is at the beating heart of many of its poorest communities, the World Cup, and the outrage at its cost expressed by many in the current bout of protests, has the potential to show to many Brazilians that their game and that which is being hosted next summer have little enough in common. Certainly, this seems to be the consensus view in a huge range of articles to appear online over at The Guardian. Romario, former World Cup winner and now a Socialist politician wrote on that websites Comment is Free section yesterday:

These protests will strengthen our democratic culture. It is the voice from the streets, for one, that will lead to the strengthening of our judiciary. And it couldn’t come at a more timely moment: with the legislation currently weak, corruption is rife – and those who steal from the public are let off the hook. As a congressman for the Brazilian Socialist party (PSB), I am comfortable being so critical of the state of the law in my country, because for a long time I have not shied away from pointing out the abuses that take place around here.

When Brazil won the bid to host the World Cup, other politicians were in charge of the country, and our political reality was different. I supported the bid because it promised to generate employment and income, promote tourism and strengthen the country’s image.

Since then, Brazil has been affected by the turbulence in the world economy just like any other country. Government plans were redrafted, public investment was cut – yet the commitments signed with all-powerful Fifa stayed the same. Investment in cities hosting World Cup matches were prioritised over the people’s needs.

On the same site, Simon Jenkins has written that:

Brazil has been bamboozled into blowing $13bn on next year’s football World Cup, and then on a similar sum to be later extorted by the International Olympic Committee to host the 2016 Games. Brazil’s leftwing leader, Dilma Rousseff, was bequeathed the games by her populist predecessor, Lula da Silva. She has desperately tried to side with the protesters, but she is trapped by the oligarchs of Fifa and the IOC.

Brazil’s citizens are being hit with higher bus fares and massive claims on health and welfare budgets. Up to half a million people may take to the streets this weekend to complain of “first world stadiums, third world schools“. What is impressive about the demonstrators is that they appear not to be against sport as such, but against the extravagance of their staging. They are talking the language of priorities.

He continues on, descrining the World Cup in this less than flattering way:

The World Cup is an ongoing scandal run by Fifa’s unsackable boss, Sepp Blatter, on the back of ticket and television sales and soccer hysteria. Having bled the Brazilian exchequer of billions for new stadiums, he has the cheek to plead with demonstrators that “they should not use football to make their demands heard”. Why not? Blatter uses football to make his demands heard.

Such views are common among the left wing blog writers. In his piece for Red Pepper “Brazil: The giant has awoken”, Matthew Richmond also focuses on the sporting mega events due to come to Brazil in the next few years. He notes that:

A key aspect of the protests concerns the urban impacts of preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. In Rio the mega events are being treated as catalysts for a ‘whole city project’, which besides new sporting infrastructure includes major transformations in housing, transport and security…

Innumerable placards and chants highlighted these issues: ‘Quantas escolas cabem na Maracanã?’ (‘How many schools fit in the Maracanã stadium?’). ‘Copa do Mundo eu abro mão, quero dinheiro pra saúde e educação’ (‘Forget the World Cup, I want money for health and education’). One sign ominously read, ‘There will be no World Cup’. This will send shivers down the spines of political elites who see the successful hosting of these international spectacles as economically and symbolically crucial for the future of the country, and for their own reputations. They may have been concerned about drugs gangs and street criminals marring the events. They never foresaw the possibility of mass opposition.

Speaking of mass opposition, if Romario writing in The Guardian shows a keen awareness of the matter, speaking as a politician and citizeen first and footballer second, then Pele, a man who it often can seem does no wrong, badly misjudged the current events in Brazil. As the Irish Times reported:

Brazilian soccer great Pele has called on thousands of protesters demonstrating over poor quality public services and corruption to leave the streets and focus on football – an appeal that was quickly met with derision on social media.

It is difficult not to feel that Pelé here is showing a misjudgment of the zeitgeist, sometimes the beautiful game cannot be a salve for the wounds of people who have known hardship. Sometimes it needs to be challenged.


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