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UC Berkeley faculty and graduate students look at the World Cup in a different light

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JULY 08, 2014

You’re familiar with the routine by now: Grab a chilled beer and a loose-fitting jersey, plop onto a comfy couch with friends and switch the channel to ABC Sports to enjoy the World Cup’s most recent game. You’ve spent countless hours watching matches and weighing your team’s chances, but have you ever paused to think about the game’s off-screen dynamics? The 2014 FIFA World Cup begets far more concerning issues than unruly players or tiebreakers. From Brazilians’ protests to demand better allocation of funding to fans’ concerns about the increasingly corporation-dominated sport, the World Cup breeds heavy conversation about democracy, culture, health care, race and individuality. This week, the Clog spoke to UC Berkeley faculty and graduate students to bring you a detailed account of various facets of the World Cup.

1)    FIFA’s profit strategies — and what you can do to resist them   

FIFA Revenues

We spoke to Sam Dubal, a postdoctoral student in medical anthropology at Harvard Medical School and UC Berkeley, about the ways in which massive sporting events like the World Cup are largely a venue for profit.

“FIFA has control over world football and the World Cup, so it can maneuver the importance of this event into various forms of profit,” Dubal said. “For example, FIFA decides who to award the world cup to and where the event will be hosted. There is speculation that these votes are bought and political influences veer the decision-making process.”

Dubal said FIFA’s profit strategies include increasing ticket prices, increasing the turnover of fans buying T-shirts and creating new jerseys every few years to increase revenue. Many fans are rebelling against this global commodification of soccer by forming independent clubs and boycotting FIFA products.

“Independent clubs are a response to the way most club chairmen use clubs purely for profit. In independent clubs, there is more democratic voice and say in how money is appropriated and used. Fans can engage in debates over who should sponsor their shirts, for example,” Dubal said. “Conscientious clubs produce less merchandise every season and form independent supporter associations — unions where the voices of fans can be heard and are articulated. Other fans rebel against FIFA by refusing to purchase new apparel, giving up season tickets or buying from clubs that vest in them in some way.”

Dubal believes that soccer matches should be enjoyed but not taken lightly.

“Soccer is laden with politics of labor, democracy, social movements and political action, especially in Brazil and certainly in England,” Dubal stressed. “We shouldn’t ignore the issues generated around it. Though it’s a leisurely sport, we can’t approach it in a leisurely way. It encompasses all kinds of social issues that require our attention — race, gender, individuality — and we would do well to play close attention to them.”

2)  Cross-cultural implications of the World Cup and its effect on team players


Whether they’re on or off the field, professional soccer players are in the spotlight. We spoke to Derek Van Rheenen, a former professional soccer player and director of the Athletic Study Center at UC Berkeley, about how soccer and culture intersect. Van Rheenen said modern sport has rationalized and commodified athletes to such a level that they become like cogs in a machine.

“For soccer, the best players seem to play with complete freedom and agency. A great soccer player, one would argue, would be someone who recognizes that they’re valued and unique. Modern sports has somewhat of a mantra that you’re only as good as your last game — everybody, ultimately, is replaceable,” Van Rheenen said.

He gave us examples of how the World Cup can raise debate around gender, sexuality and race.

“There’s greater camaraderie across teams in this World Cup than former World Cups. You might have someone from Spain playing against someone from Holland, but they happen to be teammates on their club team in England. It’s a lot more understanding cross-culturally and with issues of racism and nationalism. It doesn’t necessarily always work positively, though,” Van Rheenen said. “Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, made a very controversial statement when asked why women’s soccer isn’t more popular in the world: He basically said that they should wear tighter shorts. He’s the head of the largest international soccer federation of the world, yet he made an incredibly sexist comment about women.”

According to Van Rheenen, there’s a way in which this sport can “reproduce gender norms and stereotypes when people in position of power are replicating those ideals.”

3) Brazilians demand better health care instead of stadium renovations

World Cup Protest
The sign reads, “We want a county with hospitals and education.”

Many Brazilians, unhappy that their government is funding stadium renovations instead of spending on more instrumental matters like improved health care and emergency services, are protesting the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. We spoke to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of medical anthropology at UC Berkeley, about how the current health care system is ill-equipped to meet medical demands and why people feel that World Cup expenses would be better put toward health care renovations.

Scheper-Hughes detailed how Brazilian emergency care services fail its citizens in need.

“The system has these sixth-grade-trained community health agents as frontline workers that live in the community and respond to emergencies. They can recognize trauma, child abuse, and alcoholism, but they cannot treat patients,” Scheper-Hughes said. “In the last year, two pregnant women have died on the road because ambulance drivers aren’t trained to treat patients and don’t know how to deal with patients’ problems. They tell the mother to keep her legs closed until she gets to the hospital, even if the baby’s head is coming out. So the baby dies en route from a lack of oxygen.”

She said Brazil also needs more general practitioners.

“The basis of medical practice in every community has to be your general practitioner. Brazil is producing neuroscientists, cosmetologists, and dermatologists,” Scheper-Hughes said. “But they have few basic general practitioners to care of the small stuff that turns into the big stuff, such as developmental problems, reproductive health issues, infectious diseases, and family planning. Without general practitioners, you don’t have the basics to produce a healthy community.”

To make up for Brazil’s lack of doctors, president Dilma Rousseff tried to bring in foreign doctors.

“Dilma put out 18,000 spaces for doctors, but only a couple hundred people signed up. They would be paid well and given free housing and private education, but few took the offer. They didn’t want to raise their children in cities that wouldn’t enhance their ability to have the best education, meet the best friends or develop the best skills,” Scheper-Hughes said. “People are using these games like the World Cup to address their concerns. They love being the champions and dancing and dressing up in costumes, but they’re not fools — they feel that their dignity hasn’t been recognized in this global economy where, somehow, they’re not getting the benefits they were expecting to have.”

The World Cup encompasses much more than field goals and timeouts: It commences a stadium of discussion about politics of power, nationalism and community profit distribution. Next time you turn on your TV to watch the latest World Cup soccer game, don’t just snack on chips or lazily flick through channels. Instead, take a moment to reflect on the game’s deeper implications. In the global game of futbol, there are larger issues at hand to tackle than the ball itself.

Image Sources: Paulisson MiuraBusiness Insider, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Wikimedia

Contact Vasudha Doijode at [email protected].

JULY 07, 2014