11 July 2014. We are close to the 3rd/4th play-offs and the final and have just followed the two semi-finals between two Latin American and two European sides, among them the host team. Brazil’s debacle left the local fans speechless and inconsolable. Footballers and journalists had a lot of explaining to do and somehow tried to cope with the disaster not so much in terms of football but in psychologising, often metaphysical dimensions.
Competition with their neighbour, Argentina, which managed to reach the final in their country and in their stead, puts Brazilian minds to an additional – albeit lesser – test. To get attuned to the two final matches, I would like to briefly comment on the Latin American and football culture context.
Brazil in a state of shock
An attractive group stage with joyful, rather relaxed matches and quite a few goals, in which seven Latin American teams proved successful, was followed by the all-or-nothing atmosphere of the last sixteen and the quarter finals that provided a contrasting programme with confrontational, laborious and usually close match outcomes and numerous fouls. The tough, purely Latin American encounter between Brazil and Colombia, with 54 sanctioned rule infringements and a devastating knee strike to the back was sufficient to cause general tristesse: it was not only in Brazil that the championship was dealt a palpable dampener. Besides Brazil’s state of shock, Juan Zúñiga’s brutal foul on Neymar, which resulted in a lumbar vertebrae fracture, is likely to direct international attention in the following directions.
This foul is likely to cause the deplorable image of Colombia with its violencia tradition, which in Colombia has resulted in woeful records and headlines time and again ever since 1948 (Bogotazo) to relapse into a spiral of violence from which the country wanted to emerge in a lengthy, complex process in order to be able to emit the positive signals of an emerging market.
International reports had only just reminded the public of the trauma caused by the murder of football star Andrés Escobar, who was killed exactly 20 years ago, on 2 July 1994, after an unfortunate own goal at the World Cup in the US. This had paralysed Colombian football on the international stage for years. And hardly had the national side played themselves back into the World Cup so wonderfully when there were death threats again – albeit not in his own country – against a player who will probably have to be protected for some time to come.
Football is misused
Football may have an internationally unifying effect, but discord is all too often part of it. When acts of violence occur in football, the sport is misused – along the lines to be observed in religious wars – like for instance in the “football war” with immense numbers of victims during the qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup between the neighbouring countries of El Salvador and Honduras. The real problem had nothing to do with sport but was to be found in the social domain and with the numerous illegal Salvadorian immigrants in Honduras.
During the protests in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, part of the disaffected population likewise exploited the forthcoming football tournament as a platform to draw international attention to social inequality and endemic corruption, the dismal infrastructure and the precarious situation in public transport, education and the health service. Never before had the government backed down so quickly in the face of a police strike and calls for wage increases, for example, than just before the World Cup: security during the games had to be guaranteed at all costs.
A fatal bite
The Uruguayan football star Luis Suárez’s infantile, indeed even atavistic seeming reaction of biting as a valve through which he let off his immense pressure to succeed was the determining message to Italy after the decisive match. This activity, too, was not sanctioned by the referee. In contrast to the Zúñiga foul, the bite did not cause any injuries to speak of to the victim, Giorgio Chiellini. FIFA’s disciplinary committee has already banned Suárez for four months and nine matches of the national side, whereas Zúñiga will not have to fear any sanctions from FIFA.
The impact on the Uruguayan striker, on Uruguay as a football nation and probably on Latin America as a whole is already devastating as it is. Zidane’s headbutt comes to mind. Suárez is being treated to bucketfuls of scorn and derision; the tabloids have already been referring to him as a “cannibal”.
Enormous media attention
The damage done to both Latin American football countries, both of which played well, is considerable. The international euphoria over the successful Latin American football at the World Cup in Brazil has been bitterly dampened by these fouls.
The way in which Brazil is perceived by itself and by others is undoubtedly being influenced by the enormous media attention which the country received before the World Cup, is receiving now and will be receiving for a few more weeks. The media are publishing countless allegedly informative background reports like never before.
The overall societal collateral damage (also with regard to the country’s image) is indeed comparable to the largely sobering calculations of the economic and infrastructural advantages and disadvantages for the host nation of a large-scale sporting event. Old stereotypes are perpetuated and new ones added in an amazingly monotonous manner. Which medium failed to report on lifestyle phenomena such as the flourishing business of Brazilian cosmetic surgeons, increased cocaine consumption in the country or the planned conversion of favelas into luxury flats with great views?
Influence on the upcoming elections
The media are already speculating wildly about the elections of September 2014. Dilma Rousseff’s poll ratings had already plummeted from 44% to 34% before the World Cup, not least as a consequence of her dirigiste course. A recession, too, was evoked after the big bank Itaú recently announced growth forecasts of a paltry 1% for 2014 (Alexander Busch, “Brasilien steuert auf eine Rezession zu”, NZZ, 10 June 2014). As late as 7 June, the same correspondent – with reference to Brazil’s low external debts (at 2% of the GDP), foreign currency reserves, full employment, sound banking system and gigantic domestic market – had written that in spite of all the bad news, Brazil was not facing an economic crisis and that the emergency situation caused by the World Cup was even decelerating growth because of lost working hours and decreasing consumption (with the exception of beer, snacks and drugs).
Although it could still have been assumed before the semi-final against Germany that paradoxically, Neymar’s injury would take some of the pressure off the seleção and thus make a failure at the Copa do Mundo excusable, things turned out completely differently. It was opined that the match might, without the all-determining concentration on the highly talented striker in whom all hopes had been invested, bring to fruition undreamt-of opportunities through a more pronounced strategy of team cohesion. The devastating consequences of the historic fiasco already became apparent immediately after the game in reawakened street protests: in São Paulo, 20 buses went up in flames that night.
To conclude on a sentimental note: never are male tear ducts opened more copiously on the Latin American continent than during a World Cup. Even a seasoned academic from Rio, who watched the fiercely contested match between Brazil and Chile here in St.Gallen, sobbed without restraint after the exertions. One looks at oneself almost reproachfully at times when no tears fall after a lost (or won) game – fazem parte.
Photo: Astonishing / photocase.de