The Geopolitics of the World Cup

SAO PAULO — One of the defining images of the World Cup, so far, has been the sight of the Mannschaft — aka the German team — fraternizing with Pataxo Indians a few hundred meters away from the spot where Brazil was “discovered” in 1500. Call it a European re-discovery of the exotic tropics.

Then there’s the English Team frolicking by the seaside, inside a military base, with the Sugarloaf as gorgeous backdrop, backed up by a scientific expert in humidity and industrial ventilators aplenty (after all there’s the Rumble in the Jungle against Italy this Saturday “deep in the Amazon rainforest”, as British tabloids tell it.)

The World Cup — the greatest show on earth — kicks off just as a relentless Made in the West (client states included) anti-Chinese and anti-Russian propaganda/downright vilification shatters all known hysteria levels.

And that means the BRICS are a target; in the case of Brazil, an emerging power sitting strategically over the bulk of the Amazon rainforest just as progressive Latin American integration has dared to turn the Monroe Doctrine into (branded) toilet paper.

Recently, Brazil brought at least 30 million people out of poverty. China invests in medical care and education. Russia refuses to be bullied as in the drunkard Yeltsin years. In the past few years, the World Cup has been all about the BRICS: South Africa in 2010, Brazil now, and Russia in 2018. Qatar in 2022 — if it ever happens — is more like a Gulf petrodollar-fueled bribery racket gone wrong.

It’s amusing to check how the City of London — which loves Russian cash, craves Chinese investment and has a soft spot for Brazilian soft power — takes it all in. With an added strand of British humor, they could easily have interpreted the Rumble in the Jungle as NATO battling it out in the middle of the much-coveted rainforest (think the water wars of the near future).

That other World Cup

And then, just two days after the start of the World Cup, Brazilian neighbor Bolivia hosts no less than a G-77+ China summit — actually 133 UN member-nations, the whole thing presided over by Evo Morales, who is a sort of Andean distant cousin of the Pataxos who so fascinated the Germans.

Call it also the meeting of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas, which includes Cuba) and the BRICS (only Russia won’t be present). American exceptionalists are furious that the BRICS are spearheading the transition towards a multipolar world — something that’s already at play in football (think Spain, Germany, Italy on one side, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay on another).

Emulating football, a South-to-South counterpunch to the hegemony of the industrialized North is also in play. Brazil, China, and Russia, in their different strategies, are all betting on more South-South integration from the Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South) to the upcoming BRICS development bank (there’s a crucial BRICS summit next month in Brasilia), on the way to a more egalitarian system that ideally could be financed by a percentage of foreign debt, a percentage of military expenditure and a global tax on speculative financial transactions.

And it’s never enough to remember that the G-77 is about decolonization; no Empire of Bases; and no interference of the NSA-coordinated Orwellian/Panopticon complex in the Global South.

Now compare it with the official Adidas Coca-Cola Hyundai Kia Motors Emirates Sony Visa Anheuser-Busch InBev (Budweiser) Castrol Continental Johnson & Johnson McDonald’s Itau FIFA-sanctioned entertainment and fun 2014 World Cup Brazil, which industry bible AdvertisingAge broke down as “the Super Bowl every day for an entire month“.

Firmly opposing it, we find an array of South-South associations/solidarity/social movements denouncing everything arguably embedded with the mighty enterprise, from hardcore post-capitalist neo-colonization to outright criminalization of the poor.

And among these movements we find, not surprisingly, Global South icon Diego “Hand of God” Maradona, who said this week, “FIFA gets $4 billion (out of the Cup) while the champion nation gets $35 million. This is wrong. The corporation is delivering a death blow to football”.

Football is war

Much has also been made of the parallel between hyper-capitalist globalization — as graphically expressed by the World Cup and the mega-business of contemporary football — and nationalism.

Well, the world is not and will never be flat; it’s a Himalaya/Pamir/Hindu Kush of varied inequality altitudes, subjected to snow avalanches including trade, commerce, immigration flows and technology breakthroughs. None of these are able to shatter national fibers. It’s still “us” against “them”, as much in the Global South defining Americans and Europeans as “gringos” as in swathes of the industrialized North patronizing/profiting from the “exotic” Global South.

There’s nothing post-national about the World Cup. In the terrain of hardcore geopolitics, the highly centralized European Union is fragmenting under the weight of a bunch of right-wing or extreme right-wing nationalist parties; in football, the major difference, compared to hardcore geopolitics, is that there’s not only one exceptionalist power but a handful, from Spain to Brazil, from Germany to Italy, from Argentina to France.

Rinus Michels, coach of the Clockwork Orange, the Dutch national team that startled the world in 1974 (alas, they didn’t win), once said that football is war (compare it to maverick director Samuel Fuller, who said cinema is a battlefield). The World Cup is war by other means; an officially sanctioned, ritualized clash of nationalisms. So it’s all about Pick your Tribe; only that after your tribe is out of play you switch to another, replacement tribe – which any effete epicurean would arguably define as Italy. After all they have the most stirring national anthem. They’ve got the best food and the best clothes. And of course, they’ve got Andrea “the Magician” Pirlo.

A new way of playing ball?

Brazil, widely praised as The Land of Football, also happens to be the global leader in reduction of carbon emissions, according to recent research published by Science magazine, managing at the same time to increase agricultural production while saving more rainforest.

And yet, and as usual with all things Brazil, all things World Cup got incredibly messy — a running metaphor of the typical assortment of ills faced by the struggling Global South. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been forced to appeal to the historical stereotype of the Brazilian “cordial man” and stress tolerance, diversity, dialogue and even sustainability, as well as condemning racism and prejudice, to exhort the population to forget about their troubles and welcome an army of foreign visitors.

That’s a given, considering the average Brazilian is heartwarming and exceedingly friendly; the devil is in the details — as in, for instance, at least 200,000 poor people evicted from their places or at least threatened with eviction, to make way for major works bound to increase “urban mobility”. Well, only 10% of these works were finished, due in most cases to massive corruption. In Rio, not a single real was invested in a chaotic transport system serving the proletarian peripheral sprawl.

Wildly popular Lula, when he was still the president of Brazil in 2009, said that no taxpayer money would be spent on the World Cup. Well, not directly; most of the funding came from the National Bank for Economic Development, a bank that lends money to banks. Builders of new stadia also benefited from generous tax exemptions.

The bottom line is that Rousseff’s government ended up losing the media battle. Over and over, Rousseff has had to explain that the Cup will cost a fraction of what is invested in health and education (that’s open to debate.) Virtually half of the Brazilian population is not convinced.

And still what’s certain is that a Brazilian World Cup win automatically ensures Rousseff’s re-election.

But the recent wave after wave of protests has in fact transcended the current administration. It’s as if all these diverse social movements have been manifesting the ultimate utopian desire; to erase, in one go, centuries of injustice perpetrated by Brazil’s notoriously rapacious and arrogant/ignorant elites – which have always implemented total political and economic exclusion based on noxious race and class prejudice.

So this whole drama is not simply about “anti-neoliberal” or “anti-capitalist” stirrings. It goes way beyond nationalism. And it could be way more transcending than the textbook for a revolution using football as a pretext. Whatever the final result of this war revolving around a football, Brazil could yet teach a lesson to the whole Global South.

In victory, and even in glorious defeat, Brazil may end up finding the stamina to pursue a new strategic overture – a new, non-arrogant, non-neocolonial, non-weaponized, non-exceptionalist way to lead and exercise power, build alliances and clinch grand geopolitical agreements in a multipolar world. A new way of playing ball. So let this New Great Game begin.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He writes for Asia Times Online where this article first appeared and may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Pepe.