June 08, 2014
Ugly Racism Tars Jogo Bonito

R Arun Kumar

JOGO bonito, the beautiful game, (football) – “a liberation of flesh and spirit, a thing of soaring fantasy, the forbidden adventure of freedom” (Galeano) is back. Not that it ever left us. It is now back as a carnival – the biggest sporting event on the planet – the World Cup. And it comes with its set of controversies. Seven years since it was awarded the hosting rights, Brazil is slogging to get dressed up for the big day. An estimated $14 billion is being spent on what is being termed as the most expensive World Cup ever being hosted. Such huge costs on the construction/reconstruction of stadiums, development of related infrastructure and in providing security cover (earning it the sobriquet as 'one of the most protected sports events in history') have earned enough number of critiques. Protests that were witnessed in Brazil last year, when it had hosted the Confederations Cup, resurfaced again. Depleted though in numbers, they succeeded in attracting the 'necessary eye-balls'. The protesters deplored the large-scale corruption that tagged along with the huge amounts of expenditure and criticised the government's ineptitude in containing it. They also feel that funds spent on organising the World Cup could have been better utilised by investing in developing transport facilities and government services like education and healthcare. Football, a national sport, followed with so much passion, is used by the opposition parties to mount an offensive against the present government, with an eye on the upcoming elections. It is not just the government of Brazil that was at the receiving end of the protesters' ire, but even the FIFA – the international governing body for football. Why FIFA? Eduardo Galeano, who is as passionate about his game of football, as with his politics, is very critical about FIFA and how it had corrupted the game – jogo bonito. “The Tsars of football (FIFA) impose, they don't propose. That’s their way”. And he is not alone in critiquing the FIFA. A commentator in the Guardian calls FIFA as “at best a secretive organisation, at worst a corrupt one, but as long as it stayed in the background and the World Cup was undamaged few people seemed to mind. They mind now. The World Cup is damaged. South Africa lost a fortune four years ago (FIFA remained in profit) and Brazil stands to do the same this summer”. FIFA is projected to earn billions of dollars in profits from the sale of sponsorship rights, broadcasting rights and sale of tickets. Galeano quotes Havelange, a Brazilian and former head of the FIFA, immediately after assuming the “throne”, as saying, “I have come to sell a product named soccer”. He can rest assured that he did a fabulous job. Football is one sport that is watched and enjoyed by people across continents and countries. Unlike many other games, it has its audiences cutting across class, race and regional divides. In an article 'On Football', Galeano describes it as “A powerful symbol, a great mystery: no-one knows why (though theories abound), but in today’s world many people find football the only area of identity in which they recognise themselves and in which they really believe. Whatever the reasons may be, collective dignity has a lot to do with the passage of a ball flying through the air...Sport, especially football, is one of the few places that can provide shelter to those who have no place in the world. And it contributes significantly to re-establishing bonds of solidarity broken by the culture of alienation/separation that is dominant...” It is precisely this mass following that is exploited by FIFA. “The game exploits both them (players) and us (fans). We are less and less fans, more and more consumers”. It is because of this mass following that football fields attract not only markets, but also merchants of divisive propaganda. Football fields are often used as theatres for spreading racial hatred and other divisive ideas, especially during the times of severe economic crises, as we find the world deeply immersed today. History records far right-wing groups targetting football fans since the 1930s (the times of the Great Depression), when the British Union of Fascists tried to attract the young working class male supporters into their brigade of uniformed 'stewards'. Similarly football hooliganism as a phenomenon, rose in the aftermath of the 1960s oil crisis and once again far right-wing groups used it to spread their ideology of racial hatred. A sociologist studying on the subject writes: “The hard-man, though, lives in a more dangerous and unchanging world. Permanently sensitised to 'trouble' in his environment, his paranoid fantasies about defending his 'patch' against outsiders make him ripe for manipulation by the politics of the extreme right”. Racism, a slur on the jogo bonito, once again raised its ugly head. Mario Balotelli, an Italian player, was called a “f****** n****r” and “black piece of s**t” by racists among his own country’s fans during Italy’s World Cup training camp in Florence last month. The vice-president of the club for which he had played, Paolo Berlusconi, described him as “the family’s little n****r”. Ukraine were made to play a World Cup qualifier against Poland in an empty stadium in response to monkey chanting and Nazi salutes from fans. Other fans are more notorious, they boo or grunt when black players touch the ball. They throw bananas at the black players and mimic the movements of monkeys, as they had done to Dani Alves, a Brazilian playing for Barcelona. At another match, a banner was displayed – Jews belonged in Auschwitz. Racism in football, or for that matter any other sport like tennis, basketball (recently in the US Donald Sterling, owner of a basketball team LA Clippers in a racist outburst asked his girl friend “not be photographed with any black people, nor bring any to his games”) and rugby is a reflection of the society that we live in. The European Union Parliament was forced to discuss this issue in one of its sessions. It had called upon the players to refuse to play if “violent, racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic behaviour” occurs. It also called for a Europe-wide ban on any racist or xenophobic symbols being displayed at football matches. Even the FIFA calling for 'zero tolerance' accepted in a paper against racism, adopted in its 63rd Congress, May 2013: “that despite the various efforts that have already been taken, the racism and discrimination that occurs in today’s society is still mirrored in football”. The danger of racism in football, or for that matter any sport, assumes more volatility because of the ascendancy of the right-wing in the recently concluded elections to the European Parliament. The UKIP, a major gainer in Britain, where football is passionately followed, spews some of the most vitriolic racial hatred. One of the UKIP's candidates asked why Farah (Somalian-born Mo Farah who won gold for Britain in the Olympics) was allowed to run for Britain when he was born in Somalia? (even though he emigrated when he was eight). Another tweeted that “Muslims are animals” and “Africans should get AIDS”. To expect decency from other right-wing parties that are on steroids after the European Union elections, is sheer foolhardiness. One heartening feature of course is that immediately after an incident is reported, many players, stars in their own right and even former sporting icons are coming forward condemning the incident and standing in support of the player subjected to the racial insult. Racism is so deep-rooted that it cannot be left to the particular player or to the footballers themselves to weed it out. Imposing fines, evicting fans from stadiums, player walk-outs, might create an impact but do not offer a lasting solution to the menace. Certain issues need to be immediately addressed. A case study in England had found out that while nearly 25 percent of the football players are black, only 13 percent of the clubs have blacks as captains; only ten out of the eighty-eight clubs have an equal opportunities policy; ninety-nine percent of the administrative staff are white. This needs to change. Efforts by the FIFA and other governing bodies to curb racism are proving to be inadequate. A more innovative, extensive and intensive campaign sensitising society against racism has to be undertaken. All the while, it should be remembered that racial abuse on the football field is only a reflection of the prejudice prevalent in the society. Cleansing the society of social inequalities should become a prerogative. It demands a consistent fight for equal opportunities – ala the Civil rights movement – intertwined with a fight against economic inequality. Watching the 'the passage of a ball flying through the air' and 'collective dignity' in mind, let's sing: “We lost, we won, either way we had fun”. Real, clean fun, bereft of all slurs – racism and commercialism.