To think that a Brazilian election may hinge upon the athletic abilities of its goalkeeper is disquieting, to say the least. Yet soccer, the world’s most popular sport, has a habit of making itself political. Time and time again, political leaders have tried to channel the energy and passion of tournaments for political purposes. This political engineering has occasionally proved successful and occasionally backfired; government opposition, after all, is just as aware of the immense mediatic power of sports as those in power. In the aftermath of the World Cup, and in particular of the Brazilian defeat, it is more timely than ever to examine the intricate and often underappreciated relationship between politics and soccer.
Why Sports Influence Politics
In a perfect democracy, all voters would be clearly informed on the policy ideas of their candidates and thereby be able to make a rational, well thought-out decision on how to cast their vote. In practice, it is commonly acknowledged that several factors beyond logic and common sense influence the average voter. From campaign spending to personal biases, without forgetting candidates’ charisma or plain irrationality, voters often find themselves supporting poor policy decisions.
It should come as no surprise that sports results can likewise influence the political process. In a study conducted in 2010, three researchers from Loyola University found that a victory of the local college football team in the ten days preceding an election results in a significant increase in vote share for the incumbent. The same is true on a national scale: localities whose teams do well during March Madness have a much higher approval rating for the US president than those that find themselves on the losing side of college basketball. Yet if asked to describe the impact of sports results on politics, most voters would describe it as tenuous at best. This is therefore not so much a case of systematic irrationality, whereby voters stand by their conclusion no matter what the evidence to the contrary, but an unconscious effect of sport results. In the short-term, sports victories create a false sense of accomplishment and security which translates into irrational voting patterns.
But what about the long-term? While the evidence of sports victories altering the short-term mood of voters is definitive, researchers are less sure about their significance in the long-term. This is because the electorate, on the whole, tend to be highly short-sighted. Voters pay much more attention to the country’s economic performance during election year, for example, than during the other years of the term; a small faux-pas in the middle of a political campaign will likewise appear more significant than an important misstep by a candidate years prior. This is why a country’s long-term political stability is arguably not decided by the number of goals it scores in the World Cup.
The Brazilian attitude towards its World Cup loss, however, is likely to have a more marked impact on its politics than an average college football loss. This is due in part to the highly politicized nature of soccer and in part to more long-standing grievances by the Brazilian people.
The Most Political of Sports
More than any other sport, soccer has been able to mobilize entire nations around its cause. Dictators and democratically elected leaders alike have not failed to notice its political potential. Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain perhaps went the greatest lengths to politicize soccer. While in power, he saw Barcelona, one of the two famous Spanish club soccer teams, as a dangerous rallying point for the Catillan independence movement. Franco had the official name of the club translated from the Catalan “FC Barcelona” to the Spanish “Barcelona CF,” a change that was met by protests from the independence movements. Franco regularly intervened to heighten the status of Real Madrid, Barcelona’s archrival and a symbol of Spanish nationalism. In 1953, Barcelona struck a deal for rising Colombian soccer star di Stefano. Franco proceeded to outlaw the purchase of foreign players by Spanish teams, before then brokering a deal for di Stefano to join Real Madrid through the state. In 1943, when Barcelona took the lead in the first leg of a semifinal matchup with Real Madrid, Franco's director from state security paid the Barcelona players a visit. After having won the first game 3-0, Barcelona went on to lose the second 11-1.
While not all manipulations of sports have been so egregious, any political leader can see the potential for soccer to galvanize a nation. In 2010, when a controversial goal from France granted World Cup qualification at the expense of Ireland, the Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern was quick to tie the referee error to broader lack of respect for the small European nation. “We are minnows in world football, but let’s put them on the spot,” he said of FIFA officials, to great applause from social media. On the eve of its 2014 World Cup campaign, the Argentine team opened its game against Slovenia by presenting to the world a massive banner reading “The Malvinas (Falkland Islands) are part of Argentina.” The dispute over the Falkland Islands is long standing, but the recent focus on it is not. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has made the issue a rallying point for nationalism since her election in 2007, leading to speculation that the Argentine government was behind the national team’s decision to display the banner.
Like government officials, opposition leaders understand the power of soccer to draw not only national but international attention to their cause. After receiving a bid to the 1978 World Cup, the military junta in Argentina made sure to step up measures to suppress political dissent. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization of mothers whose children had been targeted by the government, found their way around that. Carefully timing their protests with the arrival of foreign dignitaries, they attracted unprecendented attention to their cause: the regime was unable to remove them in front of thousands of foreign journalists. It was suspected, however, of intervening on the field. The World Cup having become a symbol of national pride, and in particular, of the success of the dictatorship, Argentina found itself needing to defeat Peru by a margin of more than four goals to advance to the next round. Despite the strong record of Peru in the tournament until that point, the Peruvian team lost the game 6-0. A large shipment of grain and a thawing in relations between the two countries soon followed, leading to speculation that the game had been fixed.
Understanding the Politicization of Soccer
Surveys have consistently found soccer to be particularly popular amongst the lowest socioeconomic classes. For populist candidates, this makes soccer competitions a prime avenue for reaching otherwise isolated segments of their electorate. At first glance, there appears to be nothing so particular about soccer as a sport that would make it such a popular target for politicization. To understand the sport’s influence in politics, it is important to understand its popularity. The World Cup final always tops the list of most watched sports events around the world, far surpassing counterparts like basketball or cricket.
Part of the reason for soccer’s enduring popularity lies in history. Not only is the game one of the oldest—the rules of football were already codified in 1863—but it has its roots in the United Kingdom, a country that once ruled history’s largest non-contiguous empire. Soccer was brought to South America and Africa by British immigrants, a by-product of incredible British soft power at the time, and has remained popular ever since.
The game’s global nature helps explain in part why it has become so politicized. When the World Cup begins, it is not just a handful of nations watching—it is the entire world. This makes the event a much more promising venue for political hijacking than other, less global sports.
Soccer’s global draw is only half of the story. The second reason why the sport is so heavily politicized is that it is by its very nature a sport that draws together all socioeconomic classes. To play soccer, nothing is needed besides a football—no need for a baseball field, a tennis racket, or even a basketball hoop. This complete lack of monetary barriers to entering the sport, from a purely mathematical perspective, means that there is a considerably larger pool of potential supporters for the sport to draw from. The symbolic significance of this should also not be underestimated. Unlike sports like tennis or fencing, soccer superstars are not generally born into the sport. Many of history’s most famous players have come from families with no ties to the world of professional sport whatsoever. Diego Maradona was raised in a Buenos Aires shantytown; Zidane was a first-generation immigrant to France; Cristiano Ronaldo’s mother and father were a cook and a gardener, respectively. Soccer superstars epitomize the tale of the impossible dream come true, of the underprivileged individual defying the odds. Surveys have consistently found soccer to be particularly popular amongst the lowest socioeconomic classes. For populist candidates, this makes soccer competitions a prime avenue for reaching otherwise isolated segments of their electorate. Yet the rich do not shun the sport either: with a simple learning curve and a low risk of injury, soccer has found its way into even the most exclusive of private schools.
The draw of soccer across all classes in turn helps explain the fanaticism that certain countries feel for their national team. Soccer talent can be readily found by even the smallest of nations. Uruguay, a small country of only three million, became the world’s first soccer superstar nation when it won two Olympic Cups back to back in the 1920s, before the institution of the FIFA World Cup.
Typical sport behemoths like the United States and China have never managed to dominate soccer, which remains immensely popular in South America and West Africa. Victories on the field that upset the world order only serve to politicize the sport over time. The victory of Argentina over the UK in the 1986 World Cup, for example, was hailed around the country as a vindication of Argentina’s still bitter defeat in the Falkland Islands war. As one of the few sports where small nations can regularly defeat large, more economically developed ones, it should come as no surprise that soccer remains a particularly fertile breeding ground for nationalism and political maneuvering.
The Brazilian Case
With this deeper understanding of the politics of soccer, we are now in a position to understand the impact that the recent World Cup is likely to have on Brazilian politics. In Brazil, soccer has always meant big news. With five world titles (the highest number in the world), several football legends to its name, and a consistently high global ranking, Brazil can easily claim to be one of the most famous soccer nations of all time. The decision to award it the FIFA 2014 World Cup was met with approval around the world and cheerful enthusiasm at home. The World Cup, it seemed, would provide an opportunity not only for Brazil to shine on the field, but also to showcase its economic development and rising political prominence as the host country.
All of this, however, was in 2007—when Brazil’s economy was still growing by 7 percent, and President Lula enjoyed an 80 percent popularity rating. Fast-forward to 2013, and the FIFA World Cup enjoyed a very distinct popular image. The protests that broke out over the summer of 2013 in Brazil were ostensibly about an increase in the cost of public transportation, but soon expanded into a more widespread discussion about Brazil’s spending on social welfare. “Hospitals and schools abiding by FIFA standards,” demanded the protesters—a reference to FIFA’s high standards for stadium quality, in a country where health and education quality are still lagging behind.
The US$11 billion price tag of the World Cup increasingly came under scrutiny, especially when compared to the measly 5 percent of GDP spent on education. What was supposed to be a political triumph for President Dilma Rousseff soon turned into a constant topic of controversy. The decision not to allow street vendors to sell at the game, for example, led to popular uproar. Rousseff eventually had to push her weight to waive registration fees and FIFA sponsor companies’ prerogatives. Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo stirred yet more controversy with his response to the demands of the protesters, on which he was famously quoted as saying “World Cups aren’t made with hospitals.” In preparation for more riots, the Brazilian government ramped up stadium security. The total bill for the security apparatus surrounding the World Cup was US$850 million—fives times the amount spent by South Africa four years earlier.
The humiliating World Cup defeat may long be forgotten by October, when the first round of the presidential election is scheduled to take place. Several facts suggest, however, that this event may resonate longer in voter memory than other sport defeats.
After the official start of the World Cup, however, unrest within the country appeared to subside. Besides a few isolated World Cup protests—which were nothing compared to the protests witnessed the year earlier—Brazil rallied around its flagship team. Host countries have historically won 30 percent of FIFA World Cups; combined with Brazil’s strong record in soccer, the Brazilian national team was from the beginning a strong favorite. The reduced levels of political activity after the beginning of the tournament prompted FIFA president Sepp Blatter to quip that the sporting event had successfully taken protesters off the streets and glued them to their screens. Until the semifinal against Germany, that is. In one of the most resounding defeats in soccer history, Brazil was wiped out from its own tournament 7-1, recording its largest negative goal difference of all time.
The humiliating World Cup defeat may long be forgotten by October, when the first round of the presidential election is scheduled to take place. Several facts suggest, however, that this event may resonate longer in voter memory than other sport defeats. The sports implications of this result are not for this article to discuss, but its political ramifications are. As the goal differential kept mounting, security forces began to fill the stadium. Foreign reporters awaited a flood of protests across the country, which never fully materialized. “Like all Brazilians, I am deeply, deeply saddened by this result,” immediately tweeted President Rousseff. That was not enough to stem the flood of comments decrying the government online after the national team’s defeat. The slogan used the year before to decry spending on the World Cup, não vai ter copa (there will be no cup), suddenly reappeared on social media. “A Brazilian tragedy,” wrote newspapers both home and abroad. Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings fell along with the nation’s prestige. “Soccer reflects politics, and Brazil doesn’t deserve to be the champion of anything,” wrote a Twitter user from Brasilia. What was meant to be a show of force on the part of the incumbent government has turned into a political nightmare.
The question now remaining is: will Brazil’s World Cup defeat affect the upcoming national election? As discussed earlier in this article, voters have a short memory. The humiliating World Cup defeat may long be forgotten by October, when the first round of the presidential election is scheduled to take place.
Several facts suggest, however, that this event may resonate longer in voter memory than other sport defeats. First, soccer enjoys an inordinately high level of popularity in Brazil. Having built coalition during the troubled sixties, the sport is a unifying bridge for a nation deeply divided socially and economically. Second, the World Cup has historically been the most prominent and most politicized event in the world. Compared to sports like baseball or basketball, for which championships are played every year, the FIFA World Cup only takes place every four years. This defeat will be in the history books long after the October election, and public sentiment against the World Cup had begun long before Brazil’s humiliation. But third, and perhaps most importantly, Brazil’s defeat will bring back questions about Brazil’s political direction that arose long before the semifinal. If US$11 billion already seemed a high price to pay for a chance at a world championship, how expensive will it appear for global humiliation? Low spending on social security, a well-organized opposition and a rallying symbol of Brazil’s failure could form the perfect storm for Rousseff, until now favored to win the race.
“There is a tradition in Brazil. Soccer and politics do not mix,” said the President the day after the defeat.
Judging from history, soccer and politics do mix. Whether that will be enough to overshadow larger questions about Brazil’s future is left to be seen, but the 2014 World Cup will have prompted us to re-evaluate the often complex relationship between elections and the world’s most popular sport.