There are few things in sports easier than watching the World Cup. The die-hards and loyalists will suffer as they always do, but an event of this size and scope requires of casual fans only the absolute basics: we see the best athletes compete against one another, take in the drama of sudden-death elimination, drop in on the various inherited joys, pain, and stories of each team, and leave whenever we feel like it. We are not even really cheering for teams, honestly, so much as we are pulling for countries. It’s easy to get wrapped up, and equally easy to get out.
The distance is the thing, at least for those without a serious or heated rooting interest. The games are just games, high stakes though they may be, and they happen in a sort of passionate abstract. Although, more to the point, they are happening in Brazil. This is where it stops being so simple.
Even here, though, there is the problem of distance. A few months ago, I came across a New York Times article from Vanessa Barbara that opened with a eye-catching stat: police officers in Brazil kill, on average, five people everyday. Every day. Like, daily. Every 24 hours.
As a standalone statistic, it is staggering, shocking and immensely difficult to process. But as with any statistics or factoidal tidbit, context is required, especially for so wild a number. We see the number, we feel shock, and we are aware that there is a context in which it’s happening -- a political and socieconomic one, a crime problem and a law-enforcement problem manifest in it -- but we are still only looking at an infographic. Which is not much.
Here’s a brief summary on what I learned, which is much like what you could learn from a spin around the internet: ahead of the World Cup, Brazil deployed thousands of police officers into favelas. A favela is often misconstrued as a slum, but as Dave Zirin explained at The Nation, the definition of a slum is “a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing, squalor and lacking in tenure security,” whereas favelas are mainly brick and cement houses. They are communities built to sustain themselves long term, but their problems are also of long standing.
The military police presence exists, in theory, to eradicate crime, and to deter the presence and power of organized crime groups, but watch the recent VICE on HBO profile on Rio, and you realize that not only is the military presence in these favelas creating a heightened level of fear, but also that there’s a justifiable mistrust of the police among the public. Perhaps the biggest issue: organized crime groups still control a lot of these areas, where they conduct their drug trafficking activities in open areas, without concern.
So: the people don’t trust the police, the police and the organized crime groups don’t get along any better than you’d expect, but the organized crime groups have developed a relationship with the people. And so the police are fearful and even sometimes complicit in the crime that they allow to happen. These are old, tough knots, too big and too bloody to be concealed in the country, and certainly not easy to disappear before the eyes of the whole world. Let’s try to lower the crime rate and eradicate the problem isn’t going to work, and certainly not a rushed, pre-World Cup version of that gambit.
On top of this, consider the (possibly) real motivation of why the military police are in these favelas. Zirin, who has written extensively on this, proposes that Rio’s wealthy look at these areas and see the potential of residential and commercial development. To that end, folks in these communities are being displaced from their homes for the sake of constructing a stadium for the Olympics. Many others are living in fear of -- and at the mercy of -- the police, for reasons economic and political, but mostly because that is generally how poor, kicked-around people tend to look at cops. Especially when those police are killing five people every damn day.
This is a problem, but with the World Cup now in the present tense, it’s background. Every article rattles off mentions of deaths of innocents—sometimes teenagers, sometimes gang members and sometimes not—in such a way that it becomes a part of the Troubled World Cup Of 2014 story, a more violent version of the stadiums that are not quite functional, or the piebald turf, or the traffic. This is easy to tune out, too, of course.
Simply through their scale, and the broader context that comes with it, events like the World Cup tend to bring out a very specific type of obsessiveness in even casual fans. It is not just about knowing the teams and players, although there’s that. There is, on top of that, a sort of condensed obsession -- intense and all-encompassing, but brief. This is not necessarily the same as saying it brings out the best in us. A year before the Sochi Olympics, I furiously read up on the horrific treatment of LGBT people in Russia; when the torch was extinguished at the Games’ end, my interest mostly was, as well.
We are tourists here, if also the kind of tourists who read through the entire guidebook. We like to survey the lay of the land, assess the various horrors and fuck-ups that surrounded major sporting events like the World Cup along with the other and less appalling elements of context. This is maybe guilt, or maybe curiosity, or both. Whatever it is, there is the urge to acknowledge and understand. That is something, if maybe not as much as it should be.
The acknowledgement feels like it should be a first step towards something, some bigger awareness or understanding or engagement. It mostly isn’t. We’re here to cheer, to watch, to embrace the matches happening on the pitch and revel in the pleasure of such a momentous event every four years. Watching sports is not a job, but a hobby. Some pursue that hobby more passionately than others.
In some sense, this is all a lot of work for a little self-flattery. For most of us -- including myself -- choosing to be aware of the larger issues surrounding sports events is really nothing more than just acknowledging that we’re on the right side. If it helps us understand more, it also helps absolve us. It’s a sort of performance, a rationalization.
By doing this, explicitly or not, we put ourselves on the right side. The one where we can feel like we care about some greater good, when most of what we cry about ends up having such very little impact on us individually, so very far away. We are temporary visitors.
This is no conclusion at all. There are no rules for the sports fan, of course, no requirement to do something more than what is required of us: cheer, laugh, watch and enjoy. It’s what we’ll all do throughout this tournament. It’s what really matters to us, if not really what matters most. In this sense, the way we watch the World Cup reflects our everyday lives more than we know, and maybe more than we’d like.