A festival of nationalism: the World Cup allows sponsors to divide and conquer

Hats off. Jens Matheuszik, CC BY

The section of the crowd behind the goal was awash with red and white when Switzerland took on Ecuador in their opening World Cup match. Faces were painted; many had white crosses painted onto red cheeks. All of them reflected the Swiss national flag and the colours of the football team on the pitch. Rather unusually, four men sat wearing hats fashioned to look like Swiss cheese. Within the holes were mini Swiss flags.

These apparently wacky sartorial gestures have not been confined to the Swiss and they say an awful lot about our subjugation to the corporate interests of FIFA. You could see similar pictures two days before as Mexico played Cameroon. Amongst the many thousands of Mexicans that travelled south to Brazil, there were hundreds wearing sombreros and lucha libre wrestling masks; two highly marketable emblems of masculine Mexican identity.

The World Cup festival brings the fans of 32 nations together and permits them to perform their national identity in a variety of unusual ways. Despite claims that football unites, it also allows differences to be asserted. And this reinforcement of nationalism creates discrete pockets of potential for FIFA’s commercial partners to market to national audiences.

Football has become the global language. It is the most popular sport in virtually every country in the world. It is this popularity that can bring millions of people together in the shared activity of kicking a ball. From small boys in the park with jumpers for goalposts, in the immortal words of Ron Manager, to global celebrities in world-class stadiums, football has the power to unite a wide range of people across generations, social classes, nationalities, sexualities and genders. It is this focus that FIFA and the corporate sponsors focus on as they present the festival of football in Brazil as “all in one rhythm”.

Cash cows

As FIFA expanded its power across the globe, it has increasingly sought global commercial partners to fund it. John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson have highlighted how FIFA has increasingly incorporated global sponsorship that could connect with an international audience. While this originally focused on acquiring a small coterie of official partners, it has now moved away from the stadium and extended into public spaces in the cities.

Events like the World Cup, attract many thousands of international visitors despite severe restrictions on tickets. As these footballing mega-events have grown in stature, the game’s governing bodies have increasingly sought to provide safe spaces to watch matches. Unsurprisingly, these have also provided corporate sponsorship opportunities.

In a variety of locations across Brazil, officially licenced Fan Fests provide carnival spaces for all fans to watch matches. In this way, FIFA wants these Fan Fests to be “a global platform [that] unites the world”. Since 2006 Fan Fests have put on a variety of festival events, cultural shows and competitions. Corporate sponsors seek to capitalise on these festivals as they present themselves to a global audience. At the same time, however, they are also trying to align with national sentiments.

The growing commercialisation of sport has also seen an increase in “Corporate Nationalism”. Global corporations are using national images to sell their brands. Sony has attempted to capitalise on this notion by launching One Stadium. The idea is that football fans can be united despite their national differences. Yet in a clear case of Corporate Nationalism, they still used the samba image of Brazil to promote their brand. Coca Cola are also using the global language of football to promote themselves, but on a national level.

Selling identity

The Russian theorist Mikhail Bhaktin suggested that during carnivals, a carnivalesque spirit emerged. This spirit permitted everyday conventions to be turned upside-down. Authority figures become objects of derision and the normal rules governing behaviour in public were temporarily removed. This permitted public drunkenness, singing and unorthodox forms of dress. Like Mexican sombreros, hats made of Swiss cheese and English crusaders, the World Cup carnival permits fans to wear fancy dress and perform their national identity.

Oranje Boom. Megan Skelly, CC BY-ND

Significantly, however, Bhaktin suggested that this temporary act of rebellion simply reinforced the status quo as the pre-carnival conventions got reasserted. The thousands of Dutch fans that wear orange, the colour that symbolises the Royal family, simply reinforce the constitutional monarchy in the Netherlands. When millions of Brazilians sport the gold, green and blue of the national team, and dance to samba rhythms, they reinforce the image of Brazil as the country of “joga bonito”; an image that Nike capitalised upon to promote its brand.

FIFA, politicians and the media may feel they are creating a space for football fans to dissolve their rivalries and come together in a spirit of humanity. In reality they are entrenching the differences between national groups and corporate sponsors are capitalising on these differences to promote themselves as both global and national. Once the finals have finished, national distinction will have been reinforced and sponsors will be counting the cash. We should not forget that football both unites and divides.