World Cup 2014 panel

World Cup 2014: cheap holidays in other people’s misery?

Brazil 2014: were the Sex Pistols right?

World Cup 2014 has aired ominous reservations about the impact of the tournament on social justice in Brazil. Many worry that the poor will pay for the event long after the final whistle, when global eyes turn elsewhere. These fears typically concern the motivations of businesses and governments. But how might fans affect the political result of the competition?

Painting the World Cup as ‘celebration capitalism’ hardly bodes well. It’s certainly true that fans hold the key to determining its fate as a media and consumer spectacle. Their displays of passion, not only in grounds but in pubs and public spaces around the world, will be vital elements of media coverage. And the money they spend as spectators, audiences, eaters, drinkers and tourists will be more important than their reasons for participating in the event. When the Sex Pistols sang about ‘cheap holidays in other people’s misery’ a quarter of a century ago, they could well have been addressing today.

On the other hand, research on football fans urges caution when giving consumption a bad rap; there was a time when it was celebrated as a path to social justice for fans who had very real political grievances.

After 1989’s Hillsborough tragedy, some fans wondered if ‘consumer’ might be a handy sobriquet. The idea was floated that the disaster would not have happened if Liverpool supporters had been treated like paying customers, rather than a problem to be controlled.

Others latched on to the idea that rebuilding football around consumption could make the game more culturally inclusive. In the UK, revamped, consumer-friendly stadiums were seen as chances to start afresh with Asian supporters. The physical eradication of spaces that primarily appealed to white men was no bad thing.

Certainly, a spirit of cosmopolitanism was apparent among fans who took advantage of the travel opportunities created by budget airlines and the European Champions League. Manchester United fans embraced Europe with a fervour that would make Nigel Farage weep, taking pride in their efforts to try new languages and show respect for other cultures.

Scotland’s ‘Tartan Army’ introduced the same sentiment to the World Cup. Anxious to distinguish themselves from the ‘Auld Enemy’, Scotland supporters have engaged in a more or less conscious exercise in national self-branding at international tournaments. Knowing the world is watching, they make a point of showing that it’s nice to be nice.

So there’s every reason to think that many who go to Brazil will take a genuine interest in the social controversies surrounding the tournament. But the prospects aren’t quite so positive when it comes to the television audience.

To date, television hasn’t been especially good at cultivating lasting interest in distanced injustice. Some studies show that when confronted with images of complicated overseas conflicts, audiences look for easy answers to tough questions. Struggles brought about by labyrinthine political and economic arrangements are interpreted as the inevitable outcome of an inherently chaotic developing world.

Prospects get worse when you consider how the World Cup will bind most of us to local leisure economies. The tournament’s location matters less than where we will watch it. The most pressing question for many will be, which pub offers the best deals?

But that’s another article…