World Cup 2014 panel

Express Yourself: why do World Cup stars matter?

EPA/Emilio Lavandeira Jr

It’s been a terrible World Cup. Germany and Argentina in the final. Again. Mario Balotelli on an early plane back to Italy. James Rodriguez sent home in tears. Neymar almost paralysed. Meanwhile, everyone’s favourite panto villain, Luis Suarez, secures his dream move to Barcelona. This year, nice guys finished last.

All of this raises familiar questions about footballers as role models. Suarez’s infamous transgression provoked predictable concerns about the effects of media on children. Kinder teachers discussed the difficulties of enforcing ‘no biting’ policies when kids can see miscreants getting away with it on screen.

They do have grounds to worry. Albert Bandura, architect of the controversial “Bobo Doll” studies, argued that unpunished screen violence can be a powerful source of social learning.

The ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment.

But there’s much more at stake here than behaviours. Social scientists pretty much agree that there’s a long journey between screen and real anti-social behaviour. Even Bandura concluded that replication required complex patterns of interpretation, motivation and opportunity, which had nothing to do with media and everything to do with society.

Others have argued that violent television characters – and that is partly what Luis Suarez has become – affect how we think about the world. Succinctly, men who get away with violence time and again in popular culture encourage the view that we live in a ‘mean world’. The main ‘effect’ of these stories is that they erode trust.

We think that, other than our friends and family, the world is a mercenary place full of people who will do anything to get over. And right now, before the final, that seems to be Brazil’s main lesson.

The ‘mean world’ syndrome.

But hang on. It’s been a great tournament, hasn’t it? Tim Cahill gave a masterclass on superstar dignity. Belgium flipped a much-needed bird to European fascism. The group stages were full of the sense that anything could happen in a truly global game. The only real disappointment has been that no referee tried to belittle a haughty defender by spraying him in the face with squirty cream.

All of which reminds us that the role model question is really about how we use football players as resources to imagine what we would like the world to be like.

The most erudite explanation of this process comes from literary scholar Grant Farred. In his book Long Distance Love, Farred explains how his journey toward Ivy League success started with his passions for Liverpool Football Club and John Barnes.

John Barnes.

As a boy in apartheid-era South Africa, football was an international media language that helped him articulate his experiences with global political struggles. And Barnes was a vital ingredient in this intellectual project.

By the 1980s, Farred’s love of Liverpool FC was chafing against his political identity. A generation of black players flourished in English football, but none had established themselves at the famous Merseyside club. Was this an expression of institutional racism? Did this leave Farred walking alone?

Barnes success at Liverpool in the late 1980s reconciled this personal/political conflict. So much so that the literature professor wrote a book about it.

He even travelled to Liverpool to talk about the project. There, one gloomy Wednesday afternoon, I sat with a dozen or so other people listening to Farred speak. It was just like any other seminar until the door opened and in walked … John Barnes.

There could scarcely have been a more authentic endorsement of the argument that popular culture matters. Barnes fully accepted that his career was implicated in racial politics. He didn’t think he was just a player. He did think that he counted for more than his ability to dribble past the entire Brazilian team and score in the Maracana stadium that will host tonight’s final.

John Barnes.

But Barnes also warned that the ‘role model’ tag could never sit easily on any player’s head. Poignantly, he explained how, week-in week-out, the only way he could serve it was simply to play.

John Barnes kicks a banana from the pitch.

What Barnes was really saying is that fans need to work too. The encounter with Farred was, in the end, a recognition that football stars are raw materials for social conversations. If they end up saying important things, it’s up to audiences to help articulate the message. “Long Distance Love” is an extraordinary example of an ordinary process that we all engage in; projecting ideas and hopes onto players.

So it doesn’t really matter what happens tonight. What does count is how we interpret and learn from what we have seen. And that doesn’t depend on Suarez, Neymar or Messi. It depends on you. So what sort of role model will you be?