The Brazil World Cup is going to be a disaster, you’ve heard it explained. There will be chaos on the streets, the games will be in disarray and the country will bring shame to the world’s most popular sport. Sound familiar? That’s because we heard it four years ago when South Africa hosted. Although the details are correct, the subtext is more than just wrong—it’s offensive.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa, if you don’t recall, was supposed to be overrun by terrorists. Fans would be mugged and beaten on the street—and not just by the England supporters, as is customary. Violence could erupt at any moment because, you know, this is Africa. People were frothing at the mouth to move the World Cup even as it was set to begin, implying that Western countries were so much more advanced that they could just whip up a World Cup from scratch. As I wrote in January 2010, several pundits even used a bus attack against the Togolese team in western Africa as evidence that the games should be moved off the continent entirely.
Fans at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa would be mugged and beaten on the street—and not just by the England supporters, as is customary.
In the end, the 2010 World Cup was a huge success. The expected violence did not materialize. There was no threat to the integrity of the game, no lack of beer and snacks at the stadium. I was there for the group stages, and I remember the fear factor being so hyped up that I half-expected I’d be shot if I stepped out of the Johannesburg airport. Three days later, I was watching the game in a shebeen1 in Soweto, once the world’s best-known slum, seated next to a Brit, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and a South African, whilst taking pictures with a Moroccan. The World Cup gathered people together and brought pride to the people of South Africa, who didn’t even mind that most of the matches were pretty dull.
I thought, then, that South Africa had put this argument to rest—the one where we say the outsiders are not ready. But here it is again, four years later, and we’re still running around like Chicken Little. The fear will not be going away any time soon. This worry about readiness dovetails with a recent trend of holding international sporting events away from advanced industrial societies, namely “the West” and Japan (which throughout its history has continuously Westernized its political and economic systems). This club of countries is deemed “advanced”, allowing it to call most of the shots in world politics. Consider the list of recent and future World Cup hosts:
1994: United States
2002: Japan/South Korea
2010: South Africa
Three and a half of the last four countries are not, ahem, “advanced”, the opposite of which is “developing”, which for many people is a handy euphemism for “non-white”. Whether it is openly said or not, this euphemism allows people to openly question Brazil’s readiness to host an event of this magnitude.
Yes, but this time it’s actually true, the naysayers say. Much of Brazil’s population is vocally protesting the fact that the games are even being played there, so much so that transport workers in Sao Paulo have gone on strike to protest their wages, leaving the country’s biggest city mired in gridlock at the worst possible time. Construction, too, has been sluggish, and one of the stadium roofs won’t be finished. (Sadly, people will have to watch an outdoor game out of doors.)
This is a fair point. Brazil is not 100% prepared for the World Cup. It’s a massive undertaking to plan an event in which 32 teams and their 3.7 million fans crisscross the 5th largest country in the world for 64 games at 12 different stadiums in the span of 1 month. I couldn’t even plan out that last sentence correctly. Of course things will go wrong. There will be some delays, some protests, and, even worse, some 0-0 draws. And it’s right that these should be reported if and when they do happen. But cut Brazil some slack. It doesn’t hold a monopoly on being ill-prepared for a sports event. Just a year and a half ago, the Super Bowl in New Orleans was delayed by more than half an hour because the lights went out. The Super Bowl is just one game, and it’s held every year. You’d think we’d have it figured out by now. More recently, the biggest story line of Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals—the Finals happening right now, in this country—was that the arena’s air conditioning hit the fritz and Lebron James cramped up in the resultant 90-degree heat. And these are just the sporting events that have caught the US, the self-proclaimed “greatest country on Earth”, with its pants down. At least the Super Bowl and NBA Finals only experienced electrical failures—the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina took lack of preparation to a whole other level, with fatal consequences.
Cut Brazil some slack. It doesn’t hold a monopoly on being ill-prepared for a sports event. Just a year and a half ago, the Super Bowl in New Orleans was delayed by more than half an hour because the lights went out.
The US and Europe are equally capable of screwing things up. However, while we assume a basic level of competence regarding our capabilities, we do not give non-Western countries the same benefit of the doubt. We are surprised when we fail, no matter how regularly it happens, but when others fail, we point to it as evidence of their backwardness.
Many people were wrong four years ago, when they were gleefully rooting for things to fall apart and instead everything went well. They used plausible theories and researched facts to come to a conclusion that was borderline racist in its subtext. The same theories are in play now. Maybe they’ll be right. That way we can point to the World Cup and say, “See! I told you Latin America was backwards. A country like Brazil shouldn’t be allowed to host.” But where were those same people before the lights went out in New Orleans?
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