The Geopolitics of the #WorldCup

from One of the defining images of the World Cup – so far – has been the
sight of the Mannschaft – aka the German team – fraternizing with
Pataxo Indians a few hundred meters away from the spot where Brazil was
“discovered” in 1500. Call it a European re-discovery of the exotic
tropics. Then there’s the English Team frolicking by the seaside, inside a
military base, with the Sugarloaf as gorgeous backdrop, backed up by a
scientific expert in humidity and industrial ventilators aplenty (after all there’s the Rumble in the Jungle
against Italy this Saturday “deep in the Amazon rainforest”, as
British tabloids tell it.) The World Cup – the greatest show on earth – kicks
off just as a relentless Made in the West (client states included)
anti-Chinese and anti-Russian propaganda/downright vilification
shatters all known hysteria levels. 

And that means the BRICS are a target; in the case of Brazil, an
emerging power sitting strategically over the bulk of the Amazon
rainforest just as progressive Latin American integration has dared to
turn the Monroe Doctrine into (branded) toilet paper.
Recently, Brazil brought at least 30 million people
out of poverty. China invests in medical care and education. Russia
refuses to be bullied as in the drunkard Yeltsin years. In the past
few years, the World Cup has been all about the BRICS: South Africa in
2010, Brazil now, and Russia in 2018. Qatar in 2022 – if it ever
happens – is more like a Gulf petrodollar-fueled bribery racket gone
It’s amusing to check how the City of London – which
loves Russian cash, craves Chinese investment and has a soft spot for
Brazilian soft power – takes it all in.
With an added strand of British humor, they could easily have
interpreted the Rumble in the Jungle as NATO battling it out in the
middle of the much-coveted rainforest (think the water wars of the
near future).  

That other World Cup
And then, just two days after the start of the World
Cup, Brazilian neighbor Bolivia hosts no less than a G-77+ China
summit – actually 133 UN member-nations, the whole thing presided over
by Evo Morales, who is a sort of Andean distant cousin of the Pataxos
who so fascinated the Germans.

Call it also the meeting of ALBA (the Bolivarian
Alternative to the Americas, which includes Cuba) and the BRICS (only
Russia won’t be present). American exceptionalists are furious that
the BRICS are spearheading the transition towards a multipolar world –
something that’s already at play in football (think Spain, Germany,
Italy on one side, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay on another).

Emulating football, a South-to-South counterpunch to
the hegemony of the industrialized North is also in play. Brazil,
China, and Russia, in their different strategies, are all betting on
more South-South integration – from the Banco del Sur (the Bank of the
South) to the upcoming BRICS development bank (there’s a crucial BRICS
summit next month in Brasilia), on the way to a more egalitarian
system that ideally could be financed by a percentage of foreign debt,
a percentage of military expenditure and a global tax on speculative
financial transactions.

And it’s never enough to remember that the G-77 is
about decolonization; no Empire of Bases; and no interference of the
NSA-coordinated Orwellian/Panopticon complex in the Global South.

Now compare it with the official Adidas Coca-Cola
Hyundai Kia Motors Emirates Sony Visa Anheuser-Busch InBev (Budweiser)
Castrol Continental Johnson & Johnson McDonald’s Itau
FIFA-sanctioned entertainment and fun 2014 World Cup Brazil – which
industry bible AdvertisingAge broke down as “the Super Bowl every day for an entire month“.

Firmly opposing it, we find an array of South-South
associations/solidarity/social movements denouncing everything
arguably embedded with the mighty enterprise, from hardcore
post-capitalist neo-colonization to outright criminalization of the

And among these movements we find, not surprisingly,
Global South icon Diego “Hand of God” Maradona, who said this week,
“FIFA gets $4 billion (out of the Cup) while the champion nation gets
$35 million. This is wrong. The corporation is delivering a death blow
to football”.

Football is war
Much has also been made of the parallel between
hyper-capitalist globalization – as graphically expressed by the World
Cup and the mega-business of contemporary football – and nationalism.

Well, the world is not and will never be flat; it’s a
Himalaya/Pamir/Hindu Kush of varied inequality altitudes, subjected
to snow avalanches including trade, commerce, immigration flows and
technology breakthroughs. None of these are able to shatter national
fibers. It’s still “us” against “them”, as much in the Global South
defining Americans and Europeans as “gringos” as in swathes of the
industrialized North patronizing/profiting from the “exotic” Global

There’s nothing post-national about the World Cup. In
the terrain of hardcore geopolitics, the highly centralized European
Union is fragmenting under the weight of a bunch of right-wing or
extreme right-wing nationalist parties; in football, the major
difference, compared to hardcore geopolitics, is that there’s not only
one exceptionalist power but a handful, from Spain to Brazil, from
Germany to Italy, from Argentina to France.

Rinus Michels, coach of the Clockwork Orange, the
Dutch national team that startled the world in 1974 (alas, they didn’t
win), once said that football is war (compare it to maverick director
Samuel Fuller, who said cinema is a battlefield). The World Cup is war
by other means; an officially sanctioned, ritualized clash of
nationalisms. So it’s all about Pick your Tribe; only that after your
tribe is out of play you switch to another, replacement tribe – which
any effete epicurean would arguably define as Italy. After all they
have the most stirring national anthem. They’ve got the best food and
the best clothes. And of course, they’ve got Andrea “the Magician”

A new way of playing ball?
Brazil, widely praised as The Land of Football, also
happens to be the global leader in reduction of carbon emissions,
according to recent research published by Science magazine, managing at
the same time to increase agricultural production while saving more

And yet, and as usual with all things Brazil, all
things World Cup got incredibly messy – a running metaphor of the
typical assortment of ills faced by the struggling Global South.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been forced to appeal to the
historical stereotype of the Brazilian “cordial man” and stress
tolerance, diversity, dialogue and even sustainability, as well as
condemning racism and prejudice, to exhort the population to forget
about their troubles and welcome an army of foreign visitors.

That’s a given, considering the average Brazilian is
heartwarming and exceedingly friendly; the devil is in the details –
as in, for instance, at least 200,000 poor people evicted from their
places or at least threatened with eviction, to make way for major works
bound to increase “urban mobility”. Well, only 10% of these works
were finished, due in most cases to massive corruption. In Rio, not a
single real was invested in a chaotic transport system serving the
proletarian peripheral sprawl.

Wildly popular Lula, when he was still the president of
Brazil in 2009, said that no taxpayer money would be spent on the
World Cup. Well, not directly; most of the funding came from the
National Bank for Economic Development, a bank that lends money to
banks. Builders of new stadia also benefited from generous tax

The bottom line is that Rousseff’s government ended up
losing the media battle. Over and over, Rousseff has had to explain
that the Cup will cost a fraction of what is invested in health and
education (that’s open to debate.) Virtually half of the Brazilian
population is not convinced.

And still what’s certain is that a Brazilian World Cup win automatically ensures Rousseff’s re-election.

But the recent wave after wave of protests has in
fact transcended the current administration. It’s as if all these
diverse social movements have been manifesting the ultimate utopian
desire; to erase, in one go, centuries of injustice perpetrated by
Brazil’s notoriously rapacious and arrogant/ignorant elites – which
have always implemented total political and economic exclusion based
on noxious race and class prejudice.

So this whole drama is not simply about
“anti-neoliberal” or “anti-capitalist” stirrings. It goes way beyond
nationalism. And it could be way more transcending than the textbook for
a revolution using football as a pretext. Whatever the final result
of this war revolving around a football, Brazil could yet teach a
lesson to the whole Global South.

In victory, and even in glorious defeat, Brazil may end
up finding the stamina to pursue a new strategic overture – a new,
non-arrogant, non- neocolonial, non-weaponized, non-exceptionalist way
to lead and exercise power, build alliances and clinch grand
geopolitical agreements in a multipolar world. A new way of playing
ball. So let this New Great Game begin.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge (Nimble Books, 2007), and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

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