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Reflections on diversity, politics and football

Friday, July 4, 2014
Dirt Under the Nails
Fans gather outside the stadium as police in riot gear protect the entrance, where the Brazilian national football team trains, the day before the quater-final World Cup match between Brazil and Colombia in Fortaleza, Brazil, yesterday. AP Photo

Some friends watch football for its aesthetic appeal, thrilled at the tight jerseys highlighting outlines of chiseled bodies topped with mohawks and painted with tattoos, and others admire the fitness and technical skills of the athletes. While I appreciate these as well, I watch the World Cup mostly for different reasons.


It all began with Costa Rica’s first match against Uruguay, and a star Costa Rican player called Joel Campbell. “Joel Campbell? A Costa Rican? Despite the Scottish origin of “Campbell,” his name sounds very West Indian. He even looks like a West Indian!” I thought in my ignorance. I wondered how someone like him ended up playing football for Costa Rica, and so started my research into the demographics and ethnic history of these football giants of the world. 


While I was unable to find any definitive information on Joel Campbell’s ancestry, I did learn that in the 1800’s fishermen from the Caribbean settled on the eastern coast of Costa Rica during fishing season. Also, there was an employment crisis in Jamaica in the late 1800’s that coincided with a scarcity of labour in Costa Rica during a period of high coffee demand. As a result, many Jamaicans migrated to Costa Rica and ended up establishing families. In fact, I was surprised to learn that English is spoken along most of the east coast of Costa Rica.


The Costa Rican team also reflects the ethnic make up of the country. As with the football team, approximately 85 percent of the Costa Rican population includes mestizos (someone who is half European and half Amerindian), castizos (75 per cent European and 25 percent Amerindian) and white. Afro Costa Ricans represent a smaller percentage and this is reflected in their team.


Likewise, the Argentinian and Uruguayan football teams represent their respective country’s ethnic characteristics, which reflects their rich history of European immigration. The European teams like France, England, Germany and the Netherlands also reflect migration, but primarily from African and Caribbean countries.


Brazil’s football team, on the other hand, is not representative of the country’s population, and neither are the Brazilian fans that fill the stands.


In fact, they better represent the political dissidence occurring within the country. Brazil has a highly diverse population, but unfortunately race and wealth seem closely linked and this is reflected in the colour of the fans in the stands. Tickets have been too highly priced for the low income citizens to afford, and they have had to watch the games at street parties rather than in the stadium. It is so bad, that one Brazilian remarked, “You will count more black people on the field than in all the stands. It’s Fifa apartheid.” From what I have seen on television, this looks to be true. The Brazilian fans in the stands are almost entirely white, although 54 percent of Brazilians identify as black or mixed race. 


Rather than celebrate Brazilian diversity, the World Cup has done quite the opposite, highlighting the corruption in both the country and within Fifa. Fifa defended itself saying that it donated hundreds of thousands of tickets to builders of the stadiums, indigenous people and beneficiaries of social welfare programs. However these were only three percent of total tickets. Almost all the sales were done through the internet. Buyers had to be prepared to fly great distances to get to the game for which they had tickets. Poor people cannot afford the cost of travel, and are therefore unable to do this. 


Football is part of the Brazilian identity and Brazilian football has a culture. Fifa has replaced cheap standing room sections with expensive seats and stopped low income vendors, who are mostly black, from selling their goods in the streets outside the stadiums. According to a Brazilian activist, “Fifa has imposed a norm for stadiums that left Brazil less Brazilian.” For me, the disappointing part of this is that Brazil has allowed it. Fifa has so much power it can make countries change their culture and standards, for the worse.


Fifa seems to be making football a sport for the elite to enjoy, a Wimbledon match of sorts. Bring out your spot of tea as you sit quietly and watch Brazil play Argentina! Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The rich onlookers don’t know the Brazilian songs to support their team. The irony is that the players on the field are black or mixed, and the average Brazilian, who knows these songs, is unable to watch them play in person. 


The team has lost the presence of their support. How will this affect the athletes, given the extreme pressure they face to win on home soil? It seems that Brazil has cut off its nose to spite its face, and this World Cup has given me more than just football and great legs to think about. 


Carla Rauseo, DPT, CSCS is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Total Rehabilitation Centre in San Juan.


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