Heading into the summer of 2014 I was psychologically exhausted. I’d survived a rough spring scraping by as an adjunct and working side-hustles. In December 2013, the Republican congress cancelled the federal unemployment extension right before Christmas (ho, ho, ho). I had expected the spring to be rough. However, when all the summer classes I was assigned were cancelled due to low enrollment, things took a turn for the worse. Summer 2014 would be another tough season. My wife and I cut babysitting out of the budget, and the job became mine full time. I should have used the extra time to write, but for an avid sports fan the ultimate distraction loomed ahead.
The World Cup was weeks away! My wife’s uncle slapped me on the back. “Sit around and watch the World Cup,” he said. All the commercials I’d sleepwalked through of the American Outlaws chanting and hollering came flooding back. Our mantra, Team USA’s battle cry, was “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” What else could I do?
I sat back and watched all the Team USA documentaries, fanfare, and shenanigans. I got the kids into it, and my mother-in-law too. Whenever anything related to Team USA came on, we were on it. And when the World Cup started, I was in front of the television for every game. The USMNT games were an event at my house. I couldn’t sit down during the games. I watched each one standing inches from the television. I posted pictures of myself on Facebook. In some I sported my Clint Dempsey jersey, other pics were of game highlights, and some were of crowds of USA fans celebrating. And when Dempsey scored a goal against Ghana in the first minute of their first game, I was ready to write a collection of poems to commemorate that goal.
The U.S. Men’s National Team became rock stars. The head coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, a legend of German fútbol, had infused the roster with a few American-born but foreign-raised players. It was a spin on the American immigrant story. The starting roster represented the ethnic smorgasbord many Americans see everyday. Maybe our famous melting pot is why the world of fútbol harbors some anti-American sentiment. There’s no homogeny and no centuries-old tradition on which to pin our fútbol aspirations. There’s the desire to prove we belong. And ain’t that America?
The underdog thing is a big reason why I root for American soccer. I’m a minority, an underdog, but I belong. I’m American. I can make it. I was all in. America baby. America. “I believe that we will win.”
You know the storyline, the one where the outcast makes her way into the upper crust and we’re rooting for her, but we’re also waiting for the crisis of conscience. We know it is coming because we know being a follower means giving away a very important part of oneself. In this kind of movie our hearts plummet as we wonder what the hell she was thinking. I experienced the same crisis when I Googled “Brazil, World Cup.” The images alone, of women, children, and old people bludgeoned by police and kicked out of their homes to make room for the new stadiums, were horrific. There were protest marches, riots, and militarized police squads everywhere. During the height of my World Cup frenzy, I came crashing down.
I could no longer look at the massive crowds that gathered in parks, town squares, and bars to watch the USMNT play without feeling melancholy. I couldn’t look in the mirror either, nor could I exclusively perpetuate World Cup media hype on Facebook. I decided I would post articles, videos, and photos of the ongoing protests. I wanted to make sure they didn’t go unseen, but I also wanted to feel I was a part of the protest. I know that compassion without action isn’t enough and that there are difficult questions surrounding Facebook activism. It may not always constitute a moral act, but it is one small way to create visibility.
I felt solidarity for disenfranchised Brazilians and for their political and socio-economic struggles because I’m familiar with them. My government overlooked my needs and the needs of countless Americans when they discontinued the federal extension of unemployment benefits. Edward Snowden’s disclosure of government spying on American citizens revealed new civil rights violations every other day. The summer of 2014 kicked off an explosion of police violence against African-American men and women not seen this publicly for decades. New stories and cell phone videos of police killing and or brutalizing Blacks, Latinos, women, and Indigenous people pop up hourly.
The drafts of Walt-Whitman-styled soccer poems I wrote quickly became kindling. Maybe I was desperate to escape all of the turmoil and find a distraction. I was spiritually and psychologically fatigued from my own struggles, and maybe the thousands of Americans blindly rooting for the group of young men on the fútbol pitch felt the same way. Perhaps we believed this team could bring us together. After all, the players were competing for respect, and it’s not their fault that America is spiraling out of control. Maybe the battle cry “I believe that we will win,” coined by the American Outlaws, the USMNT’s supporters, has multiple layers that extend beyond the pitch. That might be too easy. Jorge Luis Borges, the legendary Argentinian writer and poet, famously said, “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.”
Borges hated the idea of a national fútbol team. I love sport, and reconciling that with alert and active citizenship is demanding and complex. Recently, a good friend and I spoke of the Roman Empire’s bread and circus: appease the poor with bread and entertain rich and poor alike with sport. Whether we acknowledge it or not, national teams play a huge role in political diversion.
It is also critical we acknowledge that arguably the most fútbol-obsessed country in the world vehemently protested their national team and the biggest fútbol competition in the galaxy on home soil. This is Brazil we’re talking about. Brazilians are practically born playing soccer, and outside the upper class and super rich who sipped the government Kool-Aid, no Brazilian wanted to spend the billions required to host the World Cup. Millions upon millions of dollars were poured into building new stadiums and renovating older venues. Meanwhile, countless Brazilians lacked access to safe housing, affordable healthcare, well paying jobs, and meaningful education. Deseret News reported that:
According to data from the World Bank, nearly 16 percent of Brazilians live below the country’s poverty line. That number has been halved in the last 10 years, but it still means around 31 million people are living on less than $1.25 per day.
Brazilians protested FIFA, fútbol’s international ruling body, and the World Cup competition because compliance meant delving further into socio-economic hell, and it still does. Years of economic disparity, neglect, and disenfranchisement had reached a boiling point. For far too many Americans this story is all too familiar.
There I was, one with throngs of other Americans experiencing hardships similar to my Brazilian counterparts and acting like the blind nationalists Borges disdained. And in the home of fútbol, they immediately turned their backs on the game to fight for what matters. I can already hear your argument: “sport transcends politics, race, etc… these kinds of protest should remain outside of sport…sport should be an escape from all that.”
Sport can transcend when given the opportunity. If the Brazilian national team had boycotted the World Cup and stood in solidarity with the underprivileged communities many of them come from, then yes, transcendence and solidarity could have happened. That would have been a great story. Go ahead and ask Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Roberto Clemente, Tommie Smith and John Carlos if civic discourse should be left out of sports. Pelé, arguably Brazil’s greatest fútbol player, said, “It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been…Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals… Brazil needs it. That’s clear.”
I wish I could say that I boycotted the rest of the World Cup, but that would be a lie. The truth is I’m addicted. I am complicit. Currently, I’m awaiting the UEFA Champions League Final, the Women’s World Cup, and the NBA Finals. I sit with hard questions as I wait and as I watch. Is there such a thing as innocent patriotism? Do I have to give up sport completely to go against the bread and circus? It’s too easy to become part of the dangerous narrative, the lie promoted by our media, corporations, politicians, and even certain educational institutions. The narrative encourages us to be oblivious to the struggles of others and to ignore them in the name of class and racial privilege. The narrative affirms that if the government is spying on us, they must have a good reason. It also affirms that if the police are indiscriminately killing citizens, then there must also be a “good” reason.
In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin wrote:
The aim has now become to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe…It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.
Written in 1949 as a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin’s words are powerfully relevant to our social and political landscape to this day. Do we accept the reality we are living, what our eyes and experience tell us, or the reality we are fed by the media machine?
At the end of that summer I was hired for a full-time teaching position at a local community college. I am grateful. My family and I can continue to improve upon our middle class life. I can spoil my kids, take vacations, and participate in a little conspicuous consumption. The neighborhood we live in is far from a favela, but fifteen to twenty minutes away are the neighborhoods I grew up in, and they are like favelas. It would be very easy for me to feel “taken care of” and to fall back into the crowd, to believe the narrative. I could forget the struggles in the hood, the countless adjuncts still scraping to make ends meet, and the disappearing middle class. I could forget the twelve stadiums going mostly unused in Brazil, even though a group of architects wants to turn them into housing for the poor and homeless. And I could ignore that FIFA walked away with at least two billion dollars.
FIFA is now the subject of a massive investigation. Almost every high-level executive in the organization has been indicted for corruption and bribery, and their president, Sepp Blatter, has resigned. The messiness and complexity I’m wrestling with can’t be resolved neatly in the world we live in, or in this essay. It’s not entirely a contest of conscientiousness versus apathy either. Maybe it has something to do with the less comfortable question of what activism looks like today and how we go about actually doing something good in this world. I want to enjoy sport, but I also want the world to be better for the people it impacts.
I want to believe that we the writers who write about these issues, we the hardworking people that pull ourselves up out of favelas all over the world, and we the people who care enough to do something, anything to help others, will win. I’m going to keep trying the best I can. I have to. I believe that we will win.