06/16/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2014

Concealment and Recognition at the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Stu Forster via Getty Images

Written by Joshua D. Rubin

To many in Brazil and the wider sporting world, the opening match of the FIFA World Cup was like a breath of fresh air. With the touch of a ball, years of anxious debate, furious social and infrastructural transformation, and political protest will suddenly seem irrelevant.

In one sense, soccer fans are right to embrace this shift of focus. Before the 2010 edition of the tournament, hosted by South Africa, many European newspapers went to great lengths to warn readers about the dangers lurking in that country. Once the games began, their drama pushed this fear mongering from the headlines. The scrutiny of Brazil has also revealed the prejudices of foreign journalists, sponsors, and tourists, and it will likely dissipate just as rapidly.

This perspective, however, assumes that pre-tournament social unrest is relevant only to tourists and their safety. This was not the case. When visitors arrived in Brazil, they certainly encountered a reflection of their own prejudices, but they might have notice something else as well: the residue of a struggle over resources and representations. This struggle has unfolded between a government that has sought to construct a censored vision of the country, and has spent large sums to enforce that vision, and the Brazilian people and communities that have rejected this appropriation of public funds and refused to be erased. It is the traces of this conflict, and its incalculable repercussions, that the lights of the World Cup might conceal.

If we allow the games to distract us, then, we participate in that concealment. Nearly 50 years ago, the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City was (like this World Cup) marked by conflict. While most Americans will remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos' raised fists, a much smaller number will recall that, just ten days before the Opening Ceremony, the Mexican government violently suppressed an opposition political gathering in the capital. No fewer than 30, and perhaps as many as 300, students were killed. The Games went on.

While our selective memory owes debts to the allure of the Olympics and a tendency to privilege familiar political struggles, we must also acknowledge a third important factor. To many people, and certainly to FIFA and the IOC, sporting concerns do not, or at least should not, overlap with political ones. This viewpoint is troubling because it downplays the social price of sports (including the labor, cash, and, most recently in Qatar, the lives that sporting venues cost to build), but also because it normalizes acts of aggression and intimidation, like monkey chants or the bananas hurled at players of color, that occur during sporting events themselves.

These less savory aspects of sport are likely to be overlooked as long as we regard the sporting space as one reserved for play, in which we find respite from the serious matters of everyday life. Smith and Carlos, for their part, brought politics into the very heart of a playful festival and reminded spectators that global events like the Olympics always intersect with, and shape, the social and political contexts in which they occur.

FIFA, like the IOC, does selectively acknowledge a responsibility to its social context. The "Football for Hope" movement, in particular, promises to deploy the vitality of the World Cup to empower underprivileged youth and encourage social change. Though these efforts are undoubtedly admirable, a better approach to the demolition of neighborhoods and massive sporting expenditures might be one that accommodates the political aspects of sport. This approach would use this traveling tournament as an opportunity to recognize the human rights of all people, irrespective of sporting talent, race, region, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and it would aim to bring relief not just to governments and sponsors, but to players and fans, foreign guests and local hosts, in equal measure.

Joshua D. Rubin is a visiting lecturer at the Department of Anthropology, Bates College.