While soccer might not be the biggest sport in the U.S., nearly half of the world’s population – including around 11 million Americans – will watch the FIFA World Cup next month. For sports lovers all over the world, the event is as a celebration of talent and a chance to see the great players of this generation show off their best skills in the name of their countries. For many of the 32 teams that qualified for the championship, however, it is more than that: The World Cup also serves as an opportunity to put countries’ concerns in the world’s spotlight – on and off the field. As spectators, we should focus on more than the world-class soccer demonstrations and take the event as an opportunity to learn first-hand about international issues that are not usually on the spotlight.
Four years ago, Brazil, “the land of soccer,” hosted the World Cup for the first time in 64 years. Many Brazilians were excited to welcome an array of soccer superstars into their home country. Yet, the high spending on stadium construction in the midst of a political crisis led to some criticism. Even Pelé, whose fellow citizens praise as the best soccer player of all time, expressed his concerns about the event: "Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals. ... Brazil needs it."
Before and during the World Cup, Brazil experienced a wave of protests against government spending. The cry “Cup for Whom?” was heard around the world thanks to the international news stations covering the Cup. The protests, which sparked social movements all over the country, aligned with intense media coverage, and resulted in the impeachment of Brazil’s president in 2015.
When the 2010 World Cup took place in South Africa, another emerging economy, protests were also part of the event atmosphere. Alongside demonstrations against bad allocations of resources and racial and economic inequality, protesters pointed out the government’s efforts to hide poverty. In Cape Town, people were evicted from the city, and transferred to Blikkiesdorp – a place that literally means “Little Can Town” in Afrikaans. Outlets such as The Guardian reported on the poor conditions of the citizens' new temporary home as the World Cup approached, again showing the event’s power to draw attention to overlooked issues.
When it comes to this year’s event, spectators might eventually spot protests on Russia’s internal affairs, such as the country’s treatment of LGBT people, but should not expect them to draw much attention. Russia’s repressive government stifles demonstrations, alongside other factors, including the rise of a mob-mentality culture among Russian soccer fans (who now seem to be more worried about singing racist chants in stadiums than anything else) may also affect behavior during the World Cup.
Many other countries could then steal the spotlight in Russia. Egyptians, who tirelessly celebrated their first qualification to the World Cup in 28 years, now have a dilemma: The only option for those who cannot afford cable TV would be to watch the event on an Israeli channel. However, last week’s protests in Gaza, which intensified of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, mean the world now awaits the boycott of the Makan TV channel transmission. This could also lead to protests inside the field – possibly led by the team’s star Mohamed Salah, who has already expressed his pro-Palestine thoughts as a player in the Premier League.
In addition, two-time champion Argentina – always considered a favorite – was already preparing for an all-or-nothing appearance after its superstar Lionel Messi declared it could be his last World Cup. After the country’s currency hit a record-low this month, which led President Maurício Macri to seek IMF’s help, the sporting event will be a way for Argentines to recover their national pride, even though they have been dealing with economic instability for years now. Unlike Salah, Messi and most of his teammates are not very outspoken on political issues. In this case, Argentines who cannot afford the expensive airfares to cheer for their national team in Russia should expect protests coming from the bleachers – perhaps in the mold of what Brazilians fans did in 2014, when the players did not say a word about the instability the country’s political scenario.
The truth is the world’s biggest sports event is not – and has never been – only an occasion for celebration. Watched by billions of people around the globe, the World Cup serves as a platform for fans and for stars to express their concerns about topics that otherwise might had not received enough visibility. So, when watching your favorite players take the field next month, also make sure to pay attention to what is going on outside the stadium. It might be the only chance some countries will have to shed a light on their overlooked problems – at least for the next four years.