Class Report

Protests, Politics and Penalty Kicks: The 2014 World Cup

Teacher: Harrison Stark, soccer writer (left)
Documentarian: Josh Freedman (text) and Kate Maloney (photos)
Location: Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library
Date: Jan 26, 2014

Soccer can always draw a crowd — even when there’s no game on.

Students filled Mt. Pleasant Library’s conference room to hear soccer writer Harry Stark lead a KCDC class about the context and content of soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup, which will take place this summer in Brazil.

How big is the world’s biggest soccer event? According to one estimate, over 3.5 billion people — half of the world’s population — watched the finals four years ago.

Soccer, however, has a distinct cultural meaning for each country that will compete. We watched clips of television soccer commentary from three countries: the United States, the Netherlands, and Italy. The differences were stark, no pun intended.

The U.S. analysis of the national team’s prospects sounded very, well, American. It focused on the the individual impacts of the coach and the ability of the team to bounce back from a poor game with fortitude, patriotism, and unwavering strength. America!

The Dutch analysis, on the other hand, resembled a locker-room sitcom for middle-aged schoolteachers. Legendary player Johan Cruyff spoke about tactics, drawing incomprehensible diagrams on a chalkboard that had been wheeled into what appeared to be a living-room setting. A handful of other commentators bantered and argued with him as he taught the class.

Italian television made very clear the importance of soccer at an emotional level. The soccer commentators were not objective; rather, they had clear favorites whom they treated like members of their own family. When the announcer’s team scored a goal, the announcer started crying out in happiness, screaming the name of the player who scored, and having a near-breakdown. He was so overtaken with emotion that he couldn’t even remember the name of the player who scored.

These national cultural differences are clear — but, Harry argued, in the face of globalizing forces and the increasing prevalence of players competing on professional club teams outside of their own country, the national importance of soccer is waning. Global superstars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi are as tied to their club teams in other countries as their national teams. Messi, for example, plays his club ball at FC Barcelona in Spain. Even in Brazil, where citizens live and breathe soccer, the recent protests in advance of the World Cup could indicate a more tenuous relationship between national identity and soccer.

The class ended with a wide-ranging discussion of international soccer body FIFA’s role in the World Cup and theories motivating the protests.

What the future holds for the World Cup remains to be seen. The tournament this summer will shed some light, but the geopolitical implications will continue to unfold for years.