Walking along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro I see thousands of football fans from every one of the 31 countries taking part in the World Cup, most of them dressed in their nation’s colours so that there is no doubt about which team they are here to cheer.
In this “ United Nations of Sports” everyone smiles at everyone else, as they walk by chanting “Viva” this and “Viva” that.
One big happy family? Not quite. One interesting poll published just before the start of the World Cup asked people from 19 participating countries which nation’s team they liked and disliked most, The three most unpopular were Argentina, the United States and Iran. The first, Argentina, might be disliked because of sports rivalry and the fact that its team has arguably the world’s best player, Lionel Messi.
But Iran and the United States? Neither country’s team is considered a football power, so there is a nagging sense that it has more to do with politics. In the case of the latter, it takes just a little spark to ignite the anti-American sentiment that is often buried just skin deep, especially in Latin America.
On Sunday, The New York Times published an article called: “Where Dishonesty is the Best Policy: US Soccer Falls Short”. The article argues that the US team is at a disadvantage because “American athletes are typically honest on the field”, and “are bad at play-acting”, unlike others ( like Brazil, during Thursday’s opening World Cup match ) who allegedly win by resorting to “gamesmanship and embellishment — or, depending on your sensibilities, cheating”.
The reaction on Monday morning from Brazil’s media was scathing. On Globo TV’s morning news, commentators brought out the red card. True, they said, Brazilian forward Frederico Chaves Guedes may have exaggerated a bit when he fell and got the referee to award his team a penalty kick that gave the home team its first goal against Croatia. “But if you want to talk about honesty, what about the United States lying about weapons of mass destruction and waging war against countries based on lies? At least a little theatre on the football pitch does not kill anyone,” a commentator said.
It is like comparing chalk and cheese. But it doesn’t matter. For all the good will and joy that sports foster, for all the unity and sense of common purpose that it forges at an event such as the World Cup, clearly it is impossible to completely purge politics from the mix.