Dismantling a nation’s ‘masculinity’ at the World Cup

Notions of masculinity and national pride dominate football’s grand narrative.

In the July 8 World Cup semi-final, Brazil lost to Germany 1-7 [Getty Images]

While describing Brazil’s crushing defeat in the World Cup semi-final, in which the Germans scored five goals within the first 30 minutes, many in social media commented on the game with references to sexual violence and Nazis. Meanwhile, traditional media with a little more self-restraint, used frothier versions such as humiliation and embarrassment.

The commentary that has been circulating online after Brazil’s loss in the World Cup is telling of the gendered perceptions of defeat and victory in team sports, especially football. The language that many have employed is illustrative of the fact that football as a global sport is a symbol of national pride, a symbol which is directly linked to notions of masculinity.

A national disaster

For Brazil, there has been no subject more important than the World Cup in the last few years. This sporting event has come to epitomise the nation’s hopes for progress, development and international prestige

Soon after Brazil was chosen by Fifa to host the World Cup came the corruption scandals and talk about over-expenditure on stadiums and infrastructure, which only exacerbated public anger over the country’s severe social and economic problems.

Mass protests erupted and President Dilma Rousseff was heavily criticised for not having her priorities straight and allowing the plundering of public money on such a scale as to jeopardise the country’s future. Many Brazilians took to the streets, polarising the country, pitting those who supported the World Cup against those who didn’t.

Fears of failure and international embarrassment took over and provoked much anxiety in the general public.

But then the games started and the atmosphere changed. The streets were celebrating, things were going relatively well. There were no major failures. It seemed the protests had almost lost their relevance under the glare of the global spotlight Brazil was enjoying. After all the challenges and an approximate $11bn spent, it was finally Brazil’s time to shine.

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Until the Brazil-Germany semi-final game. The game’s 7-1 score left the whole world stunned and Brazilians aghast.

Inflammatory comments started flooding the internet with references to sexual domination and violence. Reactions to the game sought not only to emasculate the Brazilian team but also Brazil as a nation.

In fact, the Brazilian team’s emasculation had been in the making even before its unexpected loss to Germany. Sports commentators were saying that Brazil’s team was too weak, that it had been playing too emotionally rather than rationally. News broke out about the Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari calling in a psychologist for the teary team after the Chile game. Journalists and commentators used gendered narratives suggesting that a weak and emotional Brazilian team was likely to be overtaken by the strong and rational German team.

The 1970 World Cup champion Carlos Alberto criticised the Brazilian squad by saying “The team is crying when they’re singing the anthem, when they get hurt, when they shoot penalties. Stop crying! Enough! They say it’s the pressure from playing at home. But they should have been prepared for this.”

Football’s gender

Football narratives in general are full of sexual overtones and it is common to see and hear misogynistic comments and problematic analyses.

The flood of comments during and after the Brazil-Germany game comfortably using references to and images of sexual violence provides plenty of examples. But such gendered language was not limited to this specific game. During the broadcasting of the Argentina and Switzerland game, for example, BBC’s Mark Lawrenson said that Swiss striker Josip Drmic “should have put a skirt on”. And Lawrenson is by far not the only football commentator that has offered sexist comments on air.

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Scottish commentator Andy Gray continues to enjoy a flourishing TV career, even after being caught on camera several times making derogatory comments about women. Major scandals have not discouraged media outlets from employing him. This not only demonstrates exactly how tolerant football is to sexism, but also how football commentary thrives on misogynistic language and even depends on it for its existence.

In his book on gender and sports, Michael Messner writes, “Sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminisation’ of society, while also providing dramatic symbolic ‘proof’ of the natural superiority of men over women.”

Thus football language plays on notions of masculinity and femininity, activity and passivity, conquest and defeat, domination and submission.

In the World Cup, with national teams playing against each other, “football masculinity” is articulated through a sense of national identity and prowess, as in the case of the Brazil-Germany game. Thus the victorious German team “dominated”, “raped” or “overwhelmed” the Brazilian one and was clearly the “masculine” power on the field.

The World Cup has come to symbolise a battlefield for nations, a space where nations can play out their fantasies of domination. Therefore, a defeat is so much more than just the loss in a game. As we saw in the reactions to the Brazil-Germany game, a loss can dismantle a nation’s pride and humiliate it in front of the whole world by symbolically “castrating” it.

As David Zirin writes in his insightful book Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, “The relationship between soccer and Brazil is not so much about sports as it is about national identity: it is the connective tissue in a country defined by different cultures crashing together in violence and beauty.”

Perhaps it is time we ask ourselves just how useful it is to form a nation’s identity through such a strong emphasis on a football. We need to question the symbolic language of sports that recreates sexist and racist ideas and reinforce structures of political and social domination in problematic ways. After all, it should be no more humorous to describe Germany as “raping” Brazil in a football game than it is to describe the violent assault of a woman in the street.

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.