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Out of left field

In mid-afternoon on June 13, I was in Salvador, Brazil, high in the roof-shaded stands above a corner flag in Itaipava Fonte Nova Arena, watching as Spanish keeper Iker Casillas misplayed a pass back; his first touch was too hard. A flying Dutchman, Robin van Persie, pounced and put the ball in for the Netherlands’ fourth goal. The buzz running through the spines of the 48 000 of us there seemed like a current of surreal alarm—what was going on? Were the defending champions really getting ripped apart before our eyes, the carcass of their football dreams ravaged by the team they’d beaten 1-0 in the final in Johannesburg just four years earlier?

But this was the FIFA World Cup—predictable (just eight teams have won in 19 go-arounds), conservative, incredibly popular and massively profitable. So much of soccer, and soccer’s biggest spectacle, is about profit and profiteering, from the beer company-sponsored arena and Adidas’ official Brazuca ball to the billion-dollar “reserve fund” of the supposedly non-profit Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Could the unpredictability of the matches themselves, down there on the field, with old-world powers knocked out and underdogs winning, somehow pull the turf out from under this fundamentally conservative, corrupt tournament and maybe, just maybe, trigger some much-needed change?

For anyone still naïve enough to think sport isn’t political, just look into what a lot of fans and pundits say about African teams at the World Cup. The usual knock against them—no matter what actual country it is—is that they’re “disorganized.” And how is this not racist? It means, at worst, that they don’t play with enough (European or South American) sophistication and teamwork. At best, the armchair critic’s well aware that many African teams tend to have weak domestic leagues (mostly because European clubs now pilfer the best players), corrupt organizing bodies (as if non-African soccer federations aren’t corrupt—Italy or Brazil, anyone?), and poorly paid staff, susceptible to bribes (engineered mostly by betting markets in Asia). But above it all hovers the Swiss-based FIFA, metastasized by Brazil’s João Havelange in the ’80s—it’s the godfather of global soccer corruption.

For a sense of how FIFA operates, you don’t need to know that I was notified by email that my application for 2014 WC tickets was successful six days after FIFA took the money out of my account to put in their Geneva bank, you just need two words: Qatar 2022. FIFA voted to give a country with no history of national team success, 50 C summers, and gushes of oil money the world’s most watched sporting event. The result? Hundreds of migrant workers already dying each year in the building of the stadiums—a conservative estimate is that 4000 workers will be buried by 2022—and recent allegations by The Sunday Times of vote buying.

Brazil, the cradle of beautiful samba soccer, knows plenty about corruption, from its own soccer leagues and national federation (the CBF) to its cronyism and patronage politics. But last summer, during the FIFA Confederations Cup, a lead-up tournament in Brazil, thousands of protesters—mostly middle-class—demonstrated and battled with police; they were angry with President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA over how much money was being spent on the tournament (now around $18 billion) while economic and social change in Brazil stuttered and slumbered.

Yet protests at the World Cup have been small, it seems. I heard of none while in Salvador. The twin conservative forces of martial law and religious order dominated instead; phalanxes of military police—at the foot of hillside favelas, guarding the route to the game with their guns and long black nightsticks and Plexiglas riot shields—were outnumbered by legions of evangelicals, wearing Brazil-yellow shirts with John 3:16 green-lettered on the back as they proffered pamphlets to us passing ticket-holders.

But on the field, from that Netherlands-Spain game on (Europe’s perennial bridesmaids dishing out the worst-ever WC loss for a defending champion), tradition and the old guard took a battering. Spain was soon gone, followed by England and Italy, while their fellow former champs Brazil and Argentina looked shaky. A Cinderella story crossed with a Sleeping Beauty tale that no one predicted, Costa Rica kept coming, and conquering. Colombia won all their group games, then knocked out two-time winners Uruguay. Chile, Greece and Switzerland advanced from the group stages. Belgium’s dark-horse chances galloped on and the last team to squeak into the Round of 16 was Algeria, for the first time in its history.

It’s possible that, in the brutally bottom-line world of soccer, where the green that really matters isn’t the colour of the pitch, some of these shake-ups were carefully staged—after all, those Asian betting markets deal in millions a day and scores of games have already been proven to have been fixed, with hundreds more (all the way up to the WC) suspected. But it’s hard to imagine a Costa Rica versus Greece elimination game pleasing a lot of gamblers worldwide.

Surely there’s been something beyond cynicism, something radically anti-conservative about the thrilling unpredictability and sheer entertainment-force of so many matches: blow-outs, shockers, sackfuls of goals, pell-mell thrill-fests between teams with no chance of moving on from the group stage, shootout nail-biters in the first knock-out round.

Viewers and pundits alike now murmur that this is the best WC this century, if not ever. And if the host squad—under more pressure than any team in sports history—does bow out before the final, will more Brazilians turn from their TV screens and take to the streets in protest, especially with thoughts of the 2016 Rio Olympics price tag dancing in their heads? There’s even the remote chance—though it’s a bet few would take—that FIFA will come under enough pressure to move the 2022 WC elsewhere.

Leaving the stadium that afternoon, I had a feeling I’d seen a changing of the new old guard—Spain, WC and UEFA champs and the latest to bring innovation to the game (tiki-taka, aka speedy but steady ball possession), was on its way out. But in soccer, like politics, it’s one thrill to see grassroots changes at ground level and quite another feat for a regime, at the top, to be reVIPped, revamped and reformed.

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