Like many other people on Earth my life has been almost wholly occupied by the spectacle of the World Cup over the past two weeks. Unbeknownst to most, halfway across the world from South Africa the G20 summit is also taking place right now in and around Toronto, Canada. With a similarly bulbous billion dollar plus budget and an unspoken mandate to control the restless natives (besides the Vuvuzela that, if to be believed, is so sort of indigenous expression of culture) the events bare some resemblance to one another, if only in their supranational tenor. As the governmental and non-governmental costs for “security” continue to escalate—this year’s G20 is supposed to have cost the Canadian taxpayers an estimated 51 times (1.1 billion dollars) what it cost the United States just a year ago—one wonders what exactly the point of the ‘privilege’ of hosting these events is. Al Jazeera’s Avi Lewis called the event “the most expensive and wasteful photo-op in the history of humanity.” I respectfully disagree, Mr. Lewis. I would argue that it that the current edition of the World Cup is an even more extended public relations campaign for a country and a continent badly in need of far more than just good PR.
The costs of South Africa’s World Cup exploded from an estimated 711 million dollars to over 4 billion, all of which will be coming out of South Africa’s pockets. Four billion dollars, no matter the country, is a lot of money. Paternalistic arguments have been made that hosting the World Cup will permanently alter the lives of thousands, if not millions, South Africans, a frankly absurd suggestion that I can’t ever remember hearing to justify holding the World Cup in the USA, Germany, France, South Korea or Japan. At work here are two warring impulses: One, a certain underlying political correctness that demands FIFA “spread the love”, or at least appear to do so. And, secondly, that money absolutely must be made in abundance. Much like China’s summer Olympics, this summer’s World Cup reeks of obfuscated poverty, slightly veiled civil liberties violations and feckless “free-market” (ie, multinational) capitalism, where Coca-Cola and Budweiser supply the beverages, a McDonalds is no more than 500 feet away and local culture is replaced by the ubiquity of transnational corporate brands, all preserved by the billions of dollars worth of security on every corner. “I travelled all the way to South Africa and all I saw was Coke, McDonalds and Nike!”, one can imagine.
Still, there are important differences. While reports have emerged of striking security workers in South Africa demanding higher wages, they remain mostly invisible from the main cameras, whereas with G20 Summits and its cousins, the protests gain far more attention than the actual policies emerging out of the high-level meetings (if that even happens). Since the Battle of Seattle in 1999, these conferences have been flashpoints for the clash between states and their citizens. In South Africa we see mostly drunk fans in body paint and absurd somewhat jingoistic costumes jumping up and down for the camera while wildly waving their fingers. Numbers 1, indeed. Only then will you see the sullen Italian go from suicidal to frantic excitement in a split second when their face appears on television.
The famous British literary critic Terry Eagleton argued last week that we ought to abolish “football”. It stands to reason that he thinks we all ought to be paying far less attention to the World Cup and far more to the events in Toronto, where news reports have described the typically vibrant streets of Toronto as alternately filled with violent clashes between cops and protesters or strikingly empty, only occupied by scores of police and security officials. Moreover, a little known law has allowed protesters to be arrested if they come within five meters of security fences, a truly fearsome development for a country I used to naively consider a better, more democratic version of the United States (am I allowed to say that?). Meanwhile, in South Africa, “FIFA has extraordinary rights to fine local businesses, to restrict hawkers from selling unauthorized FIFA products, to ban the sale of beverages or other products of non-sponsoring companies within a certain radius of any World Cup stadium.” FIFA, the G20, what’s the difference? What is made clear in both South Africa and Canada is that the world operates differently. So-called free markets are a myth. Fair-trade is a pipedream. If Americans had not become enamored with our national soccer team—with its diverse roster making it a neoliberal multicultural marketing exec’s wet dream—and witnessed the goals that weren’t against Slovenia and then Algeria how else would American’s have finally realized that the game is, indeed, rigged.
Nonetheless, in the months to come names like Altidore, Bocanegra, Onyewu and Feilhaber will be seen across the country on the backs of Americans as we resume our regular programming. Toronto will go back to being Toronto and South Africa will begin to wonder what the hell it’s going to do with its giant stadium’s and even larger slums. Nike, McDonalds and Coke will have departed for the greener shores of Brazil where the billion-dollar project to hide the favelas behind shiny stadia and white beaches will begin. I wonder what says more about the world we live in, Toronto’s descent into a police state or South Africa’s brief, two-dimensional ascent into the First World? Is either so very different from the other?