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Experts on Brazil discuss the World Cup from a historical lens

June 13, 2014
graphic showing flags of nations participating in soccer World Cup 2014

As Brazil kicks off the World Cup, more than the tournament outcome is at stake, according to historians Pablo Sierra and Molly Ball of the University of Rochester.

“The World Cup will matter in how politics develop in the next six months,” says Sierra. “If Brazil gets knocked out before the semi-finals, it will not be a good situation for political leaders who built this project, specifically for leaders of the Workers’ Party. They will have a hard time explaining spending 12 billion dollars on such a project.

“For someone living in the north or the northeast, which is more economically depressed and has seen real gains under the past two presidents, a quick loss would be tragic,” Sierra explains. “In light of widespread dissatisfaction with President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, a positive outcome at the World Cup could have a measurable effect on whether the Workers’ Party stays in power or gives up control.”

The husband-and-wife team have developed a course, “History of Latin America through Soccer,” that will be taught for the first time this fall at Rochester. Soccer has been used to fabricate national identities, promote multi-racial societies, and, of course, entertain the masses, the professors note. The course will use soccer to explore these facets, along with the darker political use of the sport in upholding dictatorships, drug trafficking, and misogyny.

“When British immigrants first introduced ‘the beautiful game’ to Argentina in the 1860s, soccer was viewed as a bizarre, violent, and foreign fad,” says Ball. “Traditional Iberian sports, be it bullfighting or ranching contests, soon lost favor in a region redefined by European immigration during the late nineteenth century.” Although faced with competition from other sports throughout time, soccer remains the single most important sport in Latin America, as the 2014 World Cup preparations reflect.

In Brazil, a large country marked by diversity and coping with economic disparities, soccer is a unifying element.

“It is something everybody shares and can identify with,” says Ball. In the 1930s and 1940s, countries in South America were trying to find their own identities. “What did it mean to be Brazilian? Brazil had slavery until 1888 and the population was diverse—thirty-five percent of São Paulo spoke Italian in the 1920s,” she points out. “Today, soccer continues to be actively promoted as an important part of national identity throughout Latin America.”

“Soccer clubs are a way of identifying not just with your nation but specifically with your neighborhood,” Sierra explains. “They come to embody more than a local club—it’s your local way of life. When you travel out of town, your club may come to represent the state of São Paulo versus Rio de Janeiro. These kinds of rivalries give way to local and regional identities.”

“Soccer is a common language,” says Sierra. “We can unite despite our ideological and political differences. That’s some of the magic of the World Cup.”

Hear more insights into Brazil and the World Cup during Sierra and Ball’s recent WXXI public radio interview, primarily in the second half of the podcast.

Sierra earned a doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles and studies colonial Latin America, the African diaspora in Latin America, Afro-Indigenous interactions, and urban slavery. Ball, specializing in modern Brazil and economic history, earned her doctorate in history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Note to editors: Pablo Sierra and Molly Ball are available for interviews to discuss the political implications and historical background of the World Cup in Brazil.

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Category: Society & Culture