An avalanche of criticism of FC Bayern Muenchen, a leading soccer brand and Germany's most successful club, for playing a commercially driven friendly against Saudi Arabia's FC Al Hilal amid a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom ... highlights the increasing risk autocratic Gulf states run in employing the sport to polish tarnished images and project soft power.
Even normally quiet streets were electrified early Monday by Germany’s dramatic 1-0 win of the World Cup in extra time, a victory that symbolized, at least to fans, not just the country’s dominance of Europe, but its global prominence. Car horns and vuvuzelas honked, and fireworks and firecrackers exploded. On the Kurfuerstendamm, the gleaming street of stores and restaurants that was the symbol of West Berlin during the Cold War, cars quickly jammed traffic and fans draped themselves in the black, red and gold of the German flag.
Sunday’s final concluded a monthlong tournament that presented a jarring contrast between Brazil’s hosting of the tournament and its achievement on the field. The World Cup was well organized despite fears that it would be chaotic. The Brazilian people were hospitable. The soccer was largely attractive and attacking. Some have called this the best World Cup in recent memory. Soccer became so absorbing that widespread protests - against perceived wasteful spending on the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics - did not occur after undermining a warm-up tournament last year.
This week, we learned that enhancing Brazil's national image through soccer has pitfalls and obstacles (thanks, Germany).
For a country that staked its political future on projecting soft power by using the World Cup as a means of promoting national unity, that decision now appears to have been misplaced. Brazil must now assume the risk of letting its citizens decide how best to create a nation that provides opportunities for all with greater public security and less inequality for those who really want to create a zone of peace in South America.
As the Brazil team has come spectacularly undone in the World Cup, the pain for the host country has been compounded by the prospect that its hated rival, Argentina, could still lift the championship trophy on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro’s fabled Estádio do Maracanã, after Argentina won a tense semifinal against the Netherlands in a penalty shootout on Wednesday afternoon. The tens of thousands of Argentine fans who have invaded Brazil to cheer for their team, and taunt their hosts, brought with them a song that predicts not just triumph for Argentina, but deep humiliation for Brazil.
America is still sore after its World Cup dreams came to an end last week. Aside from the humiliation, it has another reason to be upset – it owed pancakes to the Belgians. In the diplomatic heartland of London, a bet was made this month between U.S. Ambassador Matthew Barzun and Belgian Ambassador Guy Trouveroy. “Since we are both soccer (football) fans and our two countries’ teams face each other tonight in the World Cup, I thought I would offer up a friendly wager,” Barzun wrote.
Everyone knew it would be difficult for Brazil without the injured star Neymar and the suspended captain, Thiago Silva, but nobody imagined this feeble capitulation — four goals surrendered to Germany in six minutes during a 7-1 rout in a World Cup semifinal. Early on, Brazil’s players bickered, lost their cool, then lost their fight. The country of the beautiful game was left to face a grotesque humiliation.