We’re on the eve of the opening game of the FIFA World Cup, the global spotlight is firmly on Brazil and what can we see? Enraged protestors, tear gas spreading from police canisters and the Brazilians showing the world their discontent towards this money-spinning showpiece of the footballing elite. This is far from the typical, cliched image of Brazilians – their unconditional love and emotive passion for the beautiful game is a symbol of their nation. Brazilians do unquestionably love football … they just have less love for the World Cup.
With this highly topical backdrop, Amnesty International UK’s Sidelines Football Film Festival is timely. Last weekend, The Hackney Picturehouse hosted a packed schedule of panel discussions and cultural documentaries, which culminated in a fantastic UK premiere of the documentary ‘Looking For Rio’, featuring football’s retired rebel and now the most charming and charismatic of characters, Eric Cantona. The festival’s message was that sport and human rights could and should be seen together.
FIFA may disagree with this, saying that football should be separated from the politics but a mutli-national poll of over 13,000 football fans, commissioned by Amnesty International UK, has revealed that 86% of fans believe human rights issues should be considered, when awarding international tournaments. So why is this not happening? Looking beyond Brazil, the awarding of future World Cups to Russia and Qatar has brought human rights to the centre stage of the sporting debate.
Looking For Rio
For the people of Brazil, it is a genuine perception to say that football is a way of life. Cantona’s engaging documentary shows how the cultural history of the country has been intertwined with its people’s love for the beautiful game. In the film, we are told that the club mascot of Brazil’s most popular club Flamengo, which has an astonishing 40 million fans, is a vulture – a strange choice before looking at the club’s cultural roots. The fans of the club were referred to as vultures because they were black and from poorer backgrounds, but the fans responded by bringing vultures to games and thus it has become a Flamengo emblem. Just one example of how football is part of the very fabric of their culture.
So the film depicts the rich cultural heritage of Brazilian football, but it also uses this as a context to the current protests of Brazilians at the staging of a World Cup. The football fanatics have been priced out of seeing their own national team – ‘the World Cup is not for us but for the elite’, says one of the citizens in the favela. The symbol of this shifting attitude is Rio de Janeiro’s new Maracana stadium. Before it’s reconstruction, the Maracana was the heart of Brazilian football, but Cantona describes it as a ‘phantom’ compared to what it used to be. This is a wonderful, intimate documentary about a football-mad nation, but reflects the growing conflict of feelings in Brazil towards their hosting of the FIFA World Cup.
Looking Towards the Positive
Whilst there is ill-feeling towards the World Cup in Brazil, the festival also highlights how football has a great power to unite people from different nations and from all walks of life. On Friday, ‘The Hour of Africa’ documentary explored the role of football in South Africa during the Apartheid era, up until the South African World Cup in 2010. The stills of President Nelson Mandela in his Springbok rugby shirt, shaking the hand of the white South-African captain, Francois Pienaar, at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 is one of sport’s most powerful, iconic images of unity. For Brazil, their national team is under great pressure to produce a glorious moment that unifies their nation in the same way.
With a global focus on Brazil, the World Cup also shines a light on projects that are using the tournament to help the local communities in Brazil. Football Beyond Borders, is using football to break down boundaries and help the favela community in Brazil with their FBB Brazil Legacy Projects.
One of these projects is an alternative international tournament, the Favela World Cup, which aims to show a different side of the vibrant communities which make up Salvador’s favelas, defying the negative images that we often see. This tournament will feature residents of the local communities in Salvador and international fans visiting for the World Cup. Football Beyond Borders are also working with local families to provide 100 nights of paid accommodation for fans visiting Salvador during the World Cup, in the homes of 10 families in the community of Alto de Paciencia. These projects are happening right now, and show the positive effect of bringing fans to Brazil.
A special moment between Cantona and Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak
In July 2009, Mahmoud Sarsak was a talented Palestinian footballer, set to take on the challenge of playing for a new club across the Gaza Strip to the West Bank in Israel, when he was arrested and imprisoned for three years without trial or any formal charge. He was released in 2012 after a 90-day hunger strike and Football Beyond Borders have been integral in spreading his story across the world. His embrace with Eric Cantona at the festival last Saturday was a special moment. Mahmoud wishes to return to play for the Palestinian football team but is currently travelling across the UK to tell his story and raise further awareness about the plight of Palestinians.
This article was originally published in The Ethical Hedonist Magazine