The World Cup in Wider Culture

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While on the field, the 2014 World Cup saw the rise of new superstars, the decline of footballing philosophies, the interplay between varying formations, and appeared to demonstrate the narrowing of traditional power gaps in the international game – in the knockout stages, from the round of sixteen through to the final, only three of fifteen matches were won by a margin greater than one goal – this piece extends beyond the confines of the pitch and beyond the immediacies of the sport. It looks at the wider cultural aspects which informed or which emerged from the World Cup.

In turn, it considers how Brazilian society functioned towards and about the tournament, and the ways in which the mass media depicted Brazilians; views the psychology and sociology of individualism as it is increasingly made manifest throughout the game; analyses the rise and spurt of soccer in the United States, and Twitter’s role in soccer’s recent prominence; plays upon the nature and extension of World Cup chants; and contemplates the innovative and encompassing uses of technology which influenced and drew upon the month-long affair.

Brazilians: Competent Organisers, Not So Crazy About Football

The buildup to the 2014 World Cup was dominated in the Anglophone media by apprehension over Brazil’s capability to host the event. The issue at the forefront of the story was the building of Brazil’s World Cup stadiums. Countless articles suggested that stadiums would not be finished in time for the beginning of the World Cup. Posited problems covered everything from incomplete roofing, exposed wiring and concrete, loose scaffolding, and unstable staircases, to blocked exits, no internet, and insufficient catering and transportation. As NBC put it, ‘Brazil will welcome the players and fans to unfinished airports, drive them past uncompleted transport systems, through streets that have been clogged with rioters protesting the cost of the tournament and into stadiums that have cost lives to build and haven’t all been finished.’

Even FIFA delegates described the preparations as ‘hell’ and the ‘worst ever’ – allegations which have already been made regarding Rio’s progress towards the Summer Olympics in 2016. Across the couple of weeks immediately preceding the start of the World Cup, it was repeatedly asserted that Brazil was not yet ready to hold the tournament, with particular worry over the stadiums in Sao Paulo and Manaus. Manaus was the target of additional mockery when, just days before the venue was to host its opening match between England and Italy, it was claimed that ground staff had been painting the pitch green to hide the fact that it was dry and underfed.


There remain vital concerns over the extent of Brazil’s expenditure on World Cup stadiums – which is thought to have totalled $3.6 billion – and over the simultaneous lack of work completed on local infrastructure projects. Despite spending over €11 billion on infrastructure, half of the projects intended for completion back in 2007, when Brazil was awarded the World Cup, were subsequently scrapped. These included the proposed high-speed rail line between Rio and Sao Paulo; although a small number of projects did find happy conclusions, with a line of the Salvador Metro in Bahia finished just prior to the onset of competition after fourteen years under construction, and taking spectators to the Arena Fonte Nova. More, some of the stadiums are without top-level clubs and will struggle to be utilised beyond the World Cup, bringing into question the long-term legacy of the tournament.

At the same time, the World Cup itself appeared to suffer little from any architectural or infrastructural issues. The stadiums were ultimately all completed in time; few problems were reported with travel between airports or to and from stadiums; and even the pitch in Manaus held up for its four group games. Preparations for major sporting events tend to prove problematic. It must be remembered that the City of Manchester Stadium, built with two temporary stands for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, was still undergoing work in the days before the event’s opening ceremony, and a metro link between the stadium and the city went incomplete. The Athens Summer Olympics in 2004 saw soaring costs and a race to be ready amid numerous delays to construction. While the Olympic venues were completed well within schedule for Beijing 2008, the Games brought considerable controversy over forced relocations: which affected somewhere between the Chinese government’s suggested 6,000 families, and the 1.5 million residents predicted by human rights groups.

In fact, many quarters have acclaimed the organisational achievement on display in Brazil. A survey of foreign journalists suggests an overwhelmingly positive response to the travel provision, airport service, and level of personal security afforded during the World Cup, as well as towards Brazilian culture and nightlife. David Ranc of the Football Research in an Enlarged Europe project has argued that the World Cup in Brazil was better organised than the 2012 London Olympics, citing routinely full stadiums and relatively conservative large-scale security measures. The counter argument has also been made that – despite problems with the provision and construction of stadia and the continuing inequality which is characteristic of Brazilian society – Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup ought to be seen as a testament to the country’s growth, and to the significant improvements made in health and education over the last decade.


Beyond the headlines regarding unfinished or unfurnished stadiums, fears were expressed in bursts that the World Cup would be beset by riots. A wave of protests took place across Brazilian cities in June 2013, with the impetus being fare increases to public transportation, but feeling soon extending to encompass anger over other social issues, over perceived governmental corruption, and at the excessive police response to the protests, which included the use of rubber bullets. The protests became known inside Brazil as the ‘V for Vinegar Movement’, after groups of protesters were allegedly arrested for carrying vinegar, intended as a remedy against the police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray. The height of these protests intertwined with Brazil’s hosting of the 2013 Confederations Cup. With the protest movement and football linked, growing upset over the cost of the World Cup, and a sense of complicity between the Brazilian government and FIFA, belief built that the tournament was liable to see trouble on the streets and around the stadiums.

While there were clashes in Brazil’s major cities as the World Cup got underway – which saw the police again use tear gas on those demonstrating – these soon subsided. With little to report, conjecture arose that an early exit for Brazil would prove the catalyst for violent manifestations of unrest. Given the context, these fears were understandable, and aired by committed and talented journalists, including the BBC’s Tim Vickery. However, vague and concerned premonitions became, in the tabloid presses, scaremongering invoking the potential for widespread rioting and dirty bombs.

So as Brazil’s drubbing at the hands of Germany in the semi-finals was still being digested, speculation proliferated online and across social media as to whether it would provoke the Brazilian people into rioting. By late evening, sensationalised reports of rioting, flag-burning, and mass theft were being published. Such accounts were soon being tempered, however, with the Brazilian police suggesting that some disturbance on Copacabana beach had amounted to little more than fighting between opposing groups of supporters, and reports of theft and gunfire remaining unconfirmed. A number of photos eagerly circulated as evidence of renewed rioting turned out to be deceptive, with the images actually drawn from the Confederations Cup protests a year ago.

The argument persists that the response of the Brazilian police has been marked by aggression, and that their heavy-handed approach limited the capacity of demonstrators during the World Cup. Still, there appears a discrepancy between the notion of Brazilians set upon trouble – and distraught to the point of violence or insensibility upon the loss of a football match – and what actually occurred after their side’s capitulation. Instead of attacking or mourning, Brazilian supporters seemed models of magnanimity following the game against Germany, recognising the flaws of the Brazilian team, and praising the abilities of their competitors. Appreciative of good football rather than narrowly and viciously partisan, the positive atmosphere in Brazil around the game and around the teams of the World Cup remained for the duration of the competition.

A Surfeit of Individualism

Though individuals have found themselves the centres of attention at many previous World Cups – Diego Maradona in Mexico in 1986, for instance, and again for less savoury reasons eight years later at USA 94; while Ronaldo came to dominate the world’s focus in the buildup to the final of France 98, as he suffered a convulsive fit just hours before kickoff  – never before has a tournament been built so thoroughly upon individual players. Many of the top teams seemed structured round one player, whether by design or by necessity.

Brazil and Argentina, the two favourites going into the tournament, were – despite a divergence in experience and subtly differing gameplans – from the start orchestrated around their outstanding attacking players, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Though both players had strong tournaments, finishing with four goals apiece, Brazil floundered dramatically after Neymar suffered an injury in their quarter-final game against Colombia, while – despite leading Argentina to the final with an array of crucial goals and assists – the unduly critical perception shared by many was that Messi had failed to excel. After a lackadaisical close to the season with Barcelona, it was thought that he could go on to consolidate on the international stage his reputation as one of the world’s greatest ever players. He was awarded the Golden Ball, and so officially declared the tournament’s best player; but this decision was broadly derided, by figures including FIFA President Sepp Blatter and by Maradona, who triumphed with Argentina back in 86.

Elsewhere, with their striker Radamel Falcao out of action owing to a knee injury, and despite impressive performances by Cuadrado and their defensive players, James Rodriguez became the figurehead for Colombia and – though Monaco spent €45 million on him a season ago – the breakout star of the World Cup. Alexis Sanchez occupied a similar position for Chile, and was the standout from their side especially as Arturo Vidal struggled for fitness. Arjen Robben was clearly the Netherlands’ exceptional player, the impetus to their attack as Robin van Persie stuttered and Wesley Sneijder indicated a career on a steep decline. Uruguay were capable and committed with Luis Suarez on the pitch, but abject without him. Clint Dempsey for the USA and Tim Cahill for Australia – attacking midfielders or second-strikers for much of their careers – were tasked with leading the line and focusing their sides. And likewise Nigeria and South Korea were largely reliant on their wide attackers, Ahmed Musa and Son Heung-Min respectively.

While the focus on individual players was variously tactical it was also philosophical, and extended beyond the immediate contexts of the sport to reflect a wider sociological impulse. Even where facts on the pitch seemed to refute the reliance upon star men, still nations clung to individuals. Wayne Rooney continued, in the lead up to the tournament, to be regarded England’s best hope for success, and he continues to be considered the squad’s only world class player, quite ignoring a litany of mediocre performances at major tournaments and the emergence of youngsters who would seem to challenge his place in the team. Didier Drogba was restored to the Ivory Coast eleven for their decisive group encounter against Greece, despite looking his age and in spite of Wilfried Bony’s two goals in the two previous matches.


Most egregious, however, was the decision to interrupt the World Cup final itself with an individual awards ceremony for FIFA’s chosen players. Thus – before Germany were able to lift the World Cup – Manuel Neuer and a defeated and deflated Lionel Messi ascended to receive their awards for Golden Glove, as the tournament’s best goalkeeper, and Golden Ball. James Rodriguez, the winner of the Golden Boot with six goals, and Paul Pogba, decreed in association with Hyundai the tournament’s best young player, were not dragged out for the occasion; but postponing the celebrations of the victorious team in order to regale and reify the individual contribution seemed an error indicative beyond football, and especially absurd given that one of the awarded individuals had just lost arguably the most important game of his career.

Twitter and the Rise of Soccer in the United States

The World Cup final between Germany and Argentina was the most-watched football game in the history of American television. 26.5 million viewers tuned in overall to watch the match live on television, with 17.3 million following in English via ABC, while 9.2 million watched in Spanish over on Univision. The figure of 26.5 million compares with the 24.7 million who watched as Spain beat the Netherlands four years ago in 2010; with the 14.5 million who watched the final of the World Cup held in the USA in 1994; and with the average audiences of 15 million obtained by both this year’s NBA Finals and last year’s baseball World Series.

A further 1.8 million people viewed Germany vs. Argentina online using WatchESPN. Adding those online viewers via ABC and Univision, the total number of people on all devices watching the game live came to just over 29 million. And these figures remain restricted to those who watched within the confines of their own homes: the figures do not account for the people who packed America’s bars to watch, or attended viewing parties hosted in clubs, parks and cinemas, and in their potential thousands at local stadiums.


The 2014 World Cup averaged 4.557 million viewers in the US, in contrast to the 3.273 million who watched each match on average in 2010, the 2.321 million from 2006, and the 2.801 million who watched back in 1994. Such numbers do not guarantee that the game’s appeal will continue to grow, or that it will flourish inside America. Viewing figures this time round have been aided by the proximity of US time zones with those in Brazil; while for 2018, ESPN – who have led soccer coverage in the US and dedicated considerable television time to analysing the latest tournament – have lost the World Cup rights to Fox.

Domestically, the average attendance figure for the 2014 season of Major League Soccer so far has been 18,704: a slight increase on the previous season’s average, but still marginally down on the number from 2012, and leaving many stadiums well short of capacity. In fact, despite rising from a low of 13,756 in 2000, since the first season of Major League Soccer in 1996, match-day attendances have hardly boomed: then, a novelty and just two years after the 1994 World Cup, 17,406 people on average attended Major League Soccer games. If the trend is for more and more people in the United States to watch football on television, this does not appear to be translating into behinds upon stadium seats. Perhaps this will change in 2015, on the back of a World Cup which has been so popular – and which has been widely discussed as a turning point for the game in the US – and with new players, including Kaka, David Villa, and Frank Lampard, set to bolster the domestic league. Meanwhile NBC continues to invest time and effort in the English Premier League, having spent £250 million for the rights from 2012; and Fox have acquired the rights to the Bundesliga for five seasons starting next year. Major international football will return to the US in 2016, when it will host the Copa America Centenario: a special edition of the Copa America to celebrate its centenary, which will feature the ten South American teams plus the United States, Mexico, and four others from CONCACAF still to be determined.

The popularity of this summer’s World Cup in the US owes significantly to the rise of Twitter. In 2006, Twitter was just starting out, first being launched publicly that July. By the second quarter of 2010, it had grown to boast 40 million monthly active users. Yet four years on, that number has risen to 255 million. Over 62% of these active Twitter users live in the United States. And throughout the World Cup, Twitter was a prominent force for the spread of US soccer fervour. During the United States’ three group matches, over 15 million tweets were sent relating to the team’s progress. During the round of sixteen game against Belgium, Twitter recorded more than 9 million tweets sent. Major American companies took to Twitter to post images of themselves laying aside work to watch the games. Sites like Mashable came replete with postings which simply highlighted Twitter responses to the US team’s highs and lows.


Rihanna – who has the eighth most-followed Twitter account, with over 36.5 million followers – emerged as an ardent fan of the sport throughout the World Cup’s proceedings, tweeting photographs of herself at the final at the Maracana in Rio, and then with the German players as they celebrated their victory on into the night. Overall, Twitter reported that 672 million tweets were sent pertaining to the World Cup across its one-month duration. 35.6 million tweets were recorded as Germany beat Brazil 7-1; and a record 618,725 tweets were sent per minute as Mario Gotze scored Germany’s decisive, cup-winning goal against Argentina.

The Sacred and the Profane: The Extension of World Cup Chants

The 2014 World Cup saw innovations in the realm of football chants, as they became increasingly elaborate, frequently political, and transcended the sport to become part of the summer’s pop-culture. Spain’s early exit from the tournament – aside from damaging the prospects of national retailers grown accustomed to the team’s success – meant that short shrift was given to ‘Yo soy Español, Español, Español’, the chant which characterised Spain’s triumph in South Africa four years ago. England persisted at moments during their brief stay with the crudely antagonistic ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’, sung to the tune of the minstrel song ‘Camptown Races’; and Germany introduced a contemporary political perspective to proceedings when, in their match against the United States, their fans responded to shouts of ‘USA! USA!’ with ‘NSA! NSA!’. Algeria progressed to the round of sixteen with their famous chant ‘One, two, three – viva l’Algiré!’ – recited in English, and an emblem of the Algerian revolution against French rule. Hosts Brazil stuck with ‘Eu sou Brasileiro, com muito orgulho, com muito amor’ – ‘I am Brazilian, with a lot of pride, and a lot of love’.


Brazil were involved in one of the minor controversies of the tournament when their game against Mexico highlighted the Mexican supporters’ use of a contentious chant during opposition goal-kicks. In recent years, Mexicans have taken to shouting ‘puto’ just as an opposition goalkeeper makes contact with the ball. The endeavour to perturb an opposition goalkeeper is not unique, and similar goading occurs throughout football. Yet it has been strongly argued that ‘puto’ is a homophobic insult, more than simply an allegation of cowardice or an indistinct profanity. After Brazil faced Mexico, and at the instigation of the anti-discrimination group Fare, FIFA opened an investigation into both nations, who they ultimately cleared from any wrongdoing. Brazil had apparently retorted in kind to Mexico’s chants. For their part, Mexican supporters responded to this perceived mendacious and unnecessary meddling by subsequently changing the chant from ‘puto’ to ‘Pepsi’ – the leading competitor to Coca-Cola, who were one of the tournament’s main sponsors.

The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ can already claim a rich history upon football’s seating areas and terraces. The basic melody of the song – thought to be derived from Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony – was first appropriated back in 2003 by Club Brugge of Belgium, before being co-opted by AS Roma when they met Brugge in the 2005-06 UEFA Cup. By the summer of 2006 – and still known phonetically among Italian players and supporters as ‘Po-po-po’ – it had become the unofficial theme for the Azzurri, as Italy won the 2006 World Cup. The melody was a prominent facet of the celebrations, led by Francesco Totti, as the Italian squad arrived, triumphant, back in Rome.

Still sung for and most closely associated with the Italian national team, the melody has since extended throughout the world of sport. It was ubiquitous during the 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland; and featured again four years later in Poland and Ukraine. In the United States, ‘Seven Nation Army’ has become a staple of college football and college basketball games, and has been utilised through the NBA and in the NFL, where it is especially favoured by the Baltimore Ravens. Emerging amidst the 2006 World Cup which was hosted in Germany, greeting the goalscorers of the 2013 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and becoming – in remixed form – an anthem of the Bayern side, ‘Seven Nation Army’ is also entwined with German football, and sometimes sung by Germany’s supporters – so that it remained present in Brazil even beyond Italy’s early elimination.

Germany’s World Cup final opponents Argentina are known for a vocal support and an ability to produce an array of innovative chants – which sometimes descend towards the bawdy. ‘Vamos, vamos, Argentina’ encodes a reference to a brothel; and at a previous World Cup Argentinians sang in memory of their Brazilian counterparts, ‘They’re all black, they’re all sexual deviants, everybody knows Brazil is in mourning’. For the occasion of a World Cup in the home of their fiercest rivals, Argentina’s supporters devised a brand new song, to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Entitled ‘Brasil, decime qué se siente’, when translated into English, ‘Brazil, tell me how it feels’ reads:

Brazil, tell me how it feels

To have your Dad in your house,

I swear that even as years pass

We will never forget

That Diego tricked you

That Cani scored against you

You’ve been crying ever since Italy

You’re going to see Messi

The cup will be brought to us

Maradona is greater than Pele

The chant became so popular that it spread beyond the supporters to the centre of the Argentinian squad. Argentina’s players were videoed singing ‘Brasil, decime qué se siente’ in their changing room as they progressed towards their semi-final against the Netherlands.

The culturally outstanding chant of the tournament belonged to the Americans. With its beginnings over a decade ago in the United States Naval Academy – and in Navy football, American style – ‘I believe that we will win’ ascended rapidly throughout the World Cup, usurping the traditional three-syllable utterance ‘USA!’, to become one of the hallmarks not only of the US team but of the entire competition. Impelled by ESPN, who used it for its World Cup commercial, the chant soon grew to dominate in the bars of America and at public screenings. On the page, ‘I believe that we can win’ initially appears debased, a reduction of the football chant to absurdity: its words offering only the slightest of sentiments, a simple belief that the essence of sport – a physical competition in which the winner is uncertain – remains its essence. Yet when performed, the chant is both powerful and memorable, drawing from gospel music in its call-and-response and simple rhythms, which drive towards a crescendo.

Technical Innovations and The Time of the Game

Technological innovation – not usually one of association football’s bedfellows – abounded on the pitch for this World Cup. Goal-line technology was implemented for the first time, courtesy of the German company GoalControl – who beat off the challenge of rivals including Hawk-Eye, before their technology was implemented in competition at last year’s Confederations Cup. GoalControl’s setup involves fourteen cameras, each capable of taking five-hundred photographs per second. It thereby determines in real-time whether the ball has crossed the goal-line, and whether a goal should be awarded or play allowed to continue. Its decision incontrovertible, a message is passed wirelessly to a watch worn about the referee’s wrist. Despite working perfectly, the system caused hilarity when an irate BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce misunderstood its functioning and railed against being so deceived.


The other bold innovation of the World Cup has in fact already been a feature of Brazilian domestic football for eight years. This was the ‘vanishing spray’, a white foam which referees may use in an attempt to ensure that defenders remain the requisite ten yards from the ball upon attacking free-kicks. So during the tournament referees sprayed a white mark by the site of the stationary ball, then a horizontal line by the feet of defenders – meant to keep them at bay, and disappearing after a minute or so on the playing surface. Hitherto used in the domestic leagues of Brazil, Argentina, and the United States, there is no conclusive evidence that the spray contributes to more goals scored from free-kicks. Still an eminently sensible if only partial solution to a real problem, the spray has been ratified for the forthcoming seasons in ItalySpain, and France, and will feature in the UEFA Champions League. While the English Premier League first proposed compiling a series of reports on the issue, and allowing the spray from 2015 at the earliest, it has ceded ground and will now introduce it too in 2014-15. The Germans are still contemplating whether to use it for the coming season.

Away from the pitch, The Time of the Game drew upon a variety of interconnected technologies – televisions, and the other screens through which we watch; cameras, which as facets of mobile phones and tablet computers have become extensions of ourselves, and allow us to share images seamlessly; and online social networks – to provide an interactive history of how the world saw the World Cup final. A collaborative project devised by the writer Teju Cole, and achieved alongside software artist Jer Thorp, and artist and developer Mario Klingemann, The Time of the Game describes itself as ‘a synchronized global view of the World Cup final’. Before Germany and Argentina kicked off, Cole asked his 160,000 Twitter followers to post photographs of their screens as they watched the game, noting the minute of action and their own location, and using the hashtag #thetimeofthegame.


Collecting all the submissions which used the hashtag – and those too which used the tag #timeofthegame – resulted in a body of over 2,000 images. The Time of the Game collates these images and shows them chronologically. Fixed and centred upon the viewing screen – most often a television, but also frequently a laptop or tablet – the photographs flash consecutively across the 120 minutes of football played. So The Time of the Game offers a unique perspective, a fractured collage of the World Cup final, and it can be viewed with an eye for the football on display: showing players’ expressions, decisive moments, even differences in coverage between broadcasters from different nations. But more than this, it provides the specifics of how people watched the World Cup – the devices which they used, their surroundings, the materiality of their lives – and a broader sense of a communal experience shared equally among people between different time zones, parts of different cultures, and living with differing circumstances.

As Cole wrote when introducing the project, ‘We live in different time zones, out of sync but aware of each other. Then the game begins and we enter the same time: the time of the game.’ While the images are ‘formally satisfying’ because the focus on the screen affords a ‘frame within a frame’, in an interview with The Atlantic Cole conceptualises the cumulative result as an investigation of ”public time’ […] which is the chronological equivalent of ‘public space’.’ Indeed, The Time of the Game plays thoroughly with the concepts of public and private. It seems to publicise the private space as much as it makes the public space intimate; and contrasts the public sphere of football – which moves beyond the playing of the game, and beyond its broadcasters and analysts, to the discussions we share about football with others – with the individual act of sitting, often alone, and staring and viewing. In addition to the full thread of pictures, it is possible to select via the site a range of images based on time or location: selecting all photographs taken, for instance, in Brooklyn, or in the 45th minute, or for the thirty-minute duration of extra time.