You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Towards an Ethic of World Cup Fandom

A philosopher in Brazil ruminates on how to be a good fan


Sometime before he died, my uncle told me that in his youth, his dream had been to watch a World Cup game in person. He passed away before he could do it, so when Costa Rica qualified for the FIFA World Cup, I seized the chance to go. I contacted welcoming friends in Brazil, bought a ticket to see my team play football against England, and planned my trip. Like many fans around the world, I wanted to appreciate the beautiful game played at the highest level.

I did have some qualms about the way the Cup was being organized, but I planned the trip anyway. Upon arrival, however, I realized how much I had underestimated the political and social issues afflicting modern Brazil. From the bus and airport strikes to the wave of protests sweeping the country, the dissensus was obvious, and I started to feel conflicted about my role or complicity in all of this as a tourist. Equal parts philosophy professor and soccer aficionado, I found myself mired in an ethical quandary: What were visiting fans like me supposed to do in the midst of objections by many Brazilian citizens to the World Cup, the actual protests of several groups, and the various strategies, many of them military, implemented to secure its realization? 

Two nights before the inaugural game, a group of university students and social activists gathered to protest on the steps of the Municipal Theater in Sao Paulo. The main banner read “Terrorista é a FIFA” (FIFA is the terrorist). Many protesters held posters with the portraits and trade of the workers who died during the construction of the stadiums in which the Cup is being played. Another prominent banner declared “A Copa da Tropas” (The Troops' Cup), an allusion to the militarization of the policing operations that will surround the event. Speakers from social organizations denounced what they considered the various socioeconomic injustices and political abuses brought upon the Brazilian people by their government and FIFA. They denounced both the appropriation of state funds for the Cup, arguing the resources should go to education and health, as well as the military apparatus that will ironically enforce peace. Dozens of people, mostly young and dressed casually, listened attentively.

Nearby, members of the union of workers of the subway system listened as they gathered to start their own march of protest through Sao Paulo's city center. Their recent strike, momentarily suspended, had wreaked havoc on public transport and city traffic during the preceding days as they demanded salary increases and better benefits. A court had ruled their strike “abusive” but could not rule it “illegal.” Meanwhile, a performance of George Bizet's opera “Carmen” was scheduled to start at the theater at 8:00 p.m. The opera-goers circumvented the protest and walked up the steps. Some stopped to listen and approved; most, however, only glanced sideways on their way up the steps and entered the theater as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, workers from nearby commercial establishments walked past the protest on their way to bus and subway stations to start their commute home. I was standing on the steps, torn between staying outside to listen, talk to protesters, and see how the events would unfold, and entering the theater to listen to the opera.

The situation symbolized the present conundrum in Brazil: I came to visit friends, enjoy their country, and watch a World Cup game, but now I am forced to confront a serious ethical dilemma about my participation in the event, even—or especially—as a fan. What am I supposed to do?

In a bout of self-consciousness, I have bought more books by Brazilian authors like Clarice Lispector, Cecilia Meireles, and Lima Barreto, from small bookstores throughout the city, than I can possibly read in a year. I try to eat at small, popular eateries rather than at commercial food chains. Objecting citizens may be overlooking the fact that students all over the world are learning about Brazilian arts, letters, and philosophy due to the attention brought upon the country by the World Cup. For example, this past semester, a student in my course on Latin American thought at Brooklyn College argued that the World Cup in fact represented a serious threat to democracy, given the authoritarian policies installed to organize and realize the Cup. He cited Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian and philosopher, as a source for his concept of a just, participatory democracy. But none of these positive consequences will get rid of the military operation established to secure games such as the one I will attend, and the articulation of a new international policing apparatus that will not be dismantled after the Cup. They cannot undo the public expenditures to build overpriced stadiums. At any rate, trying to track down all the consequences of buying a ticket from FIFA, coming to Brazil, and participating in the business surrounding the World Cup is impossible and does not get to the heart of the matter.

The central issue is that Brazilian citizens are undergoing a democratic struggle about the future of their society, and as a guest I need a principle for how to act. I do not have a normative answer—something I “ought to do”—but I do have a recommendation that may be helpful to others: “caring engagement.” Let me begin with “engagement.” It would not be commendable to come and pretend that Brazil is here simply to host a sporting event for foreigners. Brazil is here for its citizens to live and create, day by day, a more just society, not simply to offer services to demanding football fans. It is important to not only acknowledge how Brazilians feel about the World Cup, but also to ask them about their aspirations for the future of their democracy. The World Cup will come and go; visitors will come and go; but Brazilians will stay and shape the future of their society. It will be instructive to ask what they think and hope. 

I have talked to students who demand better education and reject the Cup; a house worker and caretaker who agrees with demanding better social services but not through disruptive protests; a taxi driver who benefited from the subway strike but also lives near the Arena Corinthians stadium and feels apprehensive about whether security forces will allow him free access to his own neighborhood during games; teachers who are supportive of social protests but not through strikes by special interest groups that mostly harm other workers; and patrons at a small popular bar or boteco who are enthusiastic about Brazilian football and hosting the Cup. The point is: ask; inquire; find out.

From my standpoint, the engagement is best when it is “caring.” Being respectful is necessary, but it does not suffice. I could listen attentively and then go on as if nothing important were happening in Brazil beyond the Cup. I inquire, though, because I aim to care, to know how to be supportive of Brazilians in their democratic process, since caring, as philosopher Virginia Held explains, is a practice—an activity guided by deliberately chosen values. It means being responsive to the needs of others. It means offering solidarity to the just demands of Brazilian citizens, as best as one can ascertain them. It means providing one's perspective from the outside, when asked.

One avenue for fostering care is sympathy, literally “feeling-with” others. I chose a FIFA site to collect my ticket in Sao Paulo because it was accessible by subway. But I had to go on the second day of the strike and deal with the urban chaos. Yet I knew that my situation was privileged and the annoyance harmless to anything truly important. The best I could do was to be patient and let everyone else go before me, and respect that it was for the local courts to rule on the strike. For a brief moment, I had a glimpse into the struggle—the stress, the physical exhaustion, the effort to be patient and control one's irritation—of working Brazilians who were simply trying to get to and from work, trying to live a good life with loved ones as best they can. These struggles are very real, and the best a visitor can do is to engage Brazilian citizens in their hopes and ideals, share their joys, and care for their daily toils as they continue to construct a democratic society and offer their hospitality for the World Cup.