Off the Ball: a personal World-Cup reflection

August 2014 Opinion Martin de Jong In the weeks leading up to the Football World Cup – wait, this is not about the sport – I agonised whether to watch…

August 2014


Martin de Jong

In the weeks leading up to the Football World Cup – wait, this is not about the sport – I agonised whether to watch or not. I’m not in general terms a sports fan, but I played soccer when I was young and love international football competitions.

But this World Cup made me uneasy – the deaths of construction workers; the mass protests about spending on football while schools, hospitals and social needs suffered; and the increasing clamour about alleged FIFA corruption. I shared my agonising with a football-loving friend who said, ‘Oh, you can still enjoy the games and call for justice in world football at the same time’. I wasn’t so sure.

Sports columnist Mark Reason’s call for the New Zealand Football Association (NZFA) to walk away from FIFA was the last straw. Hang it all, I knew the NZFA wasn’t going to pull out of FIFA, but at least I could pull out of watching the games.

Unfortunately, for me, this turned out to be one of the best footballing WC tournaments in recent times. But does a stirring competition justify the deaths of seven construction workers, the eviction of 200,000 plus people from homes they built themselves because of a society that doesn’t care enough about its poorest people? Enjoying the good things of life should not be at the expense or the good of others.

So I entered what became a ‘second Lent’– depriving myself of a ‘good thing’ (football) for the sake of a higher good being justice for all.

I knew it wasn’t going to change the world, and the person who’d feel it the most would be me, but: how long do we tolerate and benefit from injustice before we do something about it? I know there are other things I use that I need to look at it, or am lazy about, but ‘boycotting’ the World Cup was a limited, achievable goal, an experiment to see where it would lead me.
On the day the Cup kicked off, I walked past a night-time football game being played by a group of
10- to 12-year-olds on a very cold Wellington evening.

At that moment I felt I was going to be walking a different path, a lonely path, but these are some of the learning highlights of my journey.
I wasn’t walking alone. I found at least four ‘boycott World Cup’ sites on Facebook with followers ranging from hundreds to several thousand, and various petitions calling for justice around the World Cup games.

There is an alternative to FIFA – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA). It represents nations, dependencies, unrecognised states, minorities, and micro-nations not affiliated to FIFA. They held their World Cup in Östersund, Sweden in June 2014. It did not cost $11 billion.

Police brutality in ‘keeping the peace’ in Brazil was bad – there is some pretty shocking footage on the internet from independent journalists. Real people got hurt so Brazil could ‘put on a good show’ for the world.

I still really love football. At times, I still got caught up in the results especially when underdogs like Costa Rica beat the former world champions.

And, I did allow myself to watch a ‘consolation match’ – the 3rd and 4th playoff between Netherlands – my favoured team – and Brazil.
You can read more about some of my learnings and satirical writings on the social and political side of football on the blog I ran during the tournament.

I’m still wrestling with the questions: Sport, what is it good for? And, how do we keep it ‘good’ – in every meaning of the term?

Martin de Jong is a Wellington-based Advocacy and Research Adviser for Caritas New Zealand.