FIFA Has Succeeded in Whitewashing the Stadium Experience, But Why Does Television Coverage Have to Be So Predictable?
By David Goldblatt | Photograph by Ryu Voelkel
[S]occer is, obviously, the centerpiece of the World Cup, but it means nothing without the crowd — the people in the stadiums, in the streets and parks of Brazilian cities, and in the urban spaces all over the world where collective viewing of the tournament has increasingly become the norm. It is a phenomenon that heightens the profoundly different levels of personal security that exist in the cities of this world. Tragically, in Nigeria, crowds watching the tournament have twice become the target of suicide bombers. An attack on a viewing party was thwarted in Beirut, and the Kenyan government has urged people to stay home just in case. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Germans bring their own sofas to the pitch of small club Union Berlin and relax in front of a big screen in a stadium decorated to look like a comfortable sitting room.
The crowds in Brazil’s World Cup stadiums and their immediate environs are strictly stewarded and policed, but in the streets and squares of competing nations, the World Cup crowd can become much more riotous. The Chilean government, alert to the intensity of the national fiesta, implores residents in the capital to go easy on the barbeque for fear of an urban air-pollution disaster. The victory over Spain triggered wild celebrations in downtown Santiago that resulted in fires, drunken confrontations with the police, and damage to over 300 buses. The level of drinking and violence that accompanied Colombia’s opening win over Greece was so great that the government has imposed an alcohol ban for future matches.
In Brazil itself, coverage of the fans has inevitably focused on transgressive moments, like the Chileans who stormed through the Maracanã media center and the Argentines who tried to slip in over a wall, as well as scattered reports of racist chanting. Beyond that, the fan experience and the view from the crowd are a small part of the conversation.
The TV feed of the games that FIFA provides its broadcast partners does seem to recognise the importance of the crowd, and its coverage is technologically amazing. Aesthetically, however, it is dismal. A cable-strung camera offers large tracking shots in high resolution, providing magnificent images of large sections of the crowd. The interlacing patches and strips of Mexican orange and Brazilian yellow, for example were visually stunning, but for the most part TV viewers only get to see a strip of the audience above the blinking perimeter of advertising.
The Nigerian supporters arrived at their game against Iran with a huge troupe of musicians and marched on the stadium in a great musical cavalcade that had the whole place buzzing. Why weren’t the cameras there to see it and to capture the FIFA officials and local security confiscating the drums?
The preference, despite the essentially collective experience on display, is for individuals in close-up. A certain amount of cheese is permissible, but the cliché-o-metre is simply on overload. First, there is a ridiculous bias toward good-looking women in the crowd, when in fact most of the audience is male. Second, if I never see another moment of “Oh I’m on the big screen recognition” and the pavlovian euphoria and undignified grandstanding that follows, it will be too soon.
On the plus side, the focus on carnivalesque clothing is good. People have made an effort. The Dutch air-cabin crew, for example, earned its 15 seconds of fame. It is also interesting to note that the drums that intrepid fans — notably the Ghanians, Greeks, and Ivorians — have managed to sneak into the stadiums despite FIFA’s ban on musical instruments have been a magnet for the cameras. Yet there is so much that the producers are missing.
The official Nigerian football supporters clubs arrived at their game against Iran with a huge troupe of musicians and marched on the stadium in a great musical cavalcade that had the whole place buzzing. Why weren’t the cameras there to see it and to capture the FIFA officials and local security confiscating the drums? I mean, really. Would do you want to watch a bunch of hacks who don’t know all that much about Iranian or Nigerian soccer as they trot through some pre-match clichés, or would you rather be checking the Nigerians on the bus?
It is with this in mind that I am composing a wishlist of crowd coverage. There must be enough bandwidth in the world that we could tune into to a crowd-only feed from the stadiums. CrowdCam, sponsored by Whatever Global Corporation. At the very least, give us the option to listen to the noise in the stadium without any commentary at all. Better still, can we have some soccer-savvy translators at the ready, putting up translations of songs and chants, ready with explanations of meaning and context? In my wilder dreams I see an anthropologist embedded in row H, fan journalists live streaming from the press box and the mixed zone, and specialist crowd co-commentators.
Impossible? During the Japan-Greece game I heard a BBC commentator not noted for his love of social history explain the presence of many Brazilian-Japanese fans with reference to their nineteenth century migrations and the state of the Brazilian coffee industry — discourse that would have been inconceivable not so long ago. It doesn’t seem that fanciful to imagine that he might have gone on to tactfully translate the stream of vulgar songs coming from the embattled Greek crowd, or shown a slow-motion replay of the brilliant feint and dummy routine that got their drums past the x-ray machine. And let’s face it, given what happened on the field, it would have been one of the best moves of the night.
David Goldblatt is the author of The Ball Is Round and Futebol Nation, and appears on our DUMMY podcast. Ryu Voelkel is Howler’s Eyes in Europe and is shooting in Brazil this summer. Purchase his forthcoming book of World Cup photos at ryuxrio.com.