On Sunday, waiting for a flight to São Paulo, I watched the Netherlands’ last-16 match against Mexico at Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro. It felt like the archetypal moment of a modern World Cup. There were people in the shirts of Uruguay, France, Belgium, Russia, Colombia and Argentina, as well as Mexicans (who presumably hadn’t counted on making it through the group) and Brazilians (many of whom seem, for the duration of the tournament, to wear the national uniform of Nike yellow at all times). There was at least one television commentary team, children, old people, men, women; the world uniting on a bland, brightly lit food court to stare at a big screen, sponsored by Budweiser. They drank Coke and ate undercooked wedges of pizza – “American pizza, Italian flavour”, the outlet boasted, whatever that means.
The scene was eerily Ballardian, although this was a lounge stripped of the sense of possibility with which J G Ballard would have imbued it. Fifa, you suspect, would like the World Cup to become something similar: safe, antiseptic, anaesthetised, with difference expressed by nothing more than colour of shirt, as everybody shells out for the global brands with which it has signed sponsorship deals.
With the street protests here muted, the only anti-Fifa note has been struck by the nation of Uruguay and its all but unconditional support of Luis Suárez after he was given a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini. In the fog of denial, Suárez ludicrously claimed he had lost his balance and fallen into the Italy defender, something that caused him “a strong pain in the teeth”.
There is a legitimate question to be asked about why football punishes biting so much more severely than flailing elbows or bad tackles, which can cause injuries far more severe than a few marks on the shoulder – and you wonder why Neymar, Kyle Beckerman and Mamadou Sakho have escaped investigation for apparent elbows in the World Cup – but having already been banned for a total of 17 games for two biting offences, Suárez can hardly claim he didn’t know how gravely the offence is considered. Equally, there seems to be something a little draconian about the four-month ban, which is not just from playing but from all “football-related activity”. That means he had to leave Uruguay’s team hotel, will not be able to train with Liverpool, his club (for now), and can’t even appear in their team photograph.
Uruguay’s manager, Óscar Tabárez, usually the most thoughtful of men, hinted at those concerns but ended up blaming the “English-speaking” media for asking a series of questions about the bite, and thus forcing Fifa to act. The chutzpah was staggering – Fifa, after all, has spent much of the past decade decrying the English-speaking media for making allegations of corruption within the organisation on an almost weekly basis. The idea that Fifa could be influenced by them is laughable – and ignores the blanket coverage given to the Suárez bite in Brazil and elsewhere.
At least Tabárez had the excuse that he was fostering a siege mentality to try to stiffen the Uruguayans’ resolve ahead of their game against Colombia, which was lost. José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, was presumably speaking from the heart when he denounced the punishment as “a fascist ban” and called Fifa “a bunch of old sons of bitches”. All of this righteous anger was somewhat undermined when, on 30 June, Suárez apologised, “having had the opportunity to regain [his] calm”. It was almost as though somebody had read the explanation for the sanction issued by Fifa, had seen the condemnation of Suárez’s lack of contrition and had recognised an apology was a necessary first step in appealing to reduce the ban. But surely Suárez, who didn’t consult Liverpool before making his statement, couldn’t have been acting under instruction from Barcelona, who are desperate to sign him, despite it all? Because if that were the case, it might make the great Uruguayan martyr seem just a little venal.
Although there has been the occasional fracas in the stadiums – the incident in which one England fan bit the ear of another, for instance, or when Chilean fans without tickets invaded the media centre at the Maracanã and were chased by security, who were themselves chased by men with cameras, just a lingerie-clad model from being a Benny Hill sketch – this has been another tournament in which fans have become almost part of a Fifa-sanctioned backdrop. There is a set way to behave. Team shirts (great for the manufacturers) and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves, once a sign of boredom, now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. It’s as if fans have become complicit in their reduction to bovinity.
Most inexplicable of all, though, is the reaction of fans who see themselves on the big screen. Even at the height of the tension in the shoot-out between Brazil and Chile, a game in which it seemed a nation was holding its breath, fans had the same Pavlovian response. As Neymar stepped up to take his penalty with the scores level, the camera focused on a pair of young women in Brazil shirts and face paint. They looked terrified, hands to cheeks. Then they caught sight of themselves on the big screen and responded as they were supposed to, smiling and waving, jumping up and down. How tense could they have been a second earlier? Which was the artificial emotion? This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive people, behaving exactly as they’re supposed to.