FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil: Football and Fan Parks

The growth in sports mega events has seen spectacles such as the Olympics Games and the World Cup adopt increasing global significance. Reflecting the widespread manipulation of meanings, these quadrennial competitions are subject to varying receptions, interpretations and analysis. Popular and media responses have both reflected and shaped the increasing consumption of sporting hyper-experiences. Such accounts are typically less concerned with the snobbery that has curtailed scholarly analysis, with academic researchers often encouraged instead to focus their inquiries on matters ‘more serious’ than sport.

Thankfully there has been some considerable resistance, with many academics willing to investigate that which matters to significant portions of populations. As most inhabitants of planet earth will be acutely aware – particularly during the ongoing World Cup – sport really matters to people. Scholars seeking to frame and expand our understanding of sporting festivals have focused their lens through various intersecting academic disciplines, including economics, politics, sociology, leisure and tourism.

Host cities and nations keen to promote growth and investment and showcase people and places, have (over)committed vast financial resources in the process of staging global sporting competitions. Such expenditure also reflects the perception of sports mega events as emotional platforms central to the global cultural economy. The continued expansion of global sports tournament broadcasting has made it easier to ‘experience’ the events. However, this virtual and displaced engagement has not replaced attendance and spectatorship – but served to inspire countless sporting pilgrimages.

The practice of travelling to watch football has formed a well established culture. Increases in leisure time, expendable income and tourism infrastructure are among the plethora of factors which have combined to extend the phenomenon of fandom beyond borders and across oceans. Growing numbers of sports tourists provide organising committees in host nations with various ongoing challenges, as the number of touring fans travelling is often greater than the capacity of the respective sports arenas. When demand outweighs supply, black market ticketing economies usually emerge and thrive, despite legal restrictions.

Irrespective of the unofficial inflation of ticket prices and the degree to which fans are willing to match such valuations however, there will always be significant numbers of supporters in attendance, but unable to gain entry to stadiums. This presents event organisers with a more significant challenge – which is particularly the case in football, given its association with participatory partisan support.

For the majority of their first century of existence, most fixtures played by British football clubs were attended primarily by ‘home’ supporters. Changes in the working week enabled fans to travel to ‘away’ matches (as a numerical minority), offering a challenge to those responsible for policing football games.

Some authorities reacted by imposing an enforced segregation of supporters from the early 1960s, creating territorial divisions in stadiums. This contributed to the advancement of the ‘us versus them’ mentality which now permeates world football. It also contributed to a number of disorderly behaviours commonly depicted under the spurious umbrella term of ‘football hooliganism’. For four decades international football tournaments were in many cases perceived as central sites of hooligan conduct, partly as a consequence of the behaviour, policing and media representation of fans.

The European Championships co-hosted by Holland and Belgium in 2000 served as a watershed for football mega events. The reality of hooliganism and poor crowd control (previously culminating in various football tragedies), and the associated moral panic had helped produce an expanse of football-related legislation. The often disproportionate nature and inconsistent application of these laws (notably in England) served to restrict the civil liberties of fans in many cases. During one incident at Euro 2000 for example, 965 fans were arrested, with only one supporter charged with an offence.

Subsequent events have seen a gradual shift away from alienating and demonising fans towards distracting, entertaining and even trusting existing supporters, together with increasing attempts to encourage non-traditional supporter types in order to dilute and discourage disorderly conduct. (This also creates new revenue streams, which is usually the priority for tournament organisers and sponsors). In responding to all these issues, one of the most ‘successful’ developments of modern events has been Fan Parks.

Trialled at Euro 2004 in Portugal before being adopted on a large scale by the Germans at the 2006 World Cup, these festival sites have completely revolutionised the way fans behave and interact, and how they are policed and received. Slowly but surely, the reputation of football fans is changing, and Fan Parks have played no small part in modifying actions and modernising perceptions.

Fan Parks are free football ‘festivals’ staged in temporary, specific locations within host cities. Inside their often secure boundaries, supporters are free to interact with each other, eat, drink (alcohol) and watch football on large screens. Between matches, various musical, cultural and comedic entertainment is provided, together with football-themed experiences and adrenaline activities – typically funded by tournament sponsors.

Spectators enter the Fan Parks through airport-like security, reducing the risk of threat, and providing peace of mind to fellow supporters. Importantly, the space inside is not subject to segregation, and the police presence is typically preventative and responsive rather than reactive. The huge screens on which matches are projected serve as natural amphitheatres, and the atmosphere of fan parks occasionally rivals that of the stadiums.

Fan Parks manufacture and accentuate the ‘intense’ and memorable experiences that supporters travel for, and these facilities have helped reframe and redirect many carnivalesque behaviours away from hooliganism. Ultimately, Fan Parks offer a parallel but not comparable experience to match attendance, and they are valued by supporters, as evidenced by the long queues to gain entry in some locations. The Parks therefore are more than holding zones for ticketless fans. They have become part of the event, and fans are both consumers and producers of this phenomenon.

These reflections are supported by extensive research into sports mega events that I have been involved with during the last fifteen years. I have attendance matches in 200 grounds in 80 countries across six continents during that time. Brazil is my fourth World Cup, and I have watched teams from all five continental confederations represented in this year’s event during the group stages. These include Belgium in Rio, Cameroon and Brazil in Brasilia, Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte and South Korea in São Paulo.

This event, hosted by the five-time world champions, is taking place in some of the globe’s largest cities. I am currently penning this piece from the roof of a high-rise hotel in São Paulo, a metropolis inhabited by 11.3 million people – the ninth most populous city on the planet. As a result, visiting the stadium and Fan Park in each city, as well as other tourist destinations in the respective localities, has proven quite a challenge.

In Rio however, I was able to attend a match at the world renowned Maracana stadium, which has been internally renovated almost beyond recognition since my previous visit in 2008. As well as exploring various tourist sites, I also watched matches on three consecutive evenings in Rio’s Fan Park, which is ideally situated on Copacabana Beach.

Supporters from all over the world gather in the fan festival each day to watch football, often adorning their national colours. I have seen representatives from countries unrecognised by the United Nations and even FIFA, the world football governing body. Supporters from other countries gather in greater numbers, notably English, Dutch, German, American, Mexican and Australian fans.

This is a South American World Cup however, and therefore the majority of supporters are from Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and to a lesser extent Colombia, Uruguay and Ecuador. Many spectators have travelled huge distances overland to be at the event, and the Fan Park offers supporters a meeting point and the opportunity to watch football peacefully and share the experience with others.

Certainly these Parks have not been completely free of unsavoury incidents. The Rio Fan Park has been dangerously overcrowded at times, and I have witnessed Brazilian and Argentinian supporters fight each other and amongst themselves there. Some of these altercations involved the use of makeshift weapons made from items found in the Park. I also saw England supporters clash with local supporters in Belo Horizonte’s stadium during the final match of their dismal campaign.

However, whilst these actions should not be condoned, neither should they be considered representative of the collective. As the World Cup approaches the halfway stage, the early assessments indicate that the event is proving a success. The anti-government protests that dominated the pre-tournament headlines in Brazil are no less relevant than they were, but they have proven less common and less problematic for travelling fans as the event has progressed. Anti-FIFA graffiti and slogans are still very visible in the cities, and the expenditure of public money in Brazil in order to host the World Cup (with Rio also hosting the Olympics in 2016) has mad the tournament unpopular locally.

Frustrated Brazilians do understand however that touring supporters are not to blame – directly at least – and the fans have not become the target for the protestors. Instead supporters have been allowed to enjoy the event in peace thus far, and the continuation, participation and interpretation of the Fan Parks has certainly played its part.