Conspiracy at the World Cup

It’s all there—you just have to know what to look for

Reader Rogério Itokazu, of São Paulo, was not happy.

“Neymar was the victim of a conspiracy! They’re doing everything to make sure that Brazil don’t win the World Cup!” he wrote in an angry letter to the Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s most respected newspaper.

Nothing new here, of course. Soccer inspires great passion, and great passion and cool reason do not always make easy bedfellows. Fans are the lifeblood of the game, but when that blood runs hot, then it’s time to reach for the mute button. Anyway, it’s not as if anyone higher up the soccer food chain would believe such stuff, is it?

“There’s been a plot to remove us from the World Cup since the opening day,” growled former FIFA referee Jose Roberto Wright in his column in Lance!, the host nation’s leading soccer daily, the day after English referee Howard Webb had controversially disallowed Hulk’s goal against Chile for handball. Mr. Wright did not, unfortunately, reveal who he believed to be behind the dastardly plot.

And only a churl, surely, would cast aspersions on the reliability of the esteemed Brazilian ex-whistler by recalling his rather unfortunate day’s work in 1981, when he sent off five Atletico Mineiro players in the first half of a crucial Libertadores tie against Brazil’s biggest and most influential club, Flamengo, causing the game to be abandoned due to a lack of players.

Mr. Wright, clearly suffering from a nasty bout of amnesia, also seemed to have let Brazil’s opening game against Croatia slip his mind. There, Fred was awarded a dubious, and decisive, penalty for slipping on a particularly greasy patch of penalty area grass, and Neymar was allowed to stay on the field after delivering a devastating elbow swipe to the face of Croatia’s Luka Modric. “It’s pretty obvious that the host nation is going to have an advantage,” said Croatia coach Niko Kovac after the game. “If that’s how we start the World Cup, we may as well give up and go home now,” he muttered, forcing FIFA to deny that there was a conspiracy in favor of Brazil.

But wait! Perhaps Mr. Wright is on to something. Here comes Brazil’s technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira.

“If there’s a conspiracy, it’s against Brazil,” he said after the Chile game, outraged that a decision, any decision, had gone against his team. “It bothers someone that we might win the hexa, and it’s only going to get worse over the next few games” he growled.

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was also troubled. “We’re being very gentlemanly, very cordial, very respectful to these foreigners,” he said, flinching nervously as a group of Japanese tourists wandered past. “We need to change our style. We can’t sit and be abused by foreign coaches, players, and the foreign press.”

Felipão, it seems, was mad, and he wasn’t going to take it. “It’s time I got back to my real style. You know what that is? Aggressive. I can’t stand it anymore!”

“We can’t comment on declarations made after games, when emotions are still running high,” sniffed FIFA spokesperson Delia Fischer, stopping short of suggesting that Carlos and Luiz try and get a good night’s sleep.

Conspiracy theories, the idea that everyone (or an enigmatic, unidentified “someone”) is out to get you, have abounded at this World Cup. Scarcely a team has packed its bags for home without a farewell salvo in the direction of a referee or FIFA in general. “Why bring over referees from the Asian, American, or African federations if the referees in our games are always European? The referee invented that penalty!” snarled Mexico coach Miguel Herrera after his team lost to Holland. “They’re a bunch of old sons of bitches,” roared Uruguay president Jose Mujica after Luiz Suarez’s (admittedly controversial) nine-game, four-month suspension for biting Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. “These are fascist sanctions.”

In one sense the paranoia is understandable. The pressure at this World Cup, especially on the host nation, is immense. And soccer, like most sports, is hardly innocent of dubious decisions and shady dealings—the current dark mutterings surrounding the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar providing a fine example. Nor is it any great shock that so many of the complaints come from Latin America; soccer on the continent has a long and proud reputation for jiggery-pokery, not least in Brazil.

In 2005, the “Whistle Mafia”—a match-fixing scandal involving top Brazilian referees—caused 11 games in the national championship to be replayed, changing the identity of the title winner in the process. Last year, a long courtroom saga ended with little São Paulo club Portuguesa being relegated on a technicality, while influential Rio club Fluminense, who had previously finished in a relegation spot, was saved. Nor is the problem limited to soccer. In Brazilian political life, corruption often appears to be institutionalized, creating an (un)healthy lack of faith in the authorities, both public and private.

Playing on such a slippery moral surface creates fertile ground for conspiracies to bloom, some of which are built on sturdier foundations than others. At the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, for example, Brazil was eliminated when the hosts, needing to beat Peru by four in their last group game, scored six as their opponents collapsed with mysterious ease. “We’re the moral champions,” said Brazil coach Claudio Coutinho afterwards.

Perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory came at the 1998 World Cup, when a groggy Ronaldo became mysteriously unwell before the final against France. His zombie-like performance that day helped the hosts to a 3-0 win. A great many Brazilian fans believe that the game was rigged/fixed/bought/sold by FIFA/Nike/The French FA, although, as is usually the case, no one seems to have any hard evidence, or even a particularly compelling argument.

One man who does have a good argument is Rodrigo Constantino, a blogger for the Veja website in Brazil. Rodrigo’s tagline is “a liberal unafraid of controversy,” and controversy he certainly got a couple of weeks ago. After a careful analysis of the official World Cup logo, Rodrigo noticed that the year, 2014, was written in vivid red. Red is the color of Brazil’s governing Workers Party (the PT), and 2014 is an election year in Brazil. “I ask the reader—is it possible to be troubled by the red 2014? Is it subliminal propaganda? Probably.” Rodrigo’s concerns were picked up by LA Times Brazil correspondent Vincent Bevins, whose first two tweeted words on the subject were probably all that were required—“Oh God…”

In a few short hours, Brazil will take on Germany in the World Cup semi-final. We wish them well. After all, in addition to Schweinsteiger, Muller, Kroos and co., Luiz Felipe Scolari and his men are also taking on the Bilderberg Group, FIFA, Barack Obama….