FIFA scholarship brings Emory's Chris Brown to Brazil for the World Cup

By Leslie King | Emory Report | June 9, 2014

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Emory PhD candidate Chris Brown's interest in soccer is both athletic and academic: He plays in Emory's intramural league and the sport lies at the heart of his dissertation. Emory Photo/Video.

The World Cup, the quadrennial international soccer tournament, begins June 12 in Brazil and Emory PhD candidate Chris Brown will be there, partly as an extension of his dissertation.

Following his World Cup experience, Brown will remain in Brazil for more than a year, courtesy of a scholarship from FIFA, the international governing body of football that runs the World Cup.

The native of England came to Emory's Laney Graduate School in 2011 on a United Kingdom Fulbright Scholarship to enter the doctoral program in history.

Shortly before Brown left for Brazil, Emory Report caught up with him to discuss his research, the World Cup, how soccer "brings together and separates people in equal measure," and the sport's future in the U.S.

How did you get to Emory?

I did an undergrad degree in England, then a master's at Oxford. I was interested in working with [Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History and department chair] Jeffrey Lesser here, who works on ethnicity in Brazil and national identity. 2011 was a very good time to enter because that same year another professor joined Emory, Thomas Rogers, who is also a scholar of Brazil. So with him and Jeffrey Lesser, Emory is one of the top places to study modern Brazil.

Describe your FIFA scholarship.

FIFA administers this scholarship through a sports studies center, the CIE, in Switzerland. The scholarship can be applied to any field of research. I think my research is interesting to them because it's considering the background and maybe the legacy of hosting a World Cup in a peripheral city of a country, what goes into that, why do they do it and suggesting what might be some of the consequences.

Officially, attending the World Cup is not a requirement. My project was decided with the World Cup as an aside. For the 12 months or more that I'm in Brazil, after the World Cup, my research will be focused on historical archives. The World Cup has stimulated a lot of research in Brazil.

What is your interest in Brazil?

I'm interested in Brazil precisely because of its heterogeneity and what Brazil's role in the Americas is and more broadly will be. One of Brazil's ambitions is to have a seat on the U.N. Security Council. I see Brazil as an extremely important future world player, possibly, eventually on a par with the United States.

You have studied and will be based in Manaus in Brazil. Talk about that.

Manaus (ma-nouse) is the capital of the state of Amazonas. I've been very interested, since I got here to Emory, in environmental history in an urban setting. So that's where Manaus, for me, is a great site of research: It's in the Amazon but it's a city of 3 million people.  

What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation isn't really about the World Cup. It's about the city and soccer — the city interpreted through soccer; soccer interpreted through the city.

So one aspect of my project is how soccer is used for cultural politics by putting on exhibition matches, by inviting people in, what politicians are trying to achieve. Another part is urban planning and urban infrastructure. The third aspect of the dissertation is about how newspapers, novelists and other social commentators think about soccer as representing something beyond just what's happening on the field.

I'm looking at how the city of Manaus manages itself and interacts with the rest of Brazil and the Amazon region through soccer and soccer teams.

How did you get interested in that topic?

When I first came to Emory, I had no idea that soccer or the city or the Amazon was going to be the topic. I was interested in school textbooks in Brazil and how they've changed over the years, teaching history and national identity. I was looking for something that would combine all my interests: cities, the Amazon region and soccer, which was long ignored in research. People are much more comfortable studying the tango or "refined culture." Soccer increasingly, undoubtedly the global sport, brings together and separates people in equal measure.

In the last 20 to 30 years, more and more academics have realized just how wide-ranging a role soccer can play, not only as a reflection of existing social and ethnic divides but also as a stimulant for urban change, investment and community relations.   

What time period is your dissertation covering?

I'm starting in 1914. That's when the league system was set up formally in Manaus and soccer was moving from the elite to more mass participation. How do immigrants change the sporting culture? How are new migrants integrated or not into the city's social life? Soccer teams provide a way for people to organize socially and politically. Soccer teams in Brazil's working class neighborhoods give the people there a way to interact with politicians asking for resources to build infrastructure in neighborhoods.

Also in 1914 [former U.S. President] Teddy Roosevelt visited Manaus on his big South American tour, searching for the River of Doubt. Local soccer clubs set up a game for his entertainment but Roosevelt was too ill to attend.

Did you bring an interest in soccer from your native Britain?

Well, I suppose I did but I didn't realize it would be in my academic work. It was actually in the two summers of research I did in Brazil with help from funding from Emory and an external award. I was researching education initiative in urban areas, especially poor urban areas.  What I found is that soccer was a big part of the story, in schools that are set up by local residents when there is no public schooling. Much of the day in these schools would be spent in physical activity and team-building.

Will you be able to see any World Cup games?

Yes, I have tickets for England v. Italy being played in Manaus. And it's a big, big game. I was able to get the tickets before they did the draw to see who would play where and not many people wanted to go to Manaus. It's quite expensive to go there; most foreign tourists and Brazilian tourists want to go to Rio. So there was far less demand for tickets in Manaus until they did the draw.

And now England and the U.S.A. have been drawn to play there. England and the U.S. bring large fan bases because they are affluent countries. Suddenly, demand is high. But instead of selling my ticket at a profit, I'm going to keep it.  

You expect there will be protests around the World Cup. Will these protests be a continuation of the protests going on now?

We aren't sure how large scale these protests will be and whether they'll disrupt anything.

The key point for the protesters is the Brazilian government promised private money would be used to build the stadiums and the public money would be focused on broader infrastructure projects like airports and roads and transport systems. But in practice it's been very difficult to stimulate private investment in these stadiums, which could potentially become white elephants. So public money has been funneled into the stadiums.  So many of the other things haven't happened or they've happened in a deficient manner.

The other point of contention is that FIFA demands a lot of host countries, including effectively the relaxation or suspension of certain laws. There's a question of sovereignty here that many of the protesters are concerned about. Not only is FIFA demanding a lot but they're also taking off a lot of the profit.

Why is soccer the sport of access?

Soccer's popularity is explained in its simplicity; it doesn't require many resources. It's a very cheap sport to play potentially.

I think one of the attractions of soccer in Brazil is that it is integrated into other aspects of culture, like music and dance. Commentary around soccer very early on posited Brazil as unique in the way it was able to play soccer because its racial and cultural mixing created a potential outlet for a specific Brazilian character and a way in which Brazil could succeed.

Do you place soccer yourself?

Yeah, I've always played soccer. There's always a personal aspect to this. I played at a reasonably high level but never professionally.

Do you play here?

Yes, we have a team in Emory's intramural soccer program. We call ourselves Internationale.  Last count, we have 10 nationalities on our team of 14.

My conviction that soccer can be an important — or sport can be important — as a stimulant and not just a reflection is borne out by this really great sense of community built through a soccer team. Emory has a great intramural set-up partly because alumnus Michael Kaminsky '89C gave a big donation to improve the intramural fields on campus.

I also got funding to put bike racks on the intramural fields so I think that's a tangible manifestation of my combined interests in urban planning, leisure, sport and health.

What have you learned about soccer in the United States?

The U.S. has what people idealize soccer or imagine soccer could be because it is not simply replicating the European model of creating big, big teams. You think of the Atlanta Silverbacks, the players come out after the game and walk around the field. It's very close to the action. They are trying to create some kind of community feel whereas people in Europe and South America feel the commercialization of soccer has gone too far. And you're increasingly losing that connection between the playing field and the fans around it.

What are your perceptions about soccer in the United States?

U.S. soccer has an opportunity to fulfill the dreams of what we imagine soccer should be elsewhere. Two teams in Los Angeles, the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA, symbolize the two main trends of U.S. soccer: Chivas for the Latino immigration and Galaxy is the suburban U.S. middle class.

How will Brazil do in the World Cup?

Brazil is favored to win the World Cup. It's justified but being the host is a big part of it, probably 40 percent of it. There's an unknown quantity about Brazil; we're not quite sure how good they are. But they have a very young team and the team has been very stable for the last 18 months or so.