World Cup armbands won’t change the world

20 December 2022

FIFA is like the United Nations, but with more countries. It has 211 affiliated associations versus 193 UN member countries. There are no other power-players more global than these two. No one would doubt the political role of the UN. But FIFA is not far behind: it allowed the United Kingdom to split, put Israel to play in Europe, denied a national team to Catalonia but not to Scotland.

What do these two global politics giants do when they get together? It just happened. For this World Cup, they sat down at a table and negotiated. On one side, the UN, the moral reserve of the planet, the most authorised organisation to intervene in wars, climate crises and catastrophes. On the other side, FIFA, the owner of the world’s greatest symbolic capital, soccer. Two soft power colossuses greet each other.

Together, they decided to launch a public good campaign during the most watched sporting event of the planet through a series of hashtags such as #EndHunger, #EducationForAll and #NoDiscrimination. The list goes on to ten. At each stage of the tournament, team captains wore an armband with some of these inscriptions. No one considered the dozens of scientific publications showing that our brains are incapable of remembering a list of more than seven things.

It is true that these are all desirable slogans and that, thanks to this initiative, they were seen by millions of spectators. But it’s also true that few are likely to register them: they are unanimous, they are obvious, and there are so many of them that they cancel each other out in a cacophony of good intentions. Of course, there is no shortage of #SaveThePlanet, which mimics the Save the Whales invented by Greenpeace in 1975, but without the grace of rhyme and almost 50 years later.

It is likely that in the conversation between the UN and FIFA these ideas seemed ideal. In addition to washing FIFA’s image – and triggering the ‘sportswashing’ accusation – they are claims that offend no one and generate no controversy. They are the optimal meeting point for the representatives of so many nations – professional equilibrists – to reach an agreement. The communication experts of both institutions must know that these campaigns do not affect reality, but they also know that one word too many on these issues can ignite a powder keg.

The problem is that we urgently need good communication on these issues. Climate change, humanitarian catastrophes and migration crises are threats that can only be resolved with global political coordination. And nothing moves politics more than social pressure. Who will build this communication if not the protagonists of the planetary scene, such as the UN and FIFA?

Scientists and communicators have long been aware of the challenge. The linguist George Lakoff wrote that the main problem in communicating climate change is that we do not even have words to name the multiple causality that explains such a complex phenomenon. This year the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich launched a three-year project led by academic Ophelia Deroy that brings together philosophers and neuroscientists to study how to communicate these issues, even though the subject matter of science is always uncertain and communication sometimes demands certainty.

The pandemic gave impetus to these concerns. Medical messages and statistical figures were combined with the need to reach the widest possible audience: all human beings. There we saw that the king was naked: we have no foolproof formulas or bulletproof tools. But at the same time, we have the opportunity to think about this and gather all the knowledge that we do have.

We know, for example, that we react immediately to images that are familiar and close to us, but we dismiss those that are not: no one went out to buy toilet paper in Argentina because there was a virus in China, but we did when we saw the overcrowded hospitals in Italy. We also know that people are egocentric when it comes to consuming information: our brain has far greater access to what we feel and ourselves than to what others feel and do. It’s not that we can’t be altruistic. But no one wants to be conscientised by others. In short, we know that generic hashtags sequenced one after another during this World Cup cannot improve the world.

Perhaps, for the moment, we should stick to a more modest and less global claim. #VamosArgentina!