Brazilians angry at their government and FIFA could turn this giant soccer tournament into a tipping point. Are these corrupt, elitist spectacles worth it?
The world’s “beautiful game” is about to stage its biggest tournament in the country that is its spiritual home. The realities on the ground in Brazil, however, are far different from how its ringmasters had envisioned. Stadiums haven’t been completed; roads and airports not built. Ten thousand visiting journalists may find themselves unable to make deadlines due to poor Internet and mobile service.
More ominously, there is a rising tide of discontent that threatens to turn the streets into war zones. History may well record the World Cup in Brazil as the tipping point where the costs meant the party just wasn’t worth it anymore.Nao Vai Ter Copa has become a national rallying cry. There Will Be No World Cup. People want bread, not circuses. It’s OK to love the game, but hate the event. The governing body of the game, FIFA, is not amused.
Events like World Cup and the Olympics have become obscenely expensive, with few trickle-down rewards to the citizens who bear the brunt of the costs for the benefit of the few. The people of South America’s largest country were promised the dawn of a new age of prosperity that these mega-events heralded. In a country where corruption is insidious, all-encompassing, and a virus that suffocates all semblance of progress, it is bricks, steel, and mortar that the people see, not new hospitals, schools, or public transport. Even then, Itaquerao stadium, as an example, won’t be ready in time for the opening kickoff in São Paulo on June 12. “Is this what we get for $11 billion?” the people are asking. It is a fair question.
A new type of democracy has sprung up as a result; a unity of thought and expression that is uniquely Brazilian. Citizen collectives with names like Direitos Urbanos (Urban Rights) and the Landless Workers Movement (MTST) were formed to create avenues of options for people who have had to make way forordem e progresso—the national motto of Brazil inscribed on the flag. Order and Progress.
U.S. journalist Dave Zirin, in his recent book Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and Brazil’s Fight for Democracy, says the three Ds—displacement, debt, and defense—are at the heart of the other Ds—such as discontent and disgust.
“The calls for protest aim to highlight the pain as well as show the world who is behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” he said. “There is a highly sophisticated plan that just as the government’s World Cup plans for Brazil are designed for international consumption, there is also an unprecedented global spotlight. The great journalist Eduardo Galeano once wrote, ‘There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world. Protesters aim to drag FIFA from the shadows and into the light. If they are successful, it will leave a legacy that will last longer than the spectacle itself.’”
During a congressional hearing by Brazil’s tourism and sports commission this year, former FIFA World Player of the Year and 1994 World Cup winner Romario, now a popular politician and member of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, was quoted as saying, “We can’t expect anything from FIFA, where we have a blackmailer called [General Secretary Jerome] Valcke and a corrupt thief and son-of-a-bitch called [President Sepp] Blatter.”
Yan Boechat writes for the top news magazine in Brazil, Revista Istoe. Among his previous assignments were stints in war zones like Afghanistan and the Congo. He will be covering the action on the streets during the World Cup.
“A lot of money was spent on construction of things we don’t really need,” Boechat said. “There’s a big stadium in Manaus, a place without a football culture and not even a team in the first or second division. The government removed hundreds of thousands of poor people from their houses to make space for stadiums, roads to lead to them, and other construction projects. Most of these people were sent to places far away from the city centers.”
Photojournalist Ana Lira is from the northeastern city of Recife and a founding member of Urban Rights. She has meticulously documented the bulldozing and burning of poor neighborhoods and the infamous favelas, the shantytowns that dot the hills of Rio and streets of São Paulo.
“So far 27 people have died in the protests, with more than 300 wounded since last year,” she said. “In this number, there are two professional photographers and a journalist who was blinded after being hit in the eye deliberately by the police. They used rubber bullets. Some other professionals were hit or arrested in areas near the protests just because the police wanted someone to pay for the protests.”
“If Brazil does well on the field, then perhaps people will be happy and not protest as much. But if Brazil fails, they will be much larger. There will be violence.”
“We are now seeing a new wave of protesters coming to the streets,” Boechat added. “Teachers, street cleaners, police officers, unions, a movement for affordable housing—all those people are going to be on the streets during the World Cup. They see this as the right moment to fight for their interests. Those groups do not traditionally mix with the anarchists and anti-capitalists.”
This week that number included about 3,000 indigenous peoples in tribal dress, gathering in front of the new stadium in the nation’s capital, Brasilia.
“For whom does our government work?” one of the indigenous leaders, Lindomar Terena, asked the crowd. “Instead of the government standing for the federal constitution and finally ending the demarcation of indigenous lands, it is investing billions in an event that lasts for a month, prioritizing big businesses over ancestral peoples’ rights.”
A new anti-terror law has been rushed through the Brazilian congress to deal with the protesters. It has been nicknamed Bill A1-5, a takeoff on the 1968 AI-5 Act, which gave extraordinary powers to the military junta and suspended key civil and constitutional guarantees for more than 20 years. The implementation of such a law opened old wounds. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was a member of a Marxist revolutionary group after the 1964 military coup d’état in Brazil. She was captured, imprisoned for two years, and reportedly tortured. It is a very important narrative for Brazilians. Her complicity in allowing the World Cup to proceed at the expense of the Brazilian poor is seen as a sellout of the poor to the rich.
At the vanguard of the protests has been the galvanizing effect of social media. Websites like Portal Popular da Copa e das Olympiadas, and by citizen-journalist movements like Midia Ninja, a Portuguese acronym for “independent narratives, journalism and action,” created to spark disparate movements across the country.
“We’ll be on the streets, covering all political and cultural movements, the passion for football and this new moment of political unrest,” says Rafael Vilela, a founder of the Midia Ninja collective. Their hub is an aggregate of photographs and eyewitness reports taken by hundreds of collectives. The portal will have a system of simultaneous translation in three languages including English.
Midia Ninja and Fora do Eixo (Outside the Axis), a music and cultural collective, have created a community called Cinelandia in downtown Rio, where people can come in, play music, debate, write their blogs, and edit cellphone videos and post them online. There are edit suites mounted on shopping carts, and portable generators to power them. The protests can be seen live on the Internet via Twittercast.
“We’ve managed to do a lot with very few resources except our creativity and collaboration,” says Felipe Altenfelder, a founder of the FDE collective. “Never before has our generation been more prepared in terms of social technology and social knowledge. What we are doing is totally new in Latin America. The various collectives across Brazil have a structure of sharing food, money, even clothes, so even the poorest people can work within our groups and not just survive—but participate in actions against social injustices 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Director Spike Lee has been in Brazil working on a documentary, Go Brazil Go, in which Felipe, Rafael and other members of Midia Ninja figure prominently.
There are 170,000 or more security troops assigned to the World Cup—not to protect the thousands of tourists who will be coming to Brazil to watch the matches, but to quell dissent. Among them are a group of 40 FBI agents, part of an “anti-terror” unit. In January, French riot police were brought in to train their Brazilian counterparts. There are several Israeli drones, the ones used to chase down suspects in the West Bank, as well as 50 robotic bomb-disposal units most recently used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. There are also facial-recognition goggles that police can use to spot 400 faces a second and match them against a database of 13 million. But there won’t be that many tourists, so exactly whom, people want to know, are the police checking? At a cost of nearly $1 billion, the international composition of the security measures is not only a contentious issue among Brazilians, but a cruel irony given FIFA’s mandate of bringing the world together through football.
“If Brazil does well on the field, then perhaps people will be happy and not protest as much,” said Boechat. “But if Brazil loses, there will be big problems and civil unrest. I think the way we play the World Cup will define a lot of things that will happen outside the stadia. We’re going to have protests; that’s for sure. But if Brazil fails, they will be much larger. There will be violence.”
As the Roman emperors knew during the staging of the gladiator games at the Coliseum, so FIFA knows now: The mob must be appeased. Remember when South Korea beat Italy in the 2002 World Cup and the Ecuadorian referee later admitted taking money from South Korean officials? Or the most dubious of all: Argentina’s win over Peru by six goals in the 1978 World Cup, the exact margin required to proceed in the tournament. The chiefs of the military junta had gathered in Buenos Aires to watch and a Peruvian goalkeeper of Argentinian extraction duly had a nightmare evening. Corrupt to the core.
FIFA wants a show, not protests. They know Brazil has to win to keep people quiet. President Rousseff knows that with an election coming up later in the year, her chances of winning would be a lot better with a sixth Brazilian World Cup win.
In the end, there is always the financial aspect of the biggest show on earth. Goldman Sachs strategist Peter Oppenheimer said the company’s analysts have found that, according to past history, the winning country’s equity markets outperform global stocks by 3.5 percent on average in the first month after winning, “although the outperformance fades significantly after three months.”
Brazil will beat Argentina 3-1 in the final after they see off Germany and Spain in their respective semifinals, Goldman analysts including Jan Hatzius and Sven Jari Stehn said in a report. The host nation has a 48.5 percent probability of winning the FIFA tournament, followed by Argentina at 14.1 percent and Germany at 11.4 percent.
These are bankers, not bookies.
A report like this can lead the mind to extreme cynicism about how and why games are determined.
Unlike in the U.S., where soccer is a game of the middle classes, the roots offootball are firmly entrenched in the working-class neighborhoods and slums of places like Buenos Aires, Lagos, Rio, and, at its birth, in the towns and cities of Industrial Revolution-era Britain. The qualities of energy, zest, improvisation and enterprise needed to survive in such environments created a cauldron of bubbling passion for the game. It’s only soccer, but it is also about liberation. Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona was in Rio filming his seventh documentary, which will be screened at the first-ever Amnesty Football Film Festival in the U.K. In an interview with Amnesty in Paris, the always-outspoken Frenchman lamented the possibility of Brazilian football losing its greatest legacy of all.
“I have been in Maracanã [in Rio, site of the final] before, and I loved Maracanã. But now it is just a stadium like the Emirates Stadium [in London] or Stade de France. And they say, ‘It’s a revolution for us, we have to educate the people to sit.’ But they don’t want to sit, they just want to stand up and sing and dance.” Those who want to sing and dance can’t afford to go anymore, he says. But it is a shame because it’s these kinds of fans who created football and it’s these kind of fans who have a child who will play football,” said Cantona. “Because most of the people, most of the players come from poor areas. To be a footballer, you need to train every day when you are a kid, you need to go in the street and play in the street every day.”
So as the clock winds down to the opening kickoff on June 12 when Brazil will play Croatia, there is a profound melancholy that permeates the emotions of soccer fans. We love the game. We love the World Cup. We love the way it was.
“I love its drama,” wrote the great Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, “its smooth playing skills, its carelessly laid rhythms, and the added flavor of contrasting styles. Its great occasions are, for me at any rate, unequalled in the world of sport. I feel a sense of romance, wonder, and mystery, a sense of beauty and a sense of poetry. On such occasions, the game has the timeless, magical qualities of legend.”
Some of my greatest life memories come from the World Cup, but there also comes a time when the massive show, fueled by corporate might, is overshadowed by the engine of social and political change. Brazil was under a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. Democracy is relatively new. What is beginning to emerge is Brazil at an adolescent stage as part of a national rite of passage. The World Cup may yet precipitate the maturing of a nation. In spite of FIFA’s best efforts to act as a shadow government.