Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Politics of Sport - Brazil 2014. Was It Worth It?

By Shane Thomas

Now that the trophy has been awarded, the media has gone home, and FIFA has packed away their succubus of a circus, a key question remains for the host nation. It's one that often arises when a major international sporting event concludes. Was it worth it?
Popular consensus has positioned Brazil 2014 as a World Cup to be cherished, the best in a generation, maybe even the best ever.

The past month has seen some exciting football, compelling sporting tales, and a competition which went a long way to underscoring why the World Cup - in the face of the financial might of the Champions League - remains the pinnacle of the game.

But I don't think that fully determines whether this World Cup was worth it. There are some important factors to consider before we can begin to make such an evaluation.

Roughly $11 billion has been spent putting the tournament together. And while Brazil is the fifth largest economy in the world, this outlay came in the face of a stagnation in the nation's once blossoming financial progress.

The call from FIFA general secretary, Jerome Valcke, that Brazil needed a, "kick up the backside" was a none too subtle way of ensuring that the organisation would do whatever it took to have the tournament ready as scheduled[1]. The World Cup has become such a prestige event, that it was worth paying any cost to ensure that it wasn't taken away. Even if the cost is the lives of seven construction workers.

For many Westerners, one may think that owning a copy of the tremendous film, City of God said all that needed to be told about Brazilian favelas. But among the segments of deprivation, they should not be solely defined as locations of penury. They also are a place of vibrant community, and more importantly, house millions of Brazilian citizens.

But much like council estates and housing projects, the favelas can function as sites of classist and racist oppression. A place to stick those who society deems less than. FIFA and the Brazilian government were in a constant state of alarm around the favelados. 

Perceiving them the way a schoolteacher would view a problem child, a two-fold approach followed. Either evict residents from their homes, or send in Special Operation Battalions. Satire clearly is dead, as these battalions could easily be mistaken for The Peacekeepers from The Hunger Games trilogy. A most egregious example of the effect of the World Cup was on the community of Favela do Metro, reduced to rubble to build a car park - that still hasn't been built.

Another group of Brazilians that were overlooked in the shuffle were the country's sex workers. Brazil may be marketed to tourists as a land of sex, but when sex work is involved? It can be as puritanical and whorephobic as the rest of the world.

It's fair to assert that the level - and volume - of protest was a decrease from the numbers that took to the streets during the 2013 Confederations Cup. While Brazilians revelling in the atmosphere engendered by the World Cup was a factor, one shouldn't ignore the pushback that occurred for those who did protest.

The suffocating military presence sent a message of intimidating clarity; shut up while we have guests over, or we will make you shut up. Although, there's more than one way to show dissent.

And all this is before we even get to the grounds where the football was played. One of the most indelible sights - and sounds - of the World Cup was the Brazilian national anthem. Tens of thousands roared, a loud, clear Brazilian voice as one. Well, when we say Brazilian, we mean white Brazilian. Much like the London 2012 Olympics, the black and brown faces were working in the stadiums, either on the field of play, or in the stalls[2].

As the competition progressed, scenes occurred that went past the assumed default of whiteness, into direct white supremacy, as some German fans arrived for their match against Ghana in blackface[3]. Bigotry extended to homophobic chanting, and there was the ever-wearying objectification of women. As of yet, not a shred of punitive action has been taken.

Given that we're talking about stadia, what happens to the arenas in Cuiaba, Manaus, Brasilia and Natal? These four grounds cost a combined $1.6 billion to assemble, and are now currently unused. Although, white elephant stadiums are probably a preferable alternative to the alarming proposal to convert them into prisons[4].

But this diatribe isn't to do with ideals, or nailing one's flag to a political side. It's about people being trampled over for the sake of a football competition. And I don't just mean that figuratively.

Remember the seven construction workers who died in a frantic rush to have the stadium completed? Well, the tragic and unnecessary loss of life continued as an overpass collapsed in Belo Horizonte, killing two people and injuring twenty-two more. The flyover was part of an investment to have the city ready for the World Cup, raising the question of what corners were cut to give the city a meretricious veneer of prosperity.

The opening match also went ahead without being tested to full capacity. Mercifully, nobody was harmed at the tournament's unveiling, but the way that FIFA were willing to put the safety of fans at risk is deplorable. In the world of FIFA, the key responsibility is to their corporate and broadcast partners. Everything else - even human lives - is secondary.

So now that you've had time to consider all these additional factors, let's go back to the original question...

Brazil 2014. Was it worth it?


Germany's shattering 7-1 win over Brazil in the semi-final has inspired numerous thoughts, as the football world has tried to analyse the result.

Rather than attempt to do the same, what struck me was how in the immediate aftermath, there was next to no deconstruction of how Germany achieved such a comprehensive victory. Most of us reacted in a manner akin to the fans inside the Superdome when The Undertaker had his streak broken at Wrestlemania[5].

A large reason for such palpable disbelief is down to the way we interpret not just football - but many aspects of life. We often use what's happened in the past to make sense of the present (and also predicting the future).

This made it extremely difficult to unpack Brazil's meltdown. Simply because there's no precedent for it. It's a lot easier for us when we can say, "Well, it's like that time when...", or "Remember when...", or "Lest we forget..."

But we couldn't do that here. Germany has placed Brazilian football in a new reality.

Where do the Selecao go from here? I have no idea. But I'll be eager to find out.

[1] - In the litany of outrageous statements made by Valcke, that one was pretty tepid. He also once said it was preferable to hold the World Cup in nations with "less democracy".

[2] - And it's interesting how the British press were willing to make the observation of the whiteness of the stadiums, yet seemed unwilling to do so in their reports on the London 2012 Olympics.

[3] - Normally it's a good thing for players to be in sync with their fans. Not so in this case.

[4] - There's a reason it's called the prison-industrial complex.

[5] - Yeah, I'm a wrestling fan. What of it?!

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