Brazil’s ignominious football World Cup

On May 10, Brazilian street artist Paulo Ito painted a telling graffiti on the doors of a Sao Paulo public schoolhouse. It showed a young boy crying for food with nothing but a football on his plate. For a month beginning June 12, the eyes of the world will be on Brazil. The quadrennial football World Cup, which the country will host this year, is after all the closest thing we have to a truly global experience. But for many Brazilians, the tournament represents at best a dreadful distraction and at worst a source of unending graft and misery. Ito’s image, which has since gone viral on social media, reflects a popular view — of a country plundered not only by FIFA, world football’s tyrannical governing body, but also, more terrifyingly, by its own government.

A wasteful exercise?

According to a new poll released by the American think tank, the Pew Research Center, six in 10 Brazilians think the country hosting the World Cup is a wasteful exercise. These Brazilians believe that the money spent on the event has taken away valuable resources from more important concerns such as education, healthcare and public services. Last year, around this time, in the midst of the Confederations Cup hosted in Brazil as a precursor to the World Cup, a seemingly insignificant rally questioning a nominal rise in bus fares turned into a nationwide public protest. “We want FIFA quality hospitals and schools,” screamed demonstrators, referring ironically to FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s demands for “FIFA quality football stadiums.” For these protestors, hosting the World Cup denoted a significant social evil.

We must understand that when Brazilians revolt against the World Cup, they aren’t questioning the role of football in their lives, but the use of the game as a breeding ground for new, larger inequities

Up until the point, it had appeared that this year’s tournament would be one to savour. After all, here was football’s hallowed home — the nation that gave us the beautiful game, and riches such as Pele, Garrincha and Ronaldo was hosting the sport’s most precious event. Instead, as the protests show, the country’s people are aghast by the greedy, decadent and whimsical behaviour of those in power. Vast swathes of resources have been diverted toward hosting a grandiose sporting event at the cost of the country’s poor, who continue to languish without access to the most basic services.

We enjoy sport because it can be thrilling, beautiful, even transcendental. As humans, we are naturally in thrall to athletic grace and ability, to the delight of competition and drama, the narrative and conflict that football abounds with. The sport often weaves its way into the moral structures of our lives, acting at its best as a release, as an ultimate catharsis. For Brazilians, football represents something even deeper, closer to a way of life. So we must understand that when Brazilians revolt against the World Cup, they aren’t questioning the role of football in their lives, but the use of the game as a breeding ground for new, larger inequities. In this, we have a moral duty to join them.

In a new book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, journalist Dave Zirin points out that the amount spent on this World Cup alone could top 15 billion dollars, which is more than what has been spent on the three previous World Cups combined. Most Brazilians view this as a depraved act of profligacy, especially given “that services like transportation, education and healthcare are inefficiently run or woefully underfunded.” Almost every protest, Zirin says in an essay in the Nation, has involved the “the three D’s” — debt, displacement, and defence.

Across Brazil, hundreds of thousands of people will be, or have been, evicted as a direct result of the World Cup. What’s more, the tournament will see the deployment of more than 1,50,000 security personnel, whose jobs it will be, among other things, Zirin writes, “to keep unsightly poverty out of the view of the coming international audience.” As London — which hosted the 2012 Olympics — showed us, the militarisation of public space can have staggering consequences. Brazil too, which saw a near doubling of its surveillance facilities in the pretext of protecting tourists, could witness an unprecedented erosion of privacy.

Viewed thus, this World Cup will seek to restructure the social core of a country to suit the corporatised agendas of FIFA and the Brazilian government. Only their programmes, it seems, are opposed to the fundamental postulates of their moral resolution. In the case of the Brazilian state for example, the plans run directly counter to the best interests of all but the country’s wealthy. In justifying hosting the tournament, the government, as expected, pointed to the intangibles — the supposed goodwill generated from being in the international spotlight, and the fillip that this will give to future economic development. But economists, as journalist Simon Kuper pointed out, have for decades been searching in vain to locate the supposed huge benefits accruing from hosting such a tournament. “The things you need for a soccer tournament are almost never the things you need for daily life,” Kuper has written. “Rather than an economic bonanza, Brazil’s World Cup is more like a series of transfers: from Brazilian taxpayers to the world’s soccer fans; and from taxpayers to Brazilian soccer clubs.”

Consider for instance the new stadium in Brasilia: it is the most expensive of all stadia built for the World Cup, with a capacity to hold 73,000 fans. When the World Cup ends, the new Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, Kuper observes, will be nothing but a white elephant.

But FIFA isn’t bothered. Former Brazilian footballer and World Cup winner Romario said in an interview with the New York Times: “FIFA got what it came for: money. Things like transportation that affects the public after the tournament is over… They don’t care. They don’t care about what is going to be left behind… You see hospitals with no beds… you see hospitals with people on the floor. You see schools that don’t have lunch for the kids. [FIFA] found a way to get rich on the World Cup and they robbed the people instead. This is the real shame.”

What FIFA is concerned about is what it sees as the nuisance value of the protests; it is terrified at the proposition that the dazzling extravaganza will be sullied by demonstrations. “I can understand the people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard,” Mr. Blatter is reported to have said.

Allegations of corruption

And now, to make matters worse, newer allegations of corruption inherent in FIFA’s structure have come to light. A few days ago, a Sunday Times report alleged that a Qatari official paid bribes in excess of five million dollars to help secure the nation the right to host the 2022 World Cup. These allegations followed on the heels of reports last year which revealed that Nepali workers, who comprise a large group of labourers in Qatar, had been subjected to inhuman exploitation and had died in hordes. FIFA’s legitimacy as world football’s governing body ought to be threatened by these revelations in an ideal world. Instead, the organisation has swept these claims under the carpet.

The World Cup, which begins Thursday, will be beautiful. Let us by all means partake in the sport’s boundless joys. But in paying our obeisance to the beautiful game, let us not liberate FIFA even further.

(Suhrith Parthasarthy is an advocate at the Madras High Court.)

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 1:37:04 PM |

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