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opinion | David Goldblatt

Brazil’s World Cup troubles reveal country’s deeper woes

Giant inflatable soccer balls marked with red crosses were placed in front of the National Congress in Brasilia as a call for the government to provide public services of the same standards as the World Cup stadiums.

REUTERS

Giant inflatable soccer balls marked with red crosses were placed in front of the National Congress in Brasilia as a call for the government to provide public services of the same standards as the World Cup stadiums.

In 2007, when the World Cup virtually fell into Brazil’s lap, the “Lula boom” was in full swing. Growth, exports, and incomes were rising; under president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil was acquiring a new presence on the global diplomatic stage; and oil had been discovered off the Atlantic coast. First the World Cup and then the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro would set the seal on these unambiguous advances.

In one sense Brazil’s mega-event diplomacy has already worked, for it has brought the country an unprecedented degree of global scrutiny. But it has not been delivering quite the message intended. On the contrary, the bungled preparations for the World Cup and Olympics have dramatized many of the most important problems in contemporary Brazil: poorly accountable elites; widespread conflicts of interest, corruption, and embezzlement; a disregard for the rights and interests of the poor and middle classes.

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Now, on the eve of tournament, there is more than just the narrative arc of Brazil’s modernization at stake. Brazil’s presidential elections are to be held in October. Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, running for a second term, has watched her poll ratings and Brazil’s economy drift down over the last year. So she has been aggressively talking up the cup. Her opponents cannot openly hope that the World Cup is calamitous, but they are ready to profit from a disastrous tournament.

The International Olympic Committee, deeply perturbed by the pace of preparations, has installed itself in Rio. The Olympics have, so far, been able to weather the lateness of Athens 2004, the protests at Vancouver 2010, and, at Sochi 2014, the negative impact of a host country that condones homophobia and later annexes territory. But Rio 2016 may be a bridge too far.

FIFA, the international soccer organization, arrives in Brazil with its low standing further eroded by the recent revelations concerning Qatar 2022’s World Cup bid and widespread match fixing in South Africa. Given that almost its entire income is dependent on the event, FIFA’s survival in its current form is riding on the World Cup being peaceful and functional.

How much protest there will be is in the hands of the Brazilian public. Last year, a bare majority approved of the whole World Cup project; now only a minority does. A recent poll in Rio suggested 11 per cent of the adult population was planning to demonstrate during the cup — but, should this actually happen, the anti-World Cup movement could count on attracting perhaps half a million people onto the streets. If only a 10th of them were to march on Rio’s Maracana Stadium, their presence would be registered globally.

Another indicator of the mood in Brazil has been the spate of protests over the last month: the military police walked out in Salvador and Recife, bus drivers have held one-day strikes in Sao Paulo and Rio, and teachers have demonstrated nationwide. The Homeless Worker’s Movement has been organizing mass occupations of empty land near the new Arena Corinthian in Sao Paulo. The Comite Popular, the main coordinating body of the anti-World Cup protests, declared a day of action in May that saw protests in 50 cities. The Black Blocs, Brazil’s youthful anarchist provocateurs, have made more appearances in the media than in the street, but they will no doubt appear during the World Cup. There will likely be efforts to provoke a police reaction, which hitherto has not proved difficult.

In June 2013, public protests turned into a conflagration because of the televised brutality of the police. Demonstrations that had attracted just a few thousand in a few cities began to attract tens of thousands, reaching out beyond the traditional core of activists to young, educated, previously apolitical Brazilians right across the nation. There are plenty of indications that such resentment and anger is alive and well, and the idea that the police will manage the process without some kind of globally broadcast disaster seems quixotic. Despite talk of retraining the police to deal with democratic protest, the emphasis has been elsewhere. Officers have been equipped with state-of-the-art riot gear, and the police and the army are effectively occupying many of Rio’s favelas — vast urban shantytowns — where pacification programs have broken down.

One contrary scenario is that the tournament will run relatively smoothly; there will be a small flurry of protests that the police will handle without too much incompetence or brutality; the favelas will remain quiet as people focus on their TV sets; and Brazil plays well and does well. Yet as the events of the last month show, there are still a considerable number of people ready to go on the street. And, one must assume, they have yet to really show their hand.

Regardless, it is hardly ideal that so much influence over the Brazilian presidency and the fate of the sporting mega-event should be in the hands of a fragmented and protean alliance of social movements and a police force still operating effectively under martial law, but that is the pass that Brazil’s elites and their partners at FIFA and the IOC have brought us to. In the end it will be the wider Brazilian public that determines the course of events. The authorities seem to fear them as the mob, so we must hope for the wisdom of crowds.

David Goldblatt is the author of “Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer.”
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