We're excited to kick off our series of World Cup guest posts with this by Bryan McCann, author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City and Hello, Hello Brazil. McCann is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University.
I have long been skeptical of FIFA and critical of the notion of using international mega-events to stoke local economies. In the final pages of my recent book, Hard Times in the Marvelous City, I argue that preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics threaten to undermine improvements in security and popular housing underway in Rio de Janeiro over the last decade. As a result, I have not been surprised by growing resentment of the World Cup within Brazil. Even I, however, have been surprised by how bad things have gotten—World Cup planning has been inept, heavy-handed and anti-popular.
Neither FIFA, nor local organizers, nor municipal government in host cities has made any serious attempt to incorporate local populations in World Cup planning or festivities. It has been clear from the start that the games are being put on for international tourists and the executive class. Ordinary local residents are welcome to watch on TV, or at best in front of large screens in open-air plazas, but will be cordoned off from any personal interaction with the games or the players. Locals are subject to jacked-up prices of food and services, waylaid by security guards and construction barriers and, if they happen to live in the path of a Cup-related infrastructural project, to eviction. Cup organizers seem to expect them to smile and dance anyway. A rhetorical question on banners often seen at recent protests asks Copa Para Quem? (World Cup For Whom?) The answer is clear: not for ordinary Brazilians.
There have been several problems with World Cup preparations. First, obligatory photos of favela children playing soccer notwithstanding, Brazilians don’t love soccer the way they used to. As the country has grown more culturally pluralistic, other pastimes have risen to challenge the preeminence of futebol. In terms of international success, Brazilian volleyball has far outperformed soccer over the past twenty years. Soccer is now something Brazilians love to complain about more than they love to celebrate it.
Second, Brazil won its bid to host the World Cup during a period of economic growth and rising employment, but growth has stagnated while the cost of living has continued to rise. Cup-inflated real-estate prices in host cities only exacerbate that. Brazilians are angry about the billions being spent on the World Cup while other public needs go unmet. This makes them sympathetic towards those who are truly threatened by the Cup, like favela residents subject to eviction or harrassed by police (a phenomenon exponentially intensified in Rio by Olympic preparations).
Third, Brazilians love to party but hate being told what to do, and hate even more being played for fools. As one of my friends from the Pelourinho, the vibrant neighborhood at the heart of Salvador da Bahia memorably put it to me, “no Pelourinho, ninguêm é otário,”—in the Pelourinho, no one is a sucker. It is clear that FIFA has been playing Brazilians for suckers, expecting them to foot the bill for a party they are not invited to attend.
Porto Alegre offers an example. The Beira Rio stadium, host to several Cup games, has been beautifully refurbished, but ticket prices are beyond the reach of most residents. The other effects of Cup preparations have been negative. The enlarged stadium juts into an adjacent roadway, cutting off the sidewalk in a small but clear example of the privileging of elite convenience over public interest. Weeks before the first game, the area surrounding the stadium is a barren, muddy wasteland, as municipal government and private investors feud over who is responsible for aborted landscaping. In the meantime, residents of a nearby vila (as favelas are known in Porto Alegre) were evicted to make way for a construction staging area. Promised transportation improvements have been delayed or, worse, left half-finished, choking traffic rather than facilitating movement.
And Porto Alegre is a relatively small city with a history of participatory government, a deep love for soccer, and clear transportation corridors between the airport, the city center and the stadium that would be easy to upgrade. If Cup preparations have been a flop here, imagine Manaus, a large city of oppressive heat, negligible soccer tradition and great environmental vulnerability.
Cup organizers took it for granted that citizens in this festive, hospitable country would inevitably catch the fever and celebrate colorfully. That may still happen—if the Brazilian team goes deep into the tournament and plays with joy and passion, Brazilians will fall for them—as will I—regardless of how we denounce FIFA now. But the joy and passion will have to be real and tangible to overcome the current skepticism. In the new Brazil, ninguêm é otário.