Football in a Serious Country by John Gledhill

978-0-8223-5187-0_prToday's World Cup guest post is by John Gledhill, co-editor (with Patience A. Schell) of New Approaches to Resistance in Brazil and Mexico. Gledhill is Max Gluckman Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. 

As the World Cup approached, British newspapers ran stories about facilities not being ready, the horrific possibility of being unable to tweet friends and family during matches because of deficiencies in Brazil’s communications infrastructure, strikes taking advantage of the moment in a Presidential election year, and most popular of all, shootouts between traffickers and police in Rio de Janeiro’s “pacified” favelas. Sporting pages warned England fans of the tropical miseries to be endured during their team’s first fixture in Manaus, and the challenges presented by Brazilian airports and public transport systems. But complementing this negative reporting was a more positive approach to protests about the Cup. That football embodies the pathologies of contemporary capitalism is hardly news to residents of Manchester, whose global sporting brand, Manchester United Plc, was taken over by the US-based Glazer family through a series of controversial loan-based share deals in 2005. Now a New York listed company incorporated in the Cayman Islands, United is currently eclipsed in the English Premier League by local rival Manchester City, 100% owned by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. Yet even the English could not fail to be impressed by the depth of the critiques of FIFA that emerged from Brazil’s longstanding experience of the sleazier side of the “beautiful game”.

Opinion surveys now show that less than half the Brazilian population approve hosting the World Cup. We are not talking simply about an awakened generation of middle class kids but a country of continental scale denying its stereotyping and being “serious” about what kind of social future it wants and its role on the world stage. The legacies of authoritarianism and racism that haunt modern Brazil are daunting. Progress has been made on discrimination and poverty reduction. Increases in real wages and formal employment renewed social mobility. Yet in Brazil as elsewhere, wealth inequalities and the social self-segregation of the more fortunate present formidable challenges to constructing a more humane, less violent, society. The problems that have emerged in Rio’s favela pacification program show that not enough has changed since 2007, when state governor Sergio Cabral ordered the invasion and siege of the Alemão favela complex during the Pan American Games. Securitization unjustly defines favela residents as threats to the rest of society, and “proximity policing” proves difficult to implement because of deep rooted problems within the police corporations themselves. Budgets for the other side of “pacification”, investment in the social development of poor neighbourhoods that ironically preserve stronger patterns of collective sociability than the “asphalt” despite the violence, are inadequate because of spending on infrastructure for the Cup that has scant social utility and the social cost of forced relocations. Accumulation by dispossession remains the rule rather than the exception in neoliberal cities since reducing violence in poor neighbourhoods makes them apt for gentrification. Yet in triggering demands that the money be spent instead on improving public health, education and transport, this World Cup should not only convince foreigners that Brazilians understand that football, like carnival, is about profits for the few, but also put the country at the forefront of any doubts the world’s political classes may be beginning to have about the sustainability of that model. 

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