Tear gas is a magic potion, wrote the geographer Chris Gaffney from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. “Those who launch it are weakened while those forced to inhale it are strengthened.” For those of you interested in the politics of football in Brazil, his blog – as well as his excellent book on stadiums in Argentina and Brazil – is a key place to go to understand the ways in which preparations for the 2014 World Cup have served as a trigger for what may become a major political and social movement in Brazil. As is often the case, the state’s response to what were initially small protests has energized a movement that is tapping into a powerful vein of dissatisfaction in the country.
In Le Monde, Jean Hébrard, who co-directs a center for Brazilian studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has analyzed the role of the looming World Cup in the protests. There have been worries from the very beginning, he notes, that there would be “excessive spending” surrounding the tournament at a time when the population badly needs investment in other types of infrastructure. And there has also been anger and criticism about corruption, notably within the Brazilian Football Federation. The World Cup didn’t create the bigger problems, but it has served to “crystallize” the public debate because of the very obvious ways in which funds are being directed towards something that won’t benefit most Brazilians. Even if many, Hébrard notes, will still “love the World Cup” when it comes around, it presents an opportunity to call out political leaders and elites for mixed-up priorities.
The bigger story here is the intersection of the increasingly interventionist and heavy-handed management of the World Cup by FIFA and a potentially explosive mix of grievances percolating within Brazilian society. Especially since 2010 in South Africa, FIFA’s management of the event has become a de facto removal of national sovereignty in certain key domains, notably that of security and infrastructure. Why, you might ask, does a country like Brazil which is full of football stadia have to build new ones in order to host a tournament? Because FIFA has a wide range of specific stipulations about precisely how the stadia for the event need to be. And a big part of that is, as Chris Gaffney has described, transforming these stadia from spaces that are open to and integrated into local communities into fenced-off, highly-regulated spaces where only FIFA-approved products (including what at least in South Africa was an absurd and paltry menu of food centered around hot dogs and Budweiser). In other words, hosting a World Cup requires not just the transformation of urban space, but in many ways the transformation of the practice of traveling to and attending sporting events.
When a government tries to sell the advantages of hosting a World Cup to its population, one of the main arguments that is made is that the infrastructural investments that are necessary for the event will ultimately benefit the population in the long term. There were promises a few years ago that, in preparing for the World Cup, new public transportation lines would be built. This is something that did in fact happen in South Africa, where new trains, including a line through Soweto, were built.
Even when such projects are carried out, of course, they can end up not really serving the needs of the population as much as they should, since the organization of transportation for a major sporting event doesn’t necessarily line up with daily needs. In the Brazilian case, though, something worse has happened: these promises have simply not materialized. And now Brazilians are seeing the cost of their transportation increase, alongside many other daily costs, even as the government pours money into the construction of new stadia and the renovation of old ones into structures which will likely end up, as is the case all over the world, as “white elephants” after 2014 and the 2016 Olympics are over. In South Africa, even major sporting events have trouble filling the stadia built for 2010, though they have found a use for another, unexpected, form of mass event: evangelical rallies, which have taken place in the Cape Town stadium among others.
All governments have to essentially lie to their population when they promise that it’s good for everyday people to host a major sporting event. For politicians, the real drive for hosting these events is never the economic or infrastructural benefit they will bring, but the symbolic power gained by being, for a brief moment, at the center of the world. Business elites and politicians, of course, also stand to gain materially from all the contracts and construction that go on around these events. All of this always creates some amount of criticism, and sometimes protest, as was the case in South Africa. As we look forward to 2014, we should keep an eye on what happened in South Africa, where the various doomsayers who worried about a crime epidemic, failed infrastructure, and generalized chaos were chastened when the event was carried out extremely successfully. At the same time, it is certainly not clear whether, in the end, the massive investment in the World Cup really improved anything at all for South Africans as a whole, and many who have analyzed the question — notably those who contributed to an excellent recent collection called Africa’s World Cup (look out for Sean’s interview with the editors later this week) — have called attention to the fact that very few of the promised economic benefits really happened.
For all the debate in South Africa, however, there was never a mass political movement that developed to criticize the way the tournament was being organized. The Brazilian case seems, at least potentially, to be of a very different order. The direct confrontation on the part of larger numbers of demonstrators with police outside matches is something relatively new. When the police respond with violence to peaceful protests outside stadia, it will become even harder for the Brazilian government to convince critics that hosting the World Cup is something being done in the service of the people. The boosters for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil want people to imagine joyful, dancing, pretty, green and yellow clad fans: not lines of riot police firing tear gas. But FIFA and the World Cup are, and have always been, inherently political. What’s happening in Brazil is that protestors are attempting to re-shape the political meaning of the event, turning it into an opportunity to change Brazil according to their vision.