BRAZIL – ANGRY AT THE WORLD CUP

 With two weeks to go to the commencement of the 2014 World Cup, Brazilians find themselves in a muddle – their love for football, to them as the baguette is to the French, uneasily coincides with the feeling that they could really do without the tournament

‘I-don’t-want-football!’ he appears to wail, pounding his fists against the table.  Despite his tantrum, the little boy will have to eat the football.  It is too late in the day, the meal is served and his parents are out at dinner with Mr Blatter anyway.  They have told him that after eating the football, they will be able to buy him a new shirt and bicycle, and even put him in a new school.  Putting aside these juicy future incentives (believe me, kids engage in substitution behaviour), it is a simple choice – eat or starve.  Luckily, that football resembles a traditional leather one; leather is tanned meat which, under the gravest of conditions, is edible.  It’s not a beach-ball Jabulani, thankfully. 

So the little boy takes a bite…’hmm, that’s not too bad, you know?’ But he knows it’s not right, this mastication of a football.  He contemplates dropping his fork and knife, but glancing up, he spies himself smiling tentatively back at himself in the mirror.  He loves football but he’s never had to eat a football.  He knows the dams will burst again, and the tears will return with the force of a tsunami.  When they do, his reality will be all that’s left with him, as cold and depressing as the steel in his hands. Till then, just chew.  His frustration builds…

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Photograph courtesy of Gustavo Froner/Reuters

‘WHO NEEDS THE WORLD CUP?’

A Year Ago…

Feeling bored in the interlude between finishing my final exams and graduation, I decided to pen my thoughts, backed up with a bit of research aka ‘internet trawling’, on the state of Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup, particularly with the Confederations Cup just around the corner.  My findings could be summarised thus:

‘With administrative failings holding up infrastructural progress, it falls to the men on the pitch to alleviate the gloomy pall.  Disappointingly, La Seleção is failing at the moment.’ 

At least half of the stadiums to be used in two weeks were, at the time, nowhere near completion. Brazil was officially the 22nd best team in the world, had won 1 in 7 games under Luis Felipe Scolari, and had also suffered the ignominy of drawing with England.  At home; in the imposing Maracanã .  Pessimism engulfed the preparations, the team was relentlessly booed – on every front, there was a distinct sense of hopelessness.

Additionally at the time, although little explored in the last piece, something more systemic was afoot, a level of public discontent that went beyond even football itself.  While public revolts and protests have historically been somewhat of a staple in Brazil, this resentment, rather paradoxically, came at a time of relatively great economic prosperity for the Brazilian nation.  In the preceding 20 years, a significant middle class had blossomed, with GDP per head rising; more people were being lifted out of poverty.  However, as is often the case in transition economies struggling to yank free of the vestiges of central command-and-control, chasmic inequalities in wealth remained.  Very often, this is reflected in underfunding and unavailability of affordable social welfare utilities, among others.  That said, Brazil had done well for itself and its people, its leadership believed.  It had come a long way in a relatively short space of time and the World Cup in 2014 would be the perfect stage to showcase this progress.

Hence, when demonstrations began in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte in August/September of 2012, they were expected to abate quickly.  After all, they were isolated, and concerned the rather ‘trivial’ issue of bus fare prices.  The municipal authority, under the local public’s sustained pressure, capitulated and reduced the prices.  It was not until March of 2013 that similar protests occurred in Porto Alegre, where locals unsuccessfully tried to persuade their municipal authority to further reduce bus fare prices which had already been knocked down by a judicial order.

Unknown to the government, and with much of the outside world ignorant, these incidents, seemingly unrelated and relatively divergent in time, were the start of a rash of larger, more widespread demonstrations across the country.  Bus fare prices, as it turns out, were simply representative of much broader grievances held by the Brazilian public.  With the Confederations Cup to be the rehearsal for the World Cup, and with all eyes on Brazil, the magnitude of the public’s ire was transmitted around the world.  While masses protested gross inadequacies in the provision of social services such as education and healthcare, the ballooning public spending (much with taxpayers’ money) on preparation for the World Cup increasingly came to be regarded as the sadly ironic paragon of a political leadership removed from the real needs of the people.

If one needs a more accurate paradigm, look no further than the construction of the World Cup stadium in Brasília, possessing capacity for over 70,000 spectators.  Interestingly, it has been rebuilt on the site of a former stadium which was demolished in 2010.  Its final cost will be nearly $900 million, triple its original estimate and making it the most expensive World Cup stadium.  In the aftermath of the World Cup, it will in all probability play host to nobody.  Brasília does not have a major professional football team.  That is not to say its people do not love football (I’m sure they do), but rather they simply did not need the stadium.  One could label this the product of corruption or the dissociation of leadership with public (or simple miscommunication?) or plain bad planning, but in truth it is probably a combination of all three.

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Photograph courtesy of SambaFoot

‘REHEARSALS WENT RATHER WELL’

The tournament began even as the protests raged across the country and Brazil, much to the surprise of many, played excellently, seemingly vaccinated of their form of the last few months, and indeed the volatile atmosphere within the country.  Getting to the final against World Champions, Spain was probably as good as many expected it to get, perhaps except the men who stepped out onto the pitch at the Maracanã.

The atmosphere, by all accounts, was electric, a bubbling frenzy coursing through the delirious fans.  When the Brazilian national anthem was played, the stadium stood up, along with the players, and provided a spine-tingling rendition.  In hindsight, Spain, already sapped by sweltering humid conditions they were totally unaccustomed to, probably lost before a ball was kicked.  Not because they became lesser players; rather, Neymar Jnr.  and Co., energised by the crowd, transcended what even they hitherto believed they could accomplish as a team.  It was a blitz, Fred bagging two goals, with Neymar Jnr.  grabbing the other and tormenting the living hell out of Alvaro Arbeloa.  Up till then, the Real Madrid fullback had been Del Bosque’s steady-Eddie, always a 7/10.  Neymar Jnr.  effectively retired him – he will not be going back to Brazil this summer.  At full-time, Brazil were crowned Confederations Cup Champions, with optimism and belief officially restored.  It was a rehearsal, yes, but more importantly, it was competitive.  And they dismantled the competition.

Off the pitch, however, the mood could not have provided an image of sharper dissimilitude.  In fact, one did not have to look far.  Even as Hulk powered through Spain’s quaking backline, protesters marched on the stadium, threatening to burst the barriers of riot policemen.  They were repelled by tear gas but the message, steadily growing in volume over the tournament, rang true and clear – ‘YOU WANT THE WORLD CUP, FIFA? – YOU PAY THE BILL’.  At this point, affairs on and off the pitch arrived the forked road where, unclasping hands, they parted ways.  While Scolari’s men have danced, scored and regaled supporters down the road north, seemingly to destiny, the protests have only gone south, intensifying and becoming even more widespread and violent.

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 Today…

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Photograph courtesy of Slate

‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE BY BALL ALONE…’

It’s a simple image – a boy, fork and knife, and a football.  Yet, Paulo Ito, a Brazilian street artist, encapsulated the incredibly complicated mood in Brazil at the moment.  An image speaks a thousand words – in his artistic way, Ito brought the truth to bear.  The Brazilian masses are being fed football and hey, rather ‘surprisingly’, they have thrown a huge tantrum.  Without the preceding context provided, it is inexplicable and downright inconceivable.  The home of football, the historic kingdom of joga bonita, protesting against football???

This is the uncertain incongruity that many Brazilians will face this summer.  While public ire has reached a crescendo, and could still yet outdo its pre-established pitch with more protests a possibility, football and indeed other massive sports tournaments, have a tendency to make populations collectively happier. Yes, happier.  It might seem a banal, some may even argue wholly inaccurate, observation but it stands true.   While intangible, we all strive for personal happiness at the very least.  From my piece last year:

‘…football regularly serves as opium to the worst fears of many, providing respite, even if ephemeral.  Kuper and Szymanski, writers of the wonderful Soccernomics (I will recommend this again – fascinatingly insightful), note the role successful hosting of a tournament (that is success on the pitch as well as the general organisation of the broader event) has to play in making the people happier.’

And while that holds true, there is another truth which, it appears the protesting Brazilians have uncovered through the public deprivation they have endured; hosting such tournaments, contrary to the pronounced asseverations of your eager and smiling politicians, does not make you richer.  As summarised in Soccernomics, by evaluating case studies of Euro 1996, World Cup 1994, Korea Japan 2002, Athens 2004 and Germany 2006, Rob Baade and Victor Matheson (two well-respected American economists) found that hosting sports tournaments does not increase the number of tourists, or of full-time jobs, or total economic growth.

But these are precisely the promises that have been made by those involved in its organisation.  Having identified the lack of any positive economic impact, the vast spending still has to be justified to the deprived masses who see funds that could have been spent on public services blown on stadia (which will often go on to be under-utilised) and flash cars and other property for the entrenched bourgeoisie who nearly always benefit in isolation from these events.

In 2010, Orlando Silva, Brazil’s sports minister at the time, told Simon Kuper, after observing the World Cup, he expects the Cup in Brazil to ‘serve as a stimulus for development and infrastructure’.  Echoing similar sentiments, Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s Secretary-General, has recently argued that quite contrarily to those arguing that World Cup spending is a severe misallocation of priorities, ‘the World Cup is a way to speed up a number of investments in a country’.  Indeed, a global poll of 117 economists conducted by media organisation, Reuters, concluded that the World Cup will add just 0.2 percentage points to Brazil’s slowing economic growth this year.  Any progress is good, right?  The simple riposte to that would be that with a cost of over $11 billion (the most expensive world cup ever – by far), much of which is footed by Brazilian public spending, how much of that money could have contributed to more economic growth by being channelled into those sectors of social welfare and infrastructure Brazilians are in dire need of.  By the way, Mr Silva resigned in 2011 amidst a torrent of corruption allegations.

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Photograph courtesy of Bleacher Report

‘ALL-CONQUERING: WE’VE GOT NEYMAR’

Since decimating Spain, they have played 8 games, winning 7 and losing 1.  The solitary defeat was to Switzerland, no slouches themselves (according to present FIFA rankings, 8th best in the world).  Coming less than two months after beating Spain, one may tentatively ascribe it to the post-victory hangover.  It did also wake them up – in the following 7 games, 25 goals have been plundered, with only 2 conceded.  By any measure, they are astounding figures.  On May 7th, with more than 700 journalists present at a traditional concert house in Rio, Luis Felipe Scolari announced his squad for the World Cup – 17 of those that were present the previous summer were on the list.  While one may express dismay at the exclusions of the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Lucas, Miranda and Filipe Luis, Scolari largely stayed loyal to those who have served him well.  Despite their wildly variant seasons, perhaps most exemplified by the ultimately middling debut season Neymar Jnr.  recently completed at Barcelona, Scolari is a man who places great stock in loyalty.  It brought him one World Cup (in 2002) when he stood by the recuperating Ronaldo, and is convinced it will bring him success this year.  The 23 chosen ones, in response, will fight for their manager.

While the protests brew, La Seleção remains an island of serenity amidst the hurricane of public anger and incredulity.  That does not mean they do not see, and cannot identify, with the emotions shared by much of their otherwise adoring public.  In fact, they have lived it.  Earlier this week, on their way to training, the team’s bus was attacked by a horde of protesters.  Last year, David Luiz, Dani Alves and Hulk spoke out in support of non-violent protests which are ‘democratic and peaceful’.  As Hulk quite perceptively added, today, I have a privileged social position, but I don’t forget that I come from a poor background…I’m very proud to watch the people fighting to change the standards of public transport, health, education and so many other problems.”  He continued, voicing his ‘big concern’ – “that the protest is legitimate, without violence, always focused on the fight for rights without losing perspective.”

The Zenit forward also argued, undeniably, that ‘there are millions of people who love football in this country’, also insisting that ‘it is a triumph for Brazil to have the World Cup’.  Therein lies the fundamental contradiction, a disconnect so evidently played out in the attack on their team bus.  While Brazilians will kick and juggle oranges, rolled up old socks, anything to play football, these Brazilians rather than viewing the World Cup as a triumph, regard it as a yoke which they so reluctantly have to bear.

Despite this, there has been no shortage of demand for tickets.  FIFA reported record demand, receiving more than 10 million requests for around 3 million tickets.  A lot of that demand is domestic, illustrating that despite their displeasure, Brazilian’s will still watch (1.1 million tickets available to the public have been bought by Brazilians).   Even amidst the good news of this demand, there remain the ubiquitous signs of the shoddy preparation that has plagued this tournament.  Sadly, there have been deaths of workers at construction sites.  While evidently an occupational hazard of working in such conditions, these have only entrenched the gloomy pall cast over the preparations.  Stadium construction delays in 4 cities – Curitiba, São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Cuiabá – have meant that tickets for fixtures to be held in those venues have been held back until FIFA can guarantee fans seats.

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Photograph courtesy of kicking-back

‘FIFA – A LESSON IN MAXIMAL APPROPRIABILITY’

While happiness may be the one constant to emerge from hosting of such tournaments, it is evidence of the appropriability problem associated with football – which is that football can’t make money out of more than a tiny share of our love of football, and as fans, we often make nothing out of it – in fact, we make a loss (from a strictly economic perspective, of course).  I’ve spent a whole afternoon penning this piece but will not be paid for it.  But this hardly applies to FIFA.  In fact, when it comes to the World Cup, it has the opposite effect.  In the four years to the end of 2010, FIFA was reported to have earned more than $4 Billion, with the laying bare FIFA’s dependence on World Cup revenues.  At the end of that period, it banked $631 million to its reserves.  All earnings from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were tax-free.  It will be the same in Brazil (one can have a read of this piece for more information on these tax exemptions), with FIFA announcing that it is expected to make nearly $2 Billion in profits from this event.  World Cups are hugely appropriable events for FIFA, all the more because not a single dime is paid in taxes.  Mired in numerous allegations of corruption over the last few years, public support for football’s governing body has never been at such a low point.

Free-riding on the promise of beautiful football and lovely, sunny beaches epitomising the joie de vivre of Brazil, FIFA has hogged on sponsors’ bounty.  While Brazilians punctuate their protests to host a welcome from which they may not even derive their full recompense in happiness, FIFA laughs all the way to the bank.  Brazilian football legend turned congressman, Romário, is careful to highlight this in a rather eloquent piece he penned for the Guardian.  Formerly in support of Brazil’s bid to host the World Cup, he simply argues that ‘this mega event can only deepen Brazil’s problems’, adding that ‘the only beneficiary will be FIFA’.  It is true.  While he admits that the political and economic reality prevalent at the time of bidding was different to what prevails today, the oft-repeated promise of job generation, income creation and boosted tourism, as evidence shows, is often, if not false, surely ephemeral.

And if Brazil wins?  Well, they certainly have the talent to do so.  At the back, arguably the best defence in the world (Spain a close second, in my view) with Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo, will form the platform for a probable midfield of Paulinho, Luis Gustavo and Oscar.  Up front, Fred (despite his patchy form at club level dominated the Confederations Cup and has the faith of Scolari) and Hulk will provide goals and power to supplement the magical talents of Neymar Jnr. When in the zone, as they showed last summer, no team can match their blend of discipline, physical intensity and ruthless precision.  The players are desperate for victory, the Confederations Cup granting but a taste of the explosive fervour and joy that would greet the delivery of a 6th World Cup.  Thiago Silva has spoken of his difficulty in controlling his anxiety, imagining ‘the madness’ that would ensure if Brazil wins it.  If this was the year of La Décima at club level, Dani Alves argues that Brazil is not obsessed with ‘La Hexa’, just confident – ‘It’s natural to expect a Brazilian triumph, especially when we are playing at home’.

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 Next?

Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull’s Official World Cup song is, by a rough estimate of YouTube ‘Likes’ vs. ‘Dislikes’, running the World Cup close in unpopularity stakes.  Between 60 and 70% of votes are likes, compared to just 48% of Brazilians who believe hosting the World Cup was a good idea.  The tide of public sentiment has turned and with the World Cup two weeks away, questions remain as to how the public will react.  Will the protests continue?  There is valid reason to believe so despite the Government set to deploy over 170,000 security personnel to ensure the peace.  One thing is certain – even a 6th World Cup for Brazil will provide but fleeting anaesthetic for the deep-seated pique of the people.

 

Despite the foregoing, I’m WELL excited for the football which does promise to be awesome.  9pm BST on Friday, 13th of June, Brazil hosts Croatia.  Do not miss it.

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