Photo by Fernando H.C. Oliviera
Americas / World Cup

Joga Bonito? The Struggles of Hosting a World Cup

The eyes of the world will be on Brazil starting June 12 as the 2014 FIFA World Cup commences in São Paolo. The mecca of soccer will be hosting its first World Cup since 1950 and is expected to field one of the strongest teams in the world. Led by one of the rising stars of soccer, Neymar, this year Brazil secured a victory in the Confederations Cup, a tournament held the year prior to the World Cup in an effort to gauge the overall preparedness of the host nation, for the first time since its 2002 win in South Korea and Japan. For one of the most fervent fan bases in the world, this should be a time for celebration in Brazil. Instead, the nation has been ravaged by popular protests and disdain for the Rousseff presidency in the past year. As the World Cup approaches, Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest the hosting of the very sporting event that they worship.

As the Brazilian government praised its team’s most recent effort and victory, the public sent a strong message by openly challenging the regime. Instead of Brazil appearing ready to host the World Cup with the spotlight of the sporting world upon it, it looked ill-prepared and severely out of touch with its people. Over 1.5 million Brazilians took to the streets while the Confederations Cup took place, enjoying wide-ranging support. Significantly, many members of the national team, including Neymar, stood in support of the protests galvanize the public even further. The members of the Brazilian national soccer team are heroes in Brazil, representing the hopes and dreams of the country, and helping to inspire a national fervor for the sport, unparalleled in almost any other country. The national team’s support for the protests, therefore, served as an early sign that these protests would not die off easily. The demonstration increasingly overshadowed Brazilian team victories, and the players’ continued support for the protests helped launch the protests to where they are today: violent, wide ranging, and most of all, on the precipice of open revolt.

Meanwhile the country continues the race against the clock to complete construction. Due to poor planning, as well as little to no regulation or technical training for workers, the World Cup stadiums have been hampered by workers’ deaths, injuries, and stadium collapses. These issues, as well as issues of workers’ rights and pay, have led to labor strikes, one of the main contributing factors for the slowed stadium construction. And yet, for all of the struggles with the stadiums, the spending still must continue. Five of the twelve stadiums are behind schedule. One of the stadiums, located in Curitiba, stands on the precipice of being dropped from hosting its scheduled matches because it is so far from completion. FIFA is scurrying to find possible last minute replacements if necessary, as the deadlines for stadium preparations near. The country is spending an estimated 8 billion reais, or approximately 3.3 billion dollars, on building brand new stadiums, according to September 2013 estimates, and billions more to refurbish current stadiums. ESPN reported in December that Brazil was already $1 billion over its budget, and this number is expected to rise. Bloomberg reported as early as May 2013 that the realistic cost of the World Cup would amount to approximately $15 billion, well above the proposed limits. Many of these stadiums will have little to no use after the World Cup and will become a drain on Brazilian public funds, according to a special report by The Economist on the World Cup.

The Brazilian people have expressed overwhelming frustration about the preparations for the World Cup, from the violation of workers rights to the massive spending on the building and renovating of Brazilian stadiums for the World Cup. One of the aims of the protests is to expose the misguided and poor decision-making of the government. according to The World Economic Forum, Brazil’s infrastructure ranks 114th out of 148 countries. The government spends far less than most countries on such projects, and when completed, they bring little money to the Brazilian economy. The Economist reported only 1.5 percent of Brazil’s total GDP is spent on infrastructure and that its total value is 16 percent of GDP falls well below the 71 percent average for other big economies. While President Rousseff is attempting to privatize construction projects, especially in the lead up to the World Cup, lack of adequate infrastructure remains a major issue for the country at large. Its people generally feel that the millions that should be spent on long-term plans are instead being spent on vanity projects.

The violent and anarchist nature of the protests has been striking. Led by the Black Blocs, an anti-capitalist activist group bent on overthrowing the Brazilian government, the populist uprising has become far more violent than previously anticipated. NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported in October 2013 that the Black Blocs’ violent undertone has cast a negative light over the protests at large. Many protestors are furious that their attempts to negotiate with the government have been sabotaged by violent acts committed by Black Bloc members. But the Black Bloc will not change their stance. An unidentified member said to Ms. Garcia-Navarro, “Protestors who don’t like the Blocs’ tactics should just stay home.” This schism within the ranks has made the protests more violent and dangerous. With the World Cup fast approaching, it is clear that the Black Bloc will have something to say on the world’s stage, and it seems unlikely that it will be a peaceful demonstration.

Reporting on the ground has revealed similar scenes to those described by NPR. Wright Thompson, a journalist for ESPN the Magazine, wrote a piece about his month-long experience with the protestors in Brazil. Exploring the history of social unrest in Brazil, he compared the situation to revolutionary periods, including France in 1789 and Cuba in 1957. He reported that the protests, beginning last June, were, “a protest against political parties, and something even more elemental: a protest against the way things work.” This is not simply a protest of excess spending on the World Cup, Mr. Thompson reports, but rather a condemnation of years and years of government corruption and hoarding money from public projects and the people. The people may be chanting, “There will be no World Cup,” but their focus is much broader. Mr. Thompson sees a country filled with idealistic protestors who are inspired by many of the same theories as revolutionaries before them. These are a people who want significant change and believe that they will help usher in a new Brazil.

But as Mr. Thompson’s story reports, the Brazilian protestors’ idealism is at risk of being swept up in its country’s own violent history. It was just under 50 years ago that João Goulart deposed of the Brazilian regime in a military coup. Leaders of modern Brazil are connected to the coup, from President Lula’s advisors to even President Lula himself. The protestors carry the same zeal that many of their parents had in 1968, when the Brazilian youth took to the streets to protests the military’s repressive tactics, highlighted by the cold-blooded murder of protestor Edson Luis by the police, and the ensuing military oppression. “Brazil is a spark away,” Mr. Thompson states, a spark away from a nationwide movement that could bring the country to its knees.

2014 is not the only year Brazil will be in the spotlight of the world, however. 2016 will see the Olympics in Rio, and the preparations for the Olympic Games are suffering from similar problems. In both cases, the stadiums’ infrastructures are well behind schedule. Furthermore, forced evictions have gained the attention of mainstream media, as thousands of poor Brazilians face eviction from their homes with almost no notice. Direct connections through political contributions between the real estate companies responsible for resettling evictees and the Rio municipal government have drawn questions of political corruption. While authorities insist that compensation and alternative housing options are being provided, little evidence has been shown to prove the authorities’ statements. Connectas Human Rights Report estimates 200,000 evictions due to construction for the World Cup and Olympics. Christopher Gaffney, a professor at Rio’s Fluminense Federal University told the New York Times, “We’re seeing an insidious pattern of trampling on the rights of the poor and cost overruns that are a nightmare.” He further stated to the Washington Post: “Brazil is by far and away the champion of forced removals.” Brazil has shown that it is struggling to keep the well being of its people before governmental self-interests.

Come June 2014, with the eyes of the world upon it, Brazil may be a powder keg, and the protestors may be further unified. But it seems just as plausible that when their favorite sport comes to their homeland for its biggest moment, the protests may cease. Mr. Thompson’s concluding remarks highlight this reality. He discusses the burial of Edson Luis, the most famous student martyr who sparked the mass protests. Mr. Thompson writes, “…the cemetery wanted more money. Nobody came forward…so the cemetery removed his bones. They took them to an oven, incinerating Brazil’s most famous student martyr, whose death changed a country, or maybe didn’t change anything at all.” We do not know what will come of the protests, but one thing is for certain. When the World Cup comes to Brazil in just a few short months, the world will be anxiously watching and hoping that the country will not be brought into civil war and soccer can unify the country once again.