Brazilian rapper Emicida, one of the most creative and perceptive pop artists in recent years, creates compelling drama in not only the content of what he says but also the dynamics of his voice. In “Cristântemo,” recorded in 2013, he recites the refrain somberly, “Life is but a detail.” The rich, fascinating puzzle of truth lies in the context and it is in this spirit that I ruminate on the current protests surrounding the World Cup in Brazil.
In Brazil, soccer is everything. The game is “but a detail.” Futebol is a diverse cluster of reality and a labyrinth of dreams. It is the language that provides the metaphors of family, joy, music, politics, the highs of personal and national success and the violence of individual and class despair. The charismatic organizer and “marginal literature” wordsmith, Alessandro Buzo, spins tales of futebol as part of everyday life in the suburban trains of São Paulo. Patricia Melo, the celebrated Brazilian author of favela verité novels, references the utility of soccer even in situations of estrangement. Reizinho, the teenage anti-hero of Inferno, remarks, “It’s a shame there’s no soccer match [today]. It’s cool to just watch a game in silence. No conversation. Cheer. Conversations don’t get you anywhere.” Soccer is the master metaphor even in evil sickness. In a recent article by blogger Cynara Menezes about the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, beloved and embraced by Brazilian intellectuals, she relates Galeano’s story about his battle with cancer. Galeano describes soccer deliriums featuring images of kicking the ball repeatedly with the ball always returning to its initial position, “as if it had been dying of laughter at my stupidity of thinking that I could control it.” Even those Brazilians, who do not have a favorite team or follow the games and the endless soccer schedule, are ultimately connected to the sport through the everyday relationships with family, friends, lovers, professional colleagues, neighbors and pop media celebrities.
Soccer is everything.
Not brought up on soccer, as most non-Hispanic Americans, I came to understand the power of futebol / fútbol only in 1994 in my mid-20s watching the World Cup with Latino friends in Texas and the final between Italy and Brazil in a nondescript bar on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. I then lived for many years in São Paulo, became an active Corinthians fan in day-to-day life, and watched with friends, family, and random Brazilians the World Cup matches of 1998, 2002 and 2010. With neighborhood streets painted and diversely decorated, the World Cup was always a public display of pride for one of the few things Brazilians have dominated in the modern world. A recognition of achievement against so many historical odds and so much prejudice and sheer ignorance about this gigantic country (yeah, finally people get it, Portuguese is not Spanish; Buenos Aires is not the capital of Brazil).
And now, where is the love? According to gawker.com (corroborated by dozens of Brazilians in informal conversations), Brazilians are even up in arms about the WC theme song. Why is Brazil seemingly divided between those who are alienated, patriotic fans and those who see the World Cup as corruption, a crowning, political sham that must be stopped? Is the 2014 World Cup a “dance with the [corrupt, exploitative] devil” or is it a misguided smear campaign by the Brazilian right to regain political power in the upcoming presidential elections at the end of the year? Neither, or both? Are the protestors united? Who “wins” in the business and everyday life of mega events such as the World Cup? Does history hold any lessons for us?
For good or bad, this intimate relationship with futebol in Brazil has been around since anyone alive can remember. Its well-documented history outlines the trajectory from an elite, amateur British past-time (late 19th and early 20th century economic exploits in São Paulo and Rio, particularly with regard to railway, textiles, tobacco, urban transport and electricity) to factory teams and the accompanying popularization of the sport to the early professionalization period of the late 1920s and the first World Cup appearances starting in 1930 with the ultimate realization of Brazil’s first World Cup victory in 1958. In retrospect, the story of Brazilian soccer is fundamentally interwoven into the development of the nation, race relations, socio-economic class, gender roles, machismo and homophobia, urbanization and globalization. It is precisely these areas of daily life that have become the targets of protest.
Every Brazilian knows what happened in 1950, the last and only other time this mega-global event took place on Brazilian soil. The WC final of 1950 supposedly represents a national allegory. The Brazilian team and the country, not yet ready for primetime, trembled in the second half of the final and allowed the champions of the first World Cup of 1930, Uruguay, to come from behind and win the match 2-1 in front of a stunned, record crowd in the newly built stadium of Maracanã. One would think that after taking significant strides in lifting Brazil out of the ranks of the most unequal nations in the world along with an unmatched five World Cup championships, Brazilians in 2014 would be fully embracing the arrival of the Jules Rimet Trophy, since 1974 officially named the “FIFA World Cup Trophy,” and the opportunity to secure their rightful place as leaders of the new world order. Are we not witnessing the second part of the chain of symbolic representation highlighting new emerging powers? In 2010, South Africa, the “S” of the oft-quoted acronym “BRICS” hosted the World Cup, and now the “B” of Brazil.
The Main Issues
Theoretically, the common thread in the protests is the state’s use of public funds for not only private interests but mostly international, FIFA-stipulated interests. In 2007 when President Lula and an entourage committee lobbied and secured the vote to hold the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, the president promised explicitly that the venture would be financed by private investments, not public coffers. Of course, this sort of diversion of public revenue through the myriad of taxes that Brazilian citizens pay for private interests has happened at alarming levels in every administration in Brazil’s modern history. However, given the original ideologies of social equity underpinning the PT (Worker’s Party) platform, in power at the level of president since 2002, the significant economic growth during the same period, the charismatic legacy of Lula, and the global visibility of the World Cup, this sort of betrayal has been unacceptable. For her part, current president Dilma Rouseff dismisses any sort of conflation of the state and FIFA. It must be significant that the president cited a blog post by journalist Mário Magalhães, which unequivocally charges that if FIFA were a model for Brazilian governance, the current despair around health care, racism and education would be much worse, if not criminal.
The protest spark in June, 2013 emerged from what seemed to be a modest dispute over the increased bus tariffs in the city of São Paulo. The “free pass” movement had a simple request: keep the price of bus fair to 3 reais (roughly $1.30). As Mayor Fernando Haddad hesitated (he finally ceded to the popular demands and the FP movement formally disbanded), various segments of the population saw an opportunity to cast a wider net.
Like most aspects of daily life in Brazil, health care, education and transportation operate as two-tiered systems. There are public and private sectors; on the one hand, a slow, bureaucratic state-subsidized public health care system and poorly organized matrix of public transportation services and, on the other hand, a range of privatized, corporate medical professionals and expensive insurance coverage plans along with a feverish fetish of the car and road construction. This should sound familiar to the US reader. In the case of education, the situation is a bit different in that privatized early education, an impossible cost for most Brazilian families, is rewarded with FREE public university education, while the masses, who struggle to navigate outdated curricula, gutted budgets for technology and paltry teacher salaries, must pay for higher education in predominantly poorly rated colleges and universities.
None of this is fair. And none of this is new. For the most part, these are vestiges of long-standing institutions of slavery, colonial administrations of property and rights, ideologies of social eugenics pervasive in the early formation of Brazil as an independent republic, early cultural nationalism (coinciding with the rise of soccer, samba and carnival) and the structural adjustment programs during the military dictatorship from 1964-1985: A long history of acute elitism. In a nutshell, this too brief overview helps explain why Brazil had been perennially near the top (or bottom) of the global list of unequal nations, the worst of the worst in terms of wealth distribution. However, it must be said that since the turn of the 21st century the distribution of Brazil’s impressive wealth (7th in GDP as of 2012) has become markedly more just, translating into more class crossover, racial equality, and thus a blurring of the once rigid two-tiered matrix of socio-economic life. Regarding education, contrary to what some protestors claim, there has been an uptick in public investment and public-private partnership, e.g., FIES (a loan program connected to the Educar Institute), precisely due to the rise of Class C, a more economically viable and contributive working class.
There is another important specter in this milieu, violence. No, not the violence of hooligans, the likes of which US media enjoys displaying. Again, the game is but a detail. The violence of the World Cup refers to the recent history of state violence in the form of police terror in the cities of São Paulo during the Kassab regime (2006-2012) supported by the authoritarian-minded governor Geraldo Alckmin (2001-2006; 2011-present) and the UPP (“Pacification” police units) of Rio. During the present hyper paranoia concerning “security,” one of the most sensitive and lucrative global markets presently, there has been an uptick in local investment to “clean up” the areas of tourism and stadium activity. The violence is not simply physical, demonstrated by hundreds of murders committed by police, but also structural and economic. The estimated 11-12 billion dollars invested in the World Cup has been funneled mostly to stadium construction and security with the former resulting in displacement, especially in Rio, of hundreds of families. The economic violence is felt in the sudden inflation of real estate resulting in even middle class displacement. Brazilian journalist Mário Magalhães summarizes the WC situation in this way: “In 2007 the state and the nation made a pact, which was, after all, to host a dream World Cup without sacrificing those who had already suffered so much. The pact was broken.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Serious Protests and Disgusting Opportunism
For the past year there has been a complex and, at times, eerie public outcry against the Copa and a curiously myopic link between the World Cup and state politics. If one were to read just the international press, including the heterogeneous social mediascape, one would think that the World Cup has ruined Brazil by introducing political-economic shadiness and state violence to an idyllic hamlet or that the scene currently in Brazil is a South American version of the Arab Spring or a rerun of the Brazilian military dictatorship of the 60s and 70s. There is no doubt that the gringo press is taking a cue from many Brazilians, who only reinforce the outsider’s view that Brazil just isn’t ready. For example, the recent Tumblr “only in Brazil” reveals the perspective from “critical” Brazilians, who share stories of absurd bureaucracies. They categorically attribute their frustrations to the singularly backward nature of all things Brazilian. In my observation both in Brazil and in the US, Brazilians, who take up this cause [there are so many precedents, e.g., "Cansei" and ‘Atrasado”], are almost always significant beneficiaries of Brazil state’s largesse in the form of tax breaks and education incentives that finance their elite studies abroad and their top-shelf education in Brazil’s public institutions. It is noteworthy that this group never criticized the absurdities regarding the high rates of unemployment and divestment from public education under the neoliberal regime of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, for example.
The complexities of the protests can be attributed in part to the fragmented structure of administration. For example, systems of transportation in São Paulo are divided between the purview of city and state governments and thus often divided along lines of political parties. World Cup protestors rarely underscore this, which unfortunately leads to the confusion that all state agencies are the same and they are all corrupt. Ricardo Melo, journalist of Folha de São Paulo newspaper, makes a similar observation when he writes, “in a country like Brazil with so many social inequities whenever public spending is not used for basic services, it feels like a waste…X-tudo [i.e., total opposition] is dangerous because it treats critics as an all or nothing proposition. Often this style of opposition pits worker against worker, bus driver against public school teacher.”
Another source of complexity around the protests is opportunism. For example, legendary striker and current GLOBO network commentator Ronaldo (“the Phenomenon”) publicly expressed his “shame” (vergonha) recently in Brazil’s mishandling of the Copa. In Ronaldo’s case, such claims are particularly disturbing and disappointing, given that he was present in the early stages of negotiation with FIFA to host the event and part of evaluation teams concerning construction delays. The Copa for Ronaldo has translated into considerable personal profits from WC related products, rivaled (perhaps) only by current soccer star Neymar. Much more attuned to the tenure-track of sports-politics machinery, Ronaldo’s opportunism reflects his future aspirations to be the next Minister of Sports, if Aécio Neves wins the presidential election later this year.
On a more collective scale, it has become increasingly obvious to any decently unionized profession that now is the moment to strike. In the last two weeks bus drivers, subway staff, public school teachers (municipal and state), public libraries and civil police have walked out, leaving São Paulo and Rio in crisis. The point here is not that such strikes are illegitimate on the grounds of content, but rather that it is easy and, for some, comfortable to read this discontent as ideologically connected to the Copa. In these particular cases, it is about timing. Why not strike now, while the world is watching?
Making [Productive] Noise
When confused about the puzzle that is Brazil, I often find truth and inspiration in the (sub)urban periphery, the home of an increasingly visible cadre of storytellers, artists and popular folk heroes. During my current stay in São Paulo I have become familiar with saraus, a grassroots movement of “marginal” writers, who organize spoken word and poetry events throughout the expansive periphery neighborhoods of the SP metro area. By way of conclusion, I cite Tubarão Dulixo, a compelling character and, along with Alessandro Buzo (cited above), co-organizer of one of the most popular saraus (Sarau Suburbano Convicto). Tubarão often introduces saraus as a way to “tear down walls and build bridges.” I couldn’t help but think of this motto as I read and heard repeated references to “baderna.” In short, “baderna,” glossed as annoying noise, has come to capture the current mess and disorder, a transgression from democratic debate into chaos. But, maybe, there are some redeeming qualities of baderna. Historically, the term refers to an Italian ballerina, Maria Baderna, who in 1849 settled in Rio. She audaciously mixed lundum, an Afro-Brazilian music and dance genre, with European ballet. Such boldness in art and social critique captured the spirit of curious youth, who would linger after performances and chant her name “Baderna.” Perhaps we can recuperate the original meaning of baderna as a creative call for reflection on what counts as politics on a global stage. Real baderna is not nihilistic opposition, it is collective, generative critique.
To make productive noise and to realize the game is but a detail takes work. The World Cup is coming (and the Olympics in two years time), and whatever happens on the field will comprise a minuscule part of its significance to Brazil and to the international image of Brazil for years to come. The protests in Brazil have solid grounding, but the articulation of what they mean is far from solid or genuine. Brazilians and foreigners must do the work to see and appreciate the complexity of soccer’s relationship with Brazil. This is not an Arab Spring. The Brazilian State has mismanaged public funds and has hedged bets that are certain not to benefit reciprocally the undereducated, underemployed masses suffering from poor health care and crumbling infrastructure. But, this is not an occupy Wall Street moment. There is no dictatorship in Brazil. There is no censorship in Brazil. In fact, the major media outlets have consistently misrepresented the Worker’s Party in Brazil. This is not Chavez’s Venezuela or Castro’s Cuba or, to take an opposing Latin American political model, Uribe’s Colombia. Simplification may give good ratings but it is ultimately a dangerous proposition in the search for truth. Simplification is akin to that flash, the goooool, which we too often remember as the reason for victory or defeat. What about the rest of the scene?
Note: I would like to thank Vítor Nuzzi and José Zambrano Caliendo Jr. for their help with some of the journalist sources as well as Gabriel Feltran for editing my Portuguese translation. I thank Lara Dotson-Renta for the opportunity to write about this timely topic. All interpretations and espoused ideas are my responsibility, of course.
Featured image credit: Paulo Ito, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauloito/13998946669
- For a comparison of SA and Brazil see See also a brief comparison including German (WC home in 2006) in a recent column in O Globo. For more on the WC in South Africa, see this book.
- See this recent interview with two foreign reporters who have lived in Brazil for several years and maintain a position that the Copa took Brazil on a new, dangerous path. While diplomatic in tone, their lack of historical recognition of socio-economic change and enfranchisement demonstrates my point