Thursday, May 29, 2014

Are you ready for the World Cup?

I know everybody is talking about Brazil at the moment, so I thought I'd give an update as the World Cup approaches this coming month. I will arrive in Bahia on July 3 and be there for the quarter, semi and final rounds. I'm looking forward to getting a better sense of how people respond to the games and the event as they happen. For now, I can only write about what I see and understand from a distance regarding the anticipation of and preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The bottom line is that, it's not going well. Massive protests to government spending and mismanagement have swelled especially in São Paulo, Brasília, Rio de Janeiro and other cities throughout the country. A recent study showed that only 22% of Brazilians will even root for their national team (a statistic I have a very hard time believing). This public mural has gone viral as the simple message presents a Brazil unwilling to face its true problems of poverty, income inequality, and access to resources while graciously preparing for foreign media and visitors.

Mural by Paulo Ito

On Tuesday groups of indigenous peoples and their supporters protested outside of the newly constructed arena in Brasília, a stadium that cost $1.2 billion (USD) of federal spending. The protestors were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and violent police repression. This looks a lot like the response to protests last year during the Confederations Cup, but the iconography of this protest and the symbolic messages of oppressed peoples uniting against government corruption are particularly striking.

Not to mention the incredibly violent military invasions of favelas in attempts to restructure and "sanitize" the city of Rio de Janeiro. I still don't understand the breakdown of all the different types of police units, but clearly the municipal and federal governments are in on displacing thousands of families from their prime real estate homes, as quickly as possible. Because favelas are squatter communities, they have precarious land rights, and are often the first to be displaced as disempowered communities. The urgency put on by the strict timetables of FIFA and the disorganization of infrastructural development throughout Brazil has left many families in vulnerable situations. They are being violently forced out of the way in order to construct new highways, hotels and parking lots to receive international tourists and teams.

Meanwhile in the United States I'm seeing various corporate manifestations of Brazil's comoditized image. I walk into an athletic store and see a Nike ad using Brazil's soccer repute to sell cleats. On ESPN I see a commercial of young Afro-Brazilian women walking through colorful favelas to promote tourism and a gritty yet sexy Brazil. Drunken partiers wear Brazil's national t-shirts at Bay to Breakers, flags are sold as accessories at Forever 21. iTunes sells the official album of the World Cup, with shockingly few Brazilian artists featured. I think these and numerous other examples point to the obvious question of who wins and who loses from such international sporting events (hint: the U.S. soccer team is not the only loser).

Politically, this all looks incredibly bad for Dilma and PT (the leading Worker's Party) in the upcoming federal elections in October. When former president Lula agreed to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, undoubtedly he envisioned celebrations and success that would bolster his party's credibility and notoriety. The opposite could not be more true. In a truly multi-party political system such as Brazil, I would not be surprised if an alternative candidate rose in opposition to Dilma in the wake of this mismanaged World Cup fiasco. That being said, I do not claim to have great political expertise or foresight in this matter.

Despite all of this mess, I'm still rooting for Brazil and am almost certain they will win the World Cup by merit or otherwise... If they don't, I can only image the anger and mobilization that might follow such failure and disappointment. It will be an interesting summer.

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