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By Lara Pham
For the country known as “o Pais do Futebol” (soccer nation), the World Cup in Brazil should have elicited national pride and excitement. But given rampant corruption of FIFA and the government’s inability to deliver key infrastructure-related services to the people, it is not surprising that the upcoming World Cup has created tension between Brazilians and soccer.
Preparations for the World Cup have revealed the country’s underlying socio-political inequalities. However, the Brazilian people are still finding creative ways to maintain unity and the sport’s populist spirit.
Since the English exported soccer to the elites in the Latin American country in 1894, Brazilians have transformed the game to make it their own. Brazilian journalist Gilberto Freyre described Brazilian soccer in 1959 as “a dance…for [Brazilians] tend to reduce everything to dance, work and play alike.” In 1949, Italian journalist Thomas Mazzoni wrote, “English football, well played, is like a symphonic orchestra; well played, Brazilian football is like an extremely hot jazz band.”
Foreigners are certainly familiar with the Brazilian lifestyle stereotypes: casual and playful. Nonetheless, Brazil is historically known for developing a particular style considered to be very skillful, creative, and fast-paced. The playing technique is often associated with the world’s best player, retired Brazilian soccer player Pelé. (Though, the “typical” Brazilian style has since changed). These lethal skills have contributed to Brazil’s five World Cup wins (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002), a source of national pride.
Soccer is still considered the cheapest and most democratic sport, given its accessibility. Industrialization and mass production in the country brought soccer balls to all parts of the socio-economic spectrum. Many contemporary soccer stars boast about their humble beginnings in dirt lots of the slums. Pelé is considered a national hero, not just for his masterful skills, but also for being an outspoken advocate for the poor. These kinds of rags-to-riches stories coupled with feelings of nationalism make soccer a tool for social cohesion.
While the thrill of the game is shared among many citizens of varying socio-economic backgrounds, Brazilian police are “cleansing” favelas. Residents of poor communities have been evicted in order to make room for roads, stadiums, and housing for athletes. The military has occupied some of Rio’s favelas, increasing their presence and routine patrols.
The result of this “pacification” program has put innocent lives in danger as they are often caught in the middle of police-gang crossfire. Brazil’s slums have effectively been militarized, and the police have been afforded a lot of discretion in an effort to “secure” the area. But for whom is this safety created? Who ultimately reaps the benefits of the World Cup?
The answer for Dr. Alisson da Silva, a Brazilian professor at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and PUC Minas, is simple: “The World Cup in Brazil is not for Brazilians, but for those who can afford it.”
It seems that soccer has yet to fully escape from its colonial and elitist past. There is an obvious division between who is allowed and who is not allowed to participate and enjoy the World Cup, especially with the forced relocations of poor Brazilians. Ticket prices are between $90 and $1,000. Bars that wish to broadcast matches will need FIFA’s official authorization or be subject to penalties. The Brazilian government has proposed fare hikes that would impose an unduly burden on the poor and working classes.
FIFA and the Brazilian government have unquestionably decided that the World Cup will be an exclusive event. The government has granted FIFA generous tax exemptions. New stadiums will be handed over to private firms for corporate benefits. Neil Britto, an observer of the soccer culture and researcher on “The Culture of Football,” says, “Ironically, hosting the largest soccer event in the world does not encourage a developmental process that results in easily accessed or equitable benefits for citizens of host country.” The poorest in the favelas are the hardest hit where there is little access to stable infrastructure, hospitals, schools, and security.
Interestingly, higher incomes have not prevented unity between the lower socio-economic classes as the elite further segregate themselves. Brazil’s middle classes have also joined poor favela residents in protests. According to a survey by the Brazilian Institute of Opinion and Statistics, 79 percent of the millions of protestors earn more than twice the minimum wage and 76 percent are employed. “The people have realized the disparity between the World Cup fantasy and the Brazilian reality,” says da Silva. “After years of silence, the nation mobilized.”
Brazilians grow up loving soccer despite the political injustices and opportunism. Emerson Déo Cardoso, an American-Brazilian filmmaker, explains this internal tension. Cardoso protested outside of the Arena Castelão during the 2013 Brazil-Mexico game because he was upset about “the corruption, the money laundering, and the forced removals of thousands families from their home.” After escaping the police’s tear gas and rubber bullets, he and many others ran off the “battlefield” to the closest TV, which are often placed out on sidewalks during national team games, to catch the remainder of the match. Cardoso’s experience illustrates that many Brazilians, while angry at the World Cup’s development process at the expense of ordinary Brazilians, still want to embrace the thrill of the games.
Certain neighborhoods have also found creative ways to participate in the World Cup. The not-for-profit Football Beyond Borders (FBB) is working to organize the Favela World Cup for those who cannot afford to pay for expensive match tickets. The participants explain that these alternative games allow them to still partake in the excitement by playing the game and cheering on friends without the political hypocrisies. The Favela World Cup is an example of Brazilians trying to experience soccer in the most pure and enjoyable form. Here, soccer does not only belong to the British or the elites – it is for the ordinary citizens.
The World Cup, FIFA, and the Brazilian government have divided soccer into a space for the rich and another for the lower classes. Nonetheless, Brazilians are making the most of their allocated space by continually pushing the boundaries towards bringing soccer to the people.
Lara Pham is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a master’s candidate in international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.