“Imagine in the World Cup”: sport mega events and social exclusion in Brazil

Jorge Dorfman Knijnik

Brazil has recently hosted the FIFA Confederations Cup. This event was meant to be a test for the country which will take the centre stage of the sporting world in forthcoming years: notably FIFA’s Football World Cup in 2014 and the IOC’s Olympic Games in 2016. However, an occasion supposed to showcase to the world a new and well-developed country with modern sports facilities has also displayed much more than the amazing football-art played by the victorious Brazilian Team; the international press was faced with the spectacle of thousands of protesters marching down the country’s streets. The FIFA president’s analysis of the protests – “everything will settle down when the football starts” – proved to be totally wrong: the public dissent gained strength during the competition as street protesters marched towards the stadia and put forward several demands to politicians, mostly focused on social justice exigencies.

I am Brazilian by way of nationality and culture. Despite living in Australia for the past four years, I closely follow Brazil’s social life. I see how futebol continues to be central for the country’s life, as it is “much more than a game” for Brazilians. As an Australian-based “insider”, I became astonished to observe from a distance what was taking place inside the new stadia built in Brazil for the Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup. These issues, which appear on the field but stem mostly from off the field, have a direct connection with the country’s current social and political life. These lead me to a profound, though seemingly paradoxical question: will futebol in Brazil survive the World Cup? As futebol represents one of the main spaces for social cohesion in the country, my real concern is about the survival of the country’s cultural and social life under the new conditions imposed by global sport events such as the World Cup and the Olympics.

I start with a brief “on the field” comment: the Brazilian team has really made me proud. The players showed a high-level commitment to the yellow shirt that is exactly what Brazilians love: a mix of friendship, football-art and devotion. It was a good surprise for everyone that in only a few months the new coach could inspire a totally positive spirit in this team – and we are the champions again!

Brazilian Team. Photo: Danilo Borges – Portal da Copa.

However, off the field things were not that good. The stadia and also the audience that attended the Confederations Cup games reveal a country where, despite the big economic and social advances in the past decade, the social inequality is still massive – and perhaps it is growing.

Watching on TV, the new modern and comfortable stadia (the so-called “arenas”), I was shocked: where is this competition being played? Where are the stadia that I used to go and cheer? The stadia looked all the same! They could be in Recife, in Salvador or Rio – but also in Sydney or London! The “FIFA-standard” has imposed an awful homogeneity of all stadia, a “21st century” stadia experience that has destroyed the cultural meanings and the affective heritage of the Brazilian stadia.

The internationally eminent Maracanã stadium is the very example of this cultural heritage destruction. Maracanã was a public stadium built for the 1950 World Cup (when Brazil lost the final game against Uruguay, in the legendary ‘Maracanazo’). As Burlamaqui Soares states, at that time the stadium was built with the clear intention of being a public space where all social classes were welcome: Maracanã had famous cheap spots (U$ 5.00) where the most humble and poor supporters could cheer on their beloved team by standing on their feet behind the goals, following the games with their ears glued to their small radios.

Top view of the new bleachers Maracanã. Photo: ME – Portal da Copa.

These “general” spots (in Portuguese, “geral” and their users known as “Geraldinos”) were an integral part of the stadium mythology; “Geraldinos” have been portrayed in countless movies and stories. With the renovations and the privatisation of the stadium, the geral was simply destroyed, along with other symbols and heritage of the stadium. This “modernization” clearly shows that, as Burlamaqui Soares says, in the Maracanã’s new order there is no space for that ludic spectacle where everybody could participate. Now is the era of commercialized football and the new owners look for customers with a “new profile” – VIPs who can pay expensive tickets and spend a lot of money inside the stadium. One of the few leisure spaces for the Brazilian “Geraldinos” – the poorest citizens – has gone forever.

The concern with the standardized of stadia comes along with another worry: the unbelievable whitening of the audience during the Confederations Cup. Everyone that watched the Brazilian Team playing could see that more than a half of the players are black or mulattos, which is a fair representation of a country where the African descendants are the majority of the population. In the grandstands, however, an international spectator who does not know much about Brazil would perfectly think that this is a country of white people. The absence of black/mulattos on the stands was remarkable – a clear sign of the economic social exclusion that, together with the new stadia, the World Cup imposes on the country. NGOs that represent the Brazilian African descendants are already demanding quotas inside the stadia to allow the humble Brazilians (black/mulattos in the greater part) who worship the National Team to attend the World Cup games. It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this new and socially just demand.

As soon as Brazil was nominated to be the host of the 2014 World Cup, people on the streets, when complaining about daily life (such as heavy traffic, overcrowded hospitals and public transport, robberies, violence and corruption) started to say the mantra “imagine in the World Cup”. This is the ironic way that Brazilians express their frustration and shame: if things currently are very tough, can you “imagine in the World Cup”? It will be worse.

Brazilian fans in the final of the Confederations Cup at the Maracanã. Photo: Wander Roberto – VIPCOMM.

The whitening and elitism of the stadia are “imagine in the World Cup” affairs. They clearly indicate why Brazilians are taking over the streets to protest against the current social order. Violence and social inequity increase in the country, while the life conditions go down. It has been hard to believe that facing so many social problems, billions of public money has been spent in a World Cup for VIP people – which is also threatening the Brazilian way of living and experiencing one of its most precious cultural symbols – futebol.

At the moment, the legacy of the 2014 World Cup to the country is very controversial. One point, however, is clear: unlike futebol where everybody stands, cheers and play together, the World Cup is not increasing the social cohesion among Brazilians; on the contrary, it is intensifying social exclusion. The World Cup’s real legacy, though, might be an increasing political and social consciousness that makes people march and fight for their rights. My hope is that futebol survives next year’s World Cup and in the future will assist again, as it did in the past, with the process of including in public life the millions of Brazilians who are currently disenfranchised. After all, the World Cup might not be ours – but futebol will forever be!