In late June last year, over 200,000 protesters gathered in a big square in a major South American city. Having remained peaceful for the duration, the rally boiled over and turned violent towards the end, causing riot police to fire tear gas at the crowds and declare Martial law to gain control of the situation. In recent years, this could have been the scene in many dissatisfied countries. Political corruption, severe austerity policies and anti-democratic coups are, unfortunately, a dime a dozen this side of the millennium. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, similar gatherings can potentially bring down governments and give hope to oppressed citizens.
But this particular rally, on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, was not opposing a dictatorial regime or protesting against nuclear arms. The Brazilian people took to the streets voicing their concerns in regard to sport. As Brazil is a fútbol crazy country, the people weren’t opposing the sport itself. On the contrary, it’s a great honor for the country to host the current World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Instead, the crowds were manifesting their poverty and complaining about the amount of money spent on these major entertainment events, as opposed to the general and fundamental upkeep of the country.
One of the reasons Brazil was given the 2016 Olympics, when pitted against Chicago and Tokyo, was that, according to local opinion polls, nearly all Brazilians were keen and eager to host the games. And the favorable for the World Cup at that time were, if possible, even higher. Few other countries are as defined by fútbol as Brazil. The sport symbolizes the Brazilian way of playing, partying, cheering, speaking…well, living basically.
The yellow jerseys and the iconic player names – everyone from Pelé and Ronaldo to Neymar, the current “craque” (Brazilian slang for the star player) – plus the countless World Cup victories arguably make Brazil the world’s biggest fútbol nation. Ever. This is the second time Brazil is hosting the World Cup. The last time, in 1950, neighbors Uruguay took home the trophy, much to the dismay of the Amazonian nation. Neymar and his teammates will work very hard to make sure it stays in Sao Paolo this time around. But a potential victory at the best and just hosting the tournament at the worst, is an expensive affair. So far over $3 billion from public funds have been spent on upgrading old stadiums and building new ones. Initially, less than $1 billion was earmarked for this.
It was this spending spree that provoked Brazilians to take to the streets last year, and similar protests – sometimes with resulting fatalities – have been reoccurring ever since, even escalating in the immediate run up. A lot is at stake; President Dilma Rousseff will be hoping for a success to set the scene for her reelection in October. Obviously, how you define “success” in this instance depends on who you ask. For most Brazilians, it’s a victory and enough money left in the coffers to pay for healthcare and education. The government, though surely happy with accomplishing mentioned goals, also wants to increase Brazil’s international standing as a South American super power. For quite some time now, Brazil has been billed an “emerging market.” For how much longer, President Rousseff must be asking herself.
It is true that plenty of upmarket fashion brands are establishing themselves in Rio and Sao Paolo; there is no shortage of expendable income in Brazil, at least for a few select. With its vast geographical space, there’s plenty of places to make money here. By hosting not only the World Cup but also the Olympics, Brazil is gambling it all on one – well, two – hands. Will it pay off? Considering that as late as a couple of weeks ago a few of the World Cup stadiums – the very same the government spent $3 billion on – weren’t ready for the tournament, that’s far from guaranteed.
In the immediate run up to the World Cup, the protests went into overdrive, both on the streets and in the media; even fútbol legend Pelé criticized the expenses, and local bishops issued a “red card” to the organizers for wasting public funds. But the Brazilian economy, the sixth biggest in world, should be financially sound enough to host the World Cup. Or the Olympics. Problems arise when you have to organize both. Even London in 2012 and Sochi earlier this year struggled to secure enough money and to stay within budget. In the UK, politicians and the public still squabble over the “legacy” and question if it’s ever worth hosting such an expensive event.
The yay-sayers argue it’s valuable and profitable for the economy, that the country will benefit both financially and in terms of image. They say it will bring the country together, unite them as they a) cheer for their team at the World Cup and b) join a select group of proud Olympics hosts. The last two accounts are true. Fútbol is a social sport, and nowhere is that as true as in Brazil. It transcends the barriers of gender, nationality and ethnicity. Fútbol is used to reach out to young kids in need of social stability, it helps break down gang culture and encourages team work that will help further education. And then there’s the health factor; fútbol is good for your body. There was even a UN-instigated “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace” for the first time ever back in April.
Fútbol clubs are paying their players too much money and corruption, as we’ve seen with the Qatar 2022 World Cup allegations, is rife – but there’s no denying the sport is the one game that unites the world, be it Poland, America, Cameroon, South Korea or Brazil. The Pro-World Cup debaters also talk about the events as opportunities to invest in the Brazilian infrastructure, an area which needs extra funds due to the sheer size of the country. But doubting experts question if roads and railways really will benefit as large sums are spent on new stadiums – money which is borrowed from banks. Does Brazil actually need those mega-sized arenas? Already fútbol crazy, the country is filled with big enough stadiums. Will that be the legacy of the World Cup? Victory or no victory for Brazil – enormous half empty arenas in the middle of the jungle and suffering schools in the city? Will the education system and healthcare actually benefit from Brazil’s new image as an Olympic host? Is it worth the economic investment? Currently, only 34% of Brazilians actually think the World Cup will help the domestic economy, while a surprising 39% even think the tournament will hurt the country’s image. These numbers are not only discouraging for the organizers, but are very close to a complete and utter catastrophe.
Perhaps the Olympics make more sense. The sports are spread out, the stadiums will facilitate more disciplines: kids will be encouraged to try other sports as well. Fútbol is closer to Brazil’s heart but was it too greedy to take on two big events with just a few years in between? With domestic experts even arguing the World Cup and the Olympics won’t have as much positive impact on the infrastructure as promised, who are the real winners after the games? Looking closer at other host nations, actual and measurable profit from a purely economic point of view is comparatively small. All in all, the World Cup and Olympic Games comes across as gigantic vanity projects, paid for by the poorest people in Rio’s favelas and the kids in Sao Paolo who are in desperate need of improved schools and a functioning healthcare.
Fútbol is known as The Beautiful Game but, as the current situation in Brazil shows, beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
Check out our other installments of World Cup Month.