Brazil just finished hosting the FIFA Confederations Cup, a two-week soccer tournament that brings together six regional champions from around the world as well as the reigning World Cup winner. Brazil’s shimmering, 3-0 victory over Spain in the cup final on Sunday was comprehensive and convincing. But it wasn’t the only story emerging from Rio, where thousands protesting outside the stadium were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Soccer honchos in Brazil viewed the Confederations Cup as a dress rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup. Turns out it has also been a dress rehearsal for dissent.
What started as protests three weeks ago against a hike in bus fares quickly escalated into countrywide actions targeting government corruption and the decision to fund sports mega-events rather than education and health care. Brazil is getting hit with the mega-event double-whammy—it’s hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. Activists have zeroed in on FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, two unaccountable behemoths.
Both the World Cup and Olympics have evolved into corporate juggernauts that are procured with public money. Brazil is dumping $13 billion into the World Cup. The Olympics are slated to cost another $14 billion. Both numbers have vaulted skyward after relatively modest cost estimates during the bid processes. Such bait-and-catapult has become standard practice in hosting mega-events in the twenty-first century. And while the platinum cavalcade zips off to the location of the next big event, the host is saddled with debt.
In responding to the protests, FIFA and the IOC have shown themselves to be tone deaf and tactless. FIFA chief Sepp Blatter—who was jeered at the opening of the Confederations Cup—said, “Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We didn’t force it on them.” He added, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard.” Right, that’s his job. Meanwhile, one of FIFA’s marketing affiliates announced a sponsorship deal for the “official champagne” of the 2014 World Cup.
Such shenanigans should be expected from FIFA and its corporate cronies. After all, back in April FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke speculated that Brazil suffered from too much democracy. He declared, “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup.” In response to the protests, Blatter eventually offered Brazil $100 million in World Cup profits. The overture looked more like a clumsy kickback than honest compensation.
The IOC has responded to the popular outburst with a bit more suavity. In a prepared statement it said, “We are always fully supportive of peaceful protest,” and it rehearsed boilerplate rhetoric about using sport to improve the world, but the words rung hollow to activists in Brazil witnessing misdirected public spending. The takeaway message from FIFA and the IOC appears to be, “Let them eat sports.”
The protests have, however, benefited from a high-profile assist from members of the Brazilian soccer team, the beloved Seleção. Hulk proclaimed, “I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right…We know that Brazil needs to improve in many areas and must let the demonstrators express themselves.” Neymar—who was scintillating in the Confederations Cup final—stated, “I’ll get on the pitch inspired by this mobilization.” A slew of star players spoke out in support, including Dani Alves, David Luiz, and Fred, who notched two brilliant goals in the final.
For activists, the hallowed Estadio Maracaná has become a poignant symbol of socializing risk and privatizing reward.
Brazilian soccer great Romario, now a member of Brazil’s National Congress, took the analysis a step further, asserting that FIFA was “the real president of Brazil.” Critiquing lavish spending on the World Cup, he said, “It’s taking the piss with our money, with the public’s money, it’s a lack of respect, a lack of scruples.”
A recent poll found 77 percent in São Paulo are on the same wavelength as the players and protesters. Meanwhile, President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity is in free fall—her approval rating has plunged from 57 percent to 30 percent over the course of the protests. When Pelé—the soccer legend turned credit-card hawker—told Brazilians to “forget the protests,” he was roundly rebuked by fans.
Even the very stadium where the final was held, the hallowed Estadio Maracaná, was embroiled in controversy. The Brazilian government doled out $560 million to refurbish the stadium, only to hand it over to private entities at bargain-basement prices. In the process, scores of local residents were displaced. This brand of mass eviction has become another standard practice when it comes to hosting mega-events. For activists, the stadium has become a poignant symbol of socializing risk and privatizing reward.
More and more, FIFA and the IOC are looking like supranational parasite states that glom on to hosts to slake their thirst for public funds. Dissident citizens in Brazil have figured this out early and are using the bumbling leviathans to their political advantage. Many who support the protests also supported the Brazilian squad in the Confederations Cup final. The demonstrations are not anti-sport. The Confederations Cup may be over, but in a way the games have just begun.
Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon. He has written on politics for the Guardian, New Left Review, and the New York Times and is the author of Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games and Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. You can follow him on Twitter @JulesBoykoff.