World Cup 2014 — Poverty and Spectacle
The biggest event in the galaxy begins this Thursday the 12th, in Brazil. This month-long extravaganza only happens every four years, and the whole world will be watching. There will be concerts, dancing, mingling and co-mingling, lots of live music, and oh yes, lots of soccer. It’s the world championship of soccer, or as it’s called everywhere else but here — futebol. The American sport by the same name rarely involves kicking, and would be more accurately called throwball, catchball, or runball. Soccer is the world’s game, popular everywhere on the planet. All you need is a ball, really, so anyone can afford to play. Although the MLS has increased its popularity in the U.S., most Americans have difficulty with the subtleties of the game. It’s been compared to the “Twilight” series — a lot of heavy breathing, but no one ever seems to score. To remedy this, several years ago we came up with the MISL — the Major Indoor Soccer League, which is to soccer as table tennis is to tennis. To Americans’ credit, they stayed away in droves.
I saw my very first soccer match in 1962. It was Brazil in the World Cup, led by the immortal Pele. I was transfixed, and have been ever since. To those familiar with the game’s intricacies, it’s a beautiful, seductive dance, slowly intensifying, not unlike sexual foreplay. until the sudden explosion of a “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAALLLLLL!!!” It’s actually the same game as chess, only played outdoors. In both, control of the middle is crucial while building an attack, always remaining aggressive and therefore keeping the opponent on the defensive, while not pressing forward too quickly and leaving oneself open for a possible counterattack.
Alright, enough about sports. Let’s examine what’s beneath the surface of all the flash and glamour. Brazil is absolutely nuts about the game, and have won the most World Cups with five. It’s the fifth biggest economy in the world, and the middle class has grown much in the past decade. It’s also a nation with vast inequality. In the major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the suburbs are made up of favelas, or poor neighborhoods. President Dilma Rousseff’s approval rating has sunk to 36%, down from 43% just last November. This is a soccer-mad nation and has won more World Cups (five) than any other. But over the last year there have been strikes, protests, and general discontent over the $12 billion spent, while schools deteriorate and raw sewage runs through the streets. Part of the problem is FIFA (Federacion Internationale de Football), the world governing body. They march into a host country and tell them their stadiums aren’t good enough, that they want “FIFA-quality stadiums.” Many thousands of people were forcibly relocated to make way for new venues to be constructed. The first match of this World Cup is in Sao Paulo, featuring host Brazil vs. Croatia. A crowd of about 10.000 have been occupying a lot next to that stadium for weeks, and they aren’t there for tickets. They call themselves “The People’s World Cup.”
Sao Paulo is the largest city with about 20 million. A bus strike in mid-May stranded over 2.5 million people for days. Many of the strikers parodied FIFA, chanting, “We want FIFA-quality wages!” Half a dozen stadiums have faced work stoppages. Another strike by police detectives in Recife left the city even more vulnerable to drug gangs. There’s a poster going viral on the web, showing a hungry, crying child sitting at a table with knife and fork. On the plate in front of him is a soccer ball. Some of the huge bus and rail transport systems between the 12 cities won’t be finished in time. That leaves air travel, which leaves out the poor again. Two hotels, hosting the English and Italian teams, were found to have pasta, butter, shrimp, and ham past their expiration dates. Add the usual corruption and stir till mixture comes to a boil.
Drugs and crime are everywhere, especially in the favelas. Germany’s Der Spiegel reports that Drug gangs control about 300 of Rio’s 700 favelas. They like to use children to do their dirty work, both because they don’t yet know fear, and the sentences are lighter. Many of them are high on meth or cocaine, and are armed. Pickpockets in Rio are called “rats,” and so skillful they would shame Dickens’ Artful Dodger. People at the beach, like Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach, may fall victim to the arrastao, or “big sweep.” Kevin Raub, Sao Paulo writer and author of the Rio chapter in South America on a Shoestring, describes how a wave of thieves lines up on a beach, and “rob everyone quickly and are in and out before beachgoers or police can even blink.” Meanwhile, $900 million has been spent on police and military security, including “exclusion zones” near the stadiums. There will be over 1000 security cameras in Rio alone. What we’ve learned from previous Olympics and World Cups like Beijing in 2008, Vancouver and South Africa in 2010, London in 2012, and earlier this year in Sochi, after everyone has gone home, this surveillance network will remain in place.
The Sao Police have published a tourist brochure that will be distributed on airlines into Brazil, as well as embassies and consulates. It advises that if you are robbed, “Do not react, scream, or argue.” No one wants latrocinios — robberies that end in murder. People are also cautioned not to flaunt valuables, to be careful walking at night, and to take care that they are not followed. Brazil has one of the world’s highest murder rates. It’s the leading cause of death among youth, and 40% of the victims are from ages 15 – 25. Some areas are patrolled by gangs so well-armed that police only go in with special units. Other than that, many of these favelas are invisible to the government or law enforcement.
The CDC, Center for Disease Control, recommends bringing a first aid kit with a good bug repellent. Brazil is a hotbed for dengue fever, carried by the aedes aegypti mosquito. Between 2000 and 2013, there were 7 million reported cases. It’s also knows as “breakbone fever,” because of the severity of aches and pains associated with it. Dengue can lead to two different life-threatening conditions, dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome (dangerously low blood pressure). There is no known treatment for the virus that causes dengue, other than general anti-fever measures.
Maybe you’re wondering, what are the chances for USA! USA! USA!? I’m afraid they’re slim and none, slim and none, slim and none. First, Landon Donovan, arguably the best player we’ve ever produced, was left off the squad. At 32, he lacks the speed and endurance of younger players, but he’s the kind of guy who makes things happen. That’s the kind of player you need. Second, many people (including me) thought Jurgen Klinsmann being hired as coach a couple years ago, would lift the program. He was a great German player and coached the national team for awhile, but the team hasn’t responded under his style. I’ve followed this team for twenty years, and this is one of the weakest. We have a lot of good players, but that doesn’t guarantee good results if they can’t work together.
Even worse, we got a really lousy seeding. Here’s how it works. The thirty-two teams that made it through the grueling two year qualification rounds are partitioned into eight groups of four. Each plays the other teams in its group, and the top two go through to the knockout round of 16, which compares to the NCAA’s “Sweet Sixteen.” FIFA, the world governing body, uses a blind draw rather than seeding the teams from best to worst. Inevitably, there’s a “grupo de morte,” or group of death, where several good teams end up together. The U.S. (world ranking #14 — that’s too high) is in Group G along with Germany (ranked 2nd), Portugal (ranked #3), and Ghana. And it just so happens that Ghana is the team who knocked us out of the last two World Cups, in 2006 and 2010. The fact that Portugal doesn’t merit #3 doesn’t help much. So the idea that we’ll finish in the top two and move on, is unrealistic at best.
It’s still going to be a month-long festival of samba and partying, punctuated by the matches. Like the Olympics, this whole thing will be Disneyfied and sanitized for viewers. And like the Olympics, beneath the shiny façade is the ugly face of global corporate fascism. FIFA calls the tune, and everybody goes along. Both organizations are corrupt from stem to stern. FIFA is already under investigation for World Cup 2022 in Qatar, on two different fronts. It seems a Qatari oligarch spent $7 million buying the votes of officials, to land the event. There are also the deaths of dozens of Nepalese already working on stadiums. Not from accidents but heart failure. These are young men in slave-like conditions, being worked literally to death. Do you think FIFA gives a rat’s ass about human rights? And as this column goes to press, there are new allegations of price-fixing in the run-up games to the last World Cup. When it’s over, the rich will be a lot richer and the poor even more screwed. Hell, even the Romans provided bread with their circuses. And in just two years, Rio hosts the Summer Olympics — more people displaced for more new venues, more crony capitalism, more circuses.
Well, I hope I haven’t dampened your enthusiasm and anticipation too much. I thought you should be aware of the total picture. If you’re interested in a more thorough geopolitical view, I heartily recommend Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, by Dave Zirin, one of our best sports writers. Having said all that, it should be a very exciting World Cup. I just hope it’s not for the wrong reasons.
The City [of Rio] makes the poor even poorer, cruelly confronting them with mirages of wealth to which they will never have access — cars, mansions, machines as powerful as God or the Devil — while denying them secure jobs, decent roofs over their heads, full plates on the midday table. — Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1997).