Pradyot Lal: WHAT PRICE EXTRAVAGANZA

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Even Rivaldo has his doubts... You can’t have the World Cup without Brazil, but Brazil could have done without playing host

The host country may have the greatest team, but Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff is not having the greatest time hosting the World Cup. The coveted trophy has been likened to a ‘poisoned chalice’, the event a neo-liberal Trojan horse that will end up damaging the economy. For more than a year now, Brazil has been rocked by mass protests against the game that has the status of a world religion. These have been met with brutal repression by state security forces, and there are legitimate fears on whether the event will take place without trouble and disruptions.

To make sure the world got the message, barely hours before kick-off, homeless workers marched on to Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians stadium, which hosted the opening match of the cup. They are not the only naysayers: a survey found six out of 10 Brazilians believe the event is bad for the economy.

All these marches and protests are a continuation of what began during the Confederations Cup last June, which saw millions of Brazilians take to the streets against widespread corruption, extreme neglect of basic public amenities and misplaced priorities in government spending.

It didn’t start that way. Initially, when Brazil won the bid to host the World Cup, there was a lot of pride and optimism. In 2008, the event had the popular support of 80 per cent.

Back then, Brazilians had been led to believe that the event would be privately financed. But instead, it is the government which has been doing the bulk of the spending, using taxpayers’ money to fulfill a private agenda, designed to private specifications, with little or no regard for the people.

By February this year, public support for the World Cup had dipped to less than 50 per cent. The vast majority of the population basically believes there can be no justification for spending such a huge amount of money — $14 billion — on a football tournament when education, health, transport and basic security are in far greater need of public expenditure.

The public spaces in the 12 cities hosting the matches are covered in thick anti-Fifa graffiti. One depicted a malnourished boy with the slogan, “Need food, not football,” painter Paulo Ito’s comment on the situation. In Brazil, the World Cup is widely — and to many quite correctly — perceived as a tournament organised for the benefit of the elite: as a popular quip doing the rounds has it, the World Cup needs Brazil more than that country needing the World Cup!

The situation is certainly iniquitous. It is Fifa, a handful of construction companies and the international conglomerates that’ve tied up with Fifa as sponsors, that are the biggest beneficiaries — not the soccer-crazy favelas that have produced so many of Brazil’s greats and made the South American giant synonymous with the sport. Incidentally, three of them — Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo — have spoken out in support of the protests and against the cup, with Rivaldo stating unambiguously, “At this moment, we aren’t in shape to host the World Cup. We don’t need it; we need education and health.”

Brazil has already spent $13.3 billion on World Cup preparations, and the overall expenditure is estimated to cross $14 billion. Meanwhile, its education budget is $37 billion. So, this third world country is spending more than a third of its annual education budget on a single sporting event.

Not surprisingly, for the Brazilian working classes, the tournament is nothing short of a moral obscenity. The repressive apparatus being put in place for the World Cup has already evoked comparisons with sci-fi dystopian technologies such as Robocop.

Forgotten amid all this is the fact that football ultimately belongs to the people, not to its corporate owners.

As observers aver, Brazilians, who are the maddest soccer lovers of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching a few. The fiesta of soccer is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland! Legendary British author Simon Kuper of Soccernomics fame points out that facilities like shiny stadiums, roads to those stadiums, lots of security — are rarely essential for normal life. Half of the 12 new or refurbished venues will become white elephants when the World Cup ends. The one in Brasilia, for instance, seats over 70,000; but no local club regularly draws more than 1,000 spectators. Other than stadiums, Brazil has built hardly any infrastructure for the tournament. The whole argument boils down to this: citizens have a more important right to basic needs, and in fact, lots of Brazilians still don’t have enough to eat, and their schools and hospitals are mostly in a deplorable condition. Kuper sees no benefit in Brazil strutting the world stage like some character from a 19th century comic opera. Nor do most Brazilians: according to a recent survey, 55 per cent of them think the World Cup will bring “more losses than benefits to Brazilians in general.”

Then there is football historian David Goldblatt, whose remarkable book Futebol Nation records that Brazil’s national auditors anticipate that the total public spending on the tournament would be “enough money to pay the entire country’s annual Bolsa Familia [social welfare] bill twice over.” He says 2014 is “the most expensive World Cup ever,” and adds that politicians must stop pretending that hosting it boosts the economy or increases national glory. He also wonders what national glory means to very poor people.

He hopes that Brazil is the last poor country to get stuck with enormous costs while Fifa pockets almost all the profits. For Kuper, “Even if now we have a brilliant month of football, it will have been preceded by years of complaints by Brazilians about wasteful spending and alleged corruption.” He says there should be no more white elephants; host governments should be made to enact proper labour laws; and they must stop lying to their populations about supposed economic benefits.

Holding the cup in Brazil, football’s spiritual home, sparks many fantasies of the samba spectacle. Those illusions are now being derided. The government’s slum-clearing efforts have met violent resistance. As Goldblatt says, the sport has long reflected both the best and worst of Brazil. For a country that imported more than 10 times as many slaves as the United States, football’s relative egalitarianism promised a more inclusive identity.

In the 1930s, prominent intellectuals like Gilberto Freyre hailed Brazilian football’s exuberant and improvisational style — a product, he argued, of the country’s “mulattoism” — as evidence of a national character superior to Europe’s more controlled qualities. Yet the sport exposed uglier realities, too.

Many Brazilians believed their black compatriots lacked the discipline and courage needed to play at the highest level. Only after Pelé and Garrincha, two black stars, inspired Brazil to its first World Cup title in 1958, Goldblatt writes, was “football as eugenics” retired as an argument.

However, the egalitarian idealism that Freyre and others ascribed to football has never been fully realised — hence the unexpected backlash against the cup. The indictment of mega-sporting events by critics, almost all of whom are avid football fans, certainly has merit. The last time Brazil played host, in 1950, critics objected that the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals. That was 64 years ago. Much has changed since but suprisingly, the core concerns remain the same. The imperious bosses of Fifa, clearly, have no time for such basic concerns.

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