“The word ‘FIFA’ is about as popular here as ‘FEMA’ in New Orleans after Katrina,” Dylan Stillwood, a young journalist living in Brazil, told me as protests, strikes and other direct actions engulfed the country a month before the June 12 start of the 2014 World Cup. For people just tuning in, the idea that Brazilians would be protesting the Cup makes about as much sense as New Yorkers rebelling against pizza. And yet here we are, on the eve of the Cup, and protesters across the country brandish signs with the slogan #NãoVaiTerCopa (There Will Be No Cup). This demonstrates with cutting clarity that Brazil’s mass uprising of 2013 was not a flash in the pan, and that Brazilians would not be intimidated by harsh new legislation criminalizing dissent.
Last summer, a million people took to the streets in the first mass demonstrations the country had seen since its dictatorship ended three decades ago. Every major city, and even several small towns, saw people bravely facing tear gas and police violence. The protests coincided with the Confederations Cup, a top-shelf international soccer tournament viewed as a precursor to this summer’s almighty World Cup. Everywhere a publicly funded stadium grew from the ground, it became a focal point for protest. Without any formal leadership, people were protesting corruption and misplaced government priorities amid preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, which Brazil is also hosting.
What was particularly interesting about the protests was that they made all the sense in the world, given the frustrations besetting the country, and yet everyone was stunned. When I traveled to Brazil, most people in the social movement community told me that these sports extravaganzas would leave behind major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and attendant infrastructure were monstrous, given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the brutal evictions from the country’s famous favelas, or poor neighborhoods, were unacceptable. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed on was whether anybody would do anything about it.
The activists of the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for more than a decade and winning concessions with little publicity, suddenly found themselves with a mass audience and a mass following. They were savvy enough to link their struggle to government spending on the mega-events of the World Cup and the Olympics. Demonstrators held up posters reading We Don’t Need the World Cup and We Need Money for Hospitals and Education.
The protests caused a head-on collision between the people of Brazil and the sport that reputedly defines their country, their culture, their way of life. One massive demonstration gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza, where the Brazilian national soccer team was staying, with signs that read FIFA, Give Us Our Money Back! and We Want Health and Education. World Cup Out!
What none of the powers that be can admit is that the World Cup, in their hands, is a tool of neoliberal plunder. Neoliberalism, at its core, is about transferring wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever relied on public services—little things like schools and hospitals—can understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular in much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police to simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense, such as trade unions, general assemblies and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we’ve seen in Turkey, Brazil, even New York City in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, police repression can make demonstrations seem sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.
The Olympics, World Cup and other mega-sports events have, over the past thirty years, provided something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: the consent of the masses to neoliberal policies. The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan Horse is the games people are initially proud to host—until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed-out stomach. The countries change, but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and tax haven for corporate sponsors and private security firms, obscene public spending on new stadiums and then, when the party’s over, brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor. But in Brazil, they’re not waiting until the cameras are gone and the confetti has been swept away. People started protesting in advance—and that immediately made what they were doing historic. To find a similar scenario, you would have to go back to the 1968 mass protests in Mexico City before that year’s Olympics, which ended in the slaughter of hundreds of Mexican students and workers in Tlatelolco Plaza.
The mass actions of last summer exposed the neoliberal theft rooted in the planning and execution of the World Cup. No truer words were said during the protests than those of the great Brazilian soccer star Romário: “FIFA is the real president of our country. FIFA comes to our country and imposes a state within a state. It’s not going to pay taxes, it’s going to come, install a circus without paying anything and take everything with it. They are taking the piss out of us with our money, the public’s money. The money that has been spent on Mané Garrincha stadium could have been used to build 150,000 housing units.”
If you have never had the privilege, please read Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, which brilliantly squares the beauty, adrenaline and fun of sport with the ways it can be used to crush the very human spirit it purports to promote. Galeano once wrote movingly about “The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing…. Who do not have faces, but arms./Who do not have names, but numbers…. who are not worth the bullet that kills them.” If we love Brazil, if we love its culture, play, dance and energy, then we have to reckon with the fact that everything we love about it was created by the “nobodies” who, in the eyes of FIFA and the IOC, “are not worth the bullet that kills them.” If we love soccer—the creative mayhem amid structure, the joyous improvisation amid order, the ability of players to discover new boundaries and a higher sense of confidence within themselves—then we also have to love every nobody we’ve ever played pickup with, every nobody who created the beauty of the “beautiful game.”
If we get swept up in the World Cup but forget the nobodies who are swept away, then we should not be surprised when FIFA or the IOC comes calling in our own towns, and we find ourselves branded nobodies. Galeano once said that he does not believe in charity—he believes in solidarity, because solidarity is horizontal and carries within it the understanding that we can learn from others. I would argue that it also implies that our collective destiny is tied up with every eviction, every surveillance camera, and every cracked skull on the road to the World Cup and the Olympics. It is their World Cup. But it is our world.Dave Zirin