Tomorrow I will be on my way to Rio for the first full week of the World Cup. That last sentence should probably be rephrased. I hope I will be on my way to Rio for the World Cup. There will be a partial twenty-four-hour strike at my destination airport in Brazil, and if I do make it to Rio, there may be a transit strike underway as well. I’m bringing my walking shoes.
This all might sound like something short of what would be described as “fun,” but these “potential travel disruptions” and everything they represent are exactly why I am heading to Rio in the first place. These job actions have been called in protest of a tournament that former soccer star turned politician Romario called “the greatest heist in the history of Brazil.”
A political confrontation the likes of which we have never seen is taking place throughout Brazil. In the entire history of the World Cup and the Olympics there have never been these kinds of protests, strikes and land occupations aimed directly at the misery these mega-events have the capacity to cause. In Mexico during the summer and fall of 1968, the powerful student and workers movement incorporated opposition to the coming Olympics into protests against their government, but the hosting of the games was not what spurred the Mexican masses into the streets. (It was however, the primary reason the Mexican government ordered the slaughter of hundreds just days before the opening ceremonies.)
In Mexico City, opposition to the Olympics was at most a slogan, a rhetorical point amidst a much larger struggle. But in the Brazil of 2014, revulsion against what has gone into hosting the World Cup has been a spur toward the country’s largest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship three decades earlier, with every new gleaming stadium a symbol of all the ways that the urgent needs of a country still plagued by poverty and social inequality have been ignored.
In the Brazil of 2014, protesters are going out of their way to name-check the organization holding the reins of international soccer: the often anonymous, always infamous FIFA. While FIFA has insisted upon “FIFA-quality stadiums” throughout the country, the strikes, protests and land occupations have called for “FIFA-quality wages”, schools and hospitals. The protesters are dragging FIFA out of the shadows and performing a vital service for anyone who believes in holding powerful, often-secretive economic institutions accountable for the shock therapy they inflict upon the countries in their crosshairs. Just as the global justice protests of fifteen years ago taught a generation of people that there were these organizations called the WTO, IMF and World Bank—and that they needed to be both understood and challenged—FIFA is finally under the hot lights of public scrutiny. FIFA was described by John Oliver in an epic, instantly classic rant as “cartoonishly evil”. This description is more than apt, and not just because of the Bond-villain lair where they hold their meetings. As Brazil is stressed over the debts the World Cup may incur, FIFA “will generate $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA, or 66% more than the previous tournament in South Africa in 2010.”
Throughout its own ugly history, FIFA has chosen to cozy up to the worst dictators on the planet, bringing the glory and legitimacy of staging the World Cup to locales such as Mussolini’s Italy and, in 1978, Argentina’s newly installed dictators. The military junta of Argentina may have even woven their “dirty war” against dissidents into a plan to fix that year’s tournament, so they could emerge triumphant.
During the last two World Cups, FIFA provided a different kind of service for the powerful, acting as a neoliberal Trojan Horse for South Africa and now Brazil to pursue development projects aimed at building up their tourist infrastructure, elevating the industries of gentrification and displacement over pressing needs in healthcare, housing, schools and fighting poverty.
In the past, FIFA has gotten away with this precisely because its product is irresistible. Now because of the bravery of people in Brazil it is not skating away unscathed. So I’m off to attend some protests, interview some organizers and even watch some games at the big screens that get set up by some of the communities in the favelas I visited. It is a testament to the beauty of the game that not even FIFA can ruin it. It is a testament to the people of Brazil that we are finally even having this discussion.