Monday 23 October 2017

World Cup of woe awaits if Brazilians insist on FIFA-style services to match the new stadiums

A young boy plays football in the Mangueira shantytown, which is located close to the famed Maracana Stadium
A young boy plays football in the Mangueira shantytown, which is located close to the famed Maracana Stadium

Dion Fanning

Last month, the Brazilian police quietly returned to a scene that had caused them some trouble. Opposite the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro there is the site of an old Indian museum which for some years has been occupied by squatters. Last March, the police went in and tried to evict the occupants so the authorities could carry on with their plans of razing the building and making Rio look as a FIFA World Cup city should look.

Unfortunately for them, they encountered resistance, a warning of what was to come. "We were negotiating, and then the government resorted to force," Urutau Guajajara told The Guardian. "The police were very violent."

The protests continued and the plans were halted. In December, those who had re-occupied the building were removed again but the promise now is that there will be an indigenous cultural centre in the building, not a shopping mall, and the people who head to the Maracana might come across a little bit of the old Brazil.

Last summer, there was a little bit too much of the new Brazil for FIFA's liking. The protests that surrounded the Confederations Cup might have been directed at the government but they weren't absolving FIFA either. "We want FIFA-standard schools," the banners said. "We want FIFA-standard hospitals."

Dom Phillips is a journalist based in Rio and when asked to predict what will happen in June, he admits it could be anything. "There is a feeling it's going to show up a lot of the flaws," he says.

The protests are more worrying than the usual pre-World Cup horror headlines about violence and terror. The tournament in South Africa was going to be a fiesta of crime. Newspapers warned about a "machete war". Before the European Championships in 2012, Sol Campbell warned England fans not to go to Ukraine because they "could end up coming back in a coffin".

Brazil has had its dose of those stories but the real issue is something else, the real issue strikes at the heart of the World Cup deal, in fact it is at the heart of the tournament deal: you pay for the privilege of hosting the World Cup and you hope that the payment brings nebulous benefits because, as most people know by now, there are few economic benefits to hosting a major tournament.

In Brazil, they have appeared unhappy with this deal. There is always some grumbling in the build-up to a major event. This was seen most clearly in London when the communal dyspeptic muttering about administrative, budgetary and British existential failings were blown away by Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony when the purpose of these events was clear: they exist to make people feel good about themselves.

In Brazil, there is a view that basic services might do that job a little better and there is, Phillips says, astonishing levels of distrust of politicians.

The World Cup will, Bloomberg estimated, cost $14.5 billion and the Olympics will be something similar. Some in Brazil will feel that the country -- the world's sixth largest economy -- can pay that price for that intangible feeling of goodwill but the protests last year told a different story.

On the streets they have seen the World Cup as an invitation for some to get rich through contracts for the vast construction projects for vast and modern stadiums which many feel aren't needed at all.

Many Brazilians have moved out of poverty during the years of economic growth and the protests were almost an assertion of their new status: they would not put up with the things they had always put up with. Football could no longer distract them. "If our child is sick, we don't want to take them to a stadium," one woman said. The stadium in Manaus, where England play Italy, on the edge of the Amazon, will cost approximately $250m and nobody knows what to do with it. In Brazil 2014, FIFA look like Fitzcarraldo

A 2011 law allowed contractors to amend costs after a tender had been accepted. Introduced in an attempt to speed up the process, it has brought another kind of problem.

"The law, which tried to make up for terrible planning, allows the executive to hire contractors without knowing what will be built," Athayde Ribeiro Costa, who chairs the federal prosecutors' World Cup monitoring committee, told Bloomberg. "It's an invitation to corruption."

In November, two workers were killed in Sao Paulo during construction work on the Corinthians Arena, the brand new stadium built for the tournament which will become the home of Corinthians. Some have questioned why a new stadium was built at all when there are fine old stadiums in the city but it is another shiny project that will remain when FIFA have moved on to the next host.

The protesters appeared to have grasped the truth about the World Cup, a truth that the ongoing rumblings about Qatar's event revealed even more starkly: FIFA will do what FIFA wants.

How much longer they can get away with it remains to be seen. The World Cup will always have a kind of magic and it has shown that it has been able to overcome poor tournaments with no loss of popularity.

The World Cup is no longer the tournament which allows people to see players they had only heard about before and they could then watch them in a competition which is the best in the world. There are no mysteries anymore and the World Cup was at its best when it had an air of mystery.

Perhaps it has now been revealed for what it is but when the protestors took to the streets during the Confederations Cup, they shared an understanding that the World Cup mattered because it matters to the people while having meaning, for different reasons, to governments as well.

The Brazilian government had spent money on the tournament and then, just before the Confederations Cup began, fares on buses and subways went up ten per cent. Soon there was an outpouring of frustration.

This was not football on the periphery but a direct response from the people to what the World Cup had become and how it was linked to their lives.

Happily from FIFA's point of view, they won't have these concerns for the next two World Cups. "I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup," FIFA's general secretary Jerome Valcke said last March.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was that somebody in FIFA considered this crazy. Valcke went on to look forward to the manner in which things could be expedited in Russia under Vladimir Putin.

"When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018 . . . that is easier for us organisers than a country such as Germany . . . where you have to negotiate at different levels."

Valcke clarified his remarks but there promises to be a whole lot of clarifying going on between 2014 and 2022. "Anyone who knows me, knows me as a devotee of democracy," Valcke tweeted.

FIFA might have to suspend that devotion once they move on from Brazil. The protests last year showed a country coming to terms with a new kind of democracy and a new willingness to make themselves heard.

As it stands, Putin's Russia offers another environment. The controversy surrounding the Winter Olympics in Sochi which is going to cost $31 billion dollars, the most expensive Olympics in history, may be a warning of the trouble ahead.

If FIFA can negotiate Russia and its discrimination against homosexuals, they will move on to Qatar, whose triumph in securing the World Cup has raised many questions, as has its treatment of migrant workers.

Like a desperate daytime chat show host eager for some debate, FIFA has tried to make out that the raising of these issues is one of the healthy legacies. "These very discussions about Qatar show what an important role football can play in generating publicity and thus bringing about change," Sepp Blatter said, although perhaps they could have had the heated debate before Qatar was handed the tournament.

They will eventually move it to winter, a move that has the support of many clubs but clubs who find international football an irritation.

FIFA's grandiosity could have given them an opportunity even if it is hard to envisage a time when the World Cup would be irrelevant.

Dom Phillips recalls a protest in Sao Paulo last June when he is asked what could happen during this summer's tournament. As the protestors made their way to the City Hall, they seemed divided. Some were content to protest peacefully but a small group wanted to attack. This was seen as an example of the lack of order among the protestors and the suspicious nature of Brazilian society was demonstrated when a rumour spread on Facebook and Twitter that one of the lead protestors was a police plant placed to discredit the movement.

Phillips' point is that nobody knows what will happen, this is not an organised movement but something more profound, but maybe more ephemeral too. "It's not just samba and football, it's education and health," a protestor said last summer.

The World Cup in Brazil was supposed to trade on the clichés of samba and football. Last summer revealed what the people of Brazil thought. In Brazil, football has always mattered. This summer will reveal if the World Cup still does.

Irish Independent

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