Eduardo Galeano, the world’s greatest football fan-poet, once said that “football is not guilty of the sins committed in its name.” In Brazil’s World Cup, which is built on sins both shameless and grotesque, and which has been a spectacle of football both lovely and exhilarating, Galeano’s line has offered fans of the sport an absolution of sorts.
The sins committed in the name of the tournament became apparent to casual fans during last summer’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. Protests that drew millions of citizens to the streets of the country’s major cities received more attention than the football played on the pitch. The protests began with demonstrations against hikes in bus fares in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and then spread as the violent police repression drew solidarity marches in other urban areas. It was not a great leap to contrast the inefficient, expensive, and unequal public services in Brazilian cities with the billions of dollars spent on stadium renovations and lagging “legacy projects” associated with the World Cup. The tournament quickly became the focal point of the protests.
In addition to the perception that stadiums were being prioritized over public services, the work related to the tournament itself was highly troublesome. As many as 250,000 residents were displaced by the stadium and infrastructure developments associated with the tournament; the projects were carried out hurriedly with minimal citizen participation; and there is increasing evidence of misspending and graft. On top of it all, federal and state governments have awarded FIFA $250 million dollars in tax exemptions on the estimated $4 billion profit it will reap. At the same time, FIFA has demanded that the Brazilian Congress overturn a law designed to ensure public safety during sporting events, which, among other things, banned the sale of alcohol (a clear affront to one of the tournament’s main sponsors, Budweiser). Although the protests during the actual World Cup have not reached the levels of last summer’s demonstrations (partly due to heavy, military-style suppression), a sense of ambivalence among Brazilians is impossible to ignore: from the stubborn defiance of the Twitter-friendly slogan #NãoVaiTerCopa; to powerful anti-Cup graffiti and street art; to the crass, misogynistic taunts thrown at President Dilma Roussef at the opening match between Brazil and Croatia in São Paulo’s new Itaquerão stadium.
What about the business happening on the pitch? This is the ninth World Cup of my lifetime, the first played in my native Brazil since 1950, and by far, the most compelling of them all. We’ve seen an absurdly high average number of goals per match (almost three, the highest since 1970). And the tournament has been blessed with so many captivating stories it is impossible to keep them all straight: underdogs unseating traditional powerhouses (Costa Rica against Uruguay, Italy, and England), marvelous goals (Van Persie’s header against Spain), genius individual performances (Neymar, Messi, Robben), unresolved oral fixations (Luis Suarez), and inspired team performances (Colombia, the United States).
Aside from whatever happens to my Seleção, my lasting memory of the World Cup will be attending the Spain v. Chile game at Maracanã Stadium, where the southern La Roja eliminated its former colonial power and the reigning World Cup champions. Maracanã itself is an unrecognizable vestige of the gritty stadium I had visited dozens of times during my childhood after FIFA-standard renovations costing a cool $550 million turned the stadium into an attractive, safe, and highly exclusive national monument. Seating capacity is down — from just under 200,000 when it was inaugurated 64 years ago, to less than 80,000 today — with tickets officially selling for US$90 to US$1,000 (for those lucky enough to win the “privilege” of buying one in FIFA’s lottery).
But after each of Chile’s two goals, I jumped and hugged unknown Chileans in ecstatic South American solidarity, like I had done so many times in that stadium with my fellow flamenguistas. Now, a day before the group stage ends and the real excitement begins, I have been voiceless for about 10 days, my health has long ago abandoned me, my dissertation research is in shambles, and I go through daily cycles of indignation, national pride, national shame, exasperation, and speechlessness.
The business may be ugly, but the jogo bonito is as beautiful as ever.
Pedro Peterson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley.