FIFA to Brazil: “Let’s get this party started!”


My football-mad teenage son is baffled – and so is an army of journalists, sports pundits and FOBs (Friends of Brazil). Why has Brazil spent the 12 months preceding the 2014 World Cup in such a sulky and fractious mood? And just days before the kickoff, why hasn’t the party started?

MaracanaThe answer is: because urban Brazil is living an out-of-time 1960s moment with an emergent counterculture that doesn’t do FIFA’s cuckoo-clock precision and for-TV displays of national unity – all brought to you by the good grace of credit card companies or cola vendors.

Think Danny le Rouge at the Paris barricades. Think Black Consciousness. Think Yippies and Merry Pranksters in California. Think of British voters being told by their out-of-touch leader: “You’ve never had it so good” – and soon afterward  the opposition sweeping into power as the Swinging Sixties kicked off.

Paris 2Fanciful? Bear with me and further down this post I’ll explain why.

My son – he’s half Brazilian – knows the very worst thing you can say about about people or events in Brazil is that they’re “desanimado” – lacking in spirit, enthusiasm or dash. Hosting a party where nobody dances  and there is no “animação” is social death. Standing on the sidelines and refusing to join in the collective euphoria makes you a social pariah in Brazil.

Yet just days before a party of monumental proportions begins, a whole nation of 190 million is “desanimado” and ambivalent, grumpy or almost apologetic.

Will things be changed by the arrival of 500,000 raucous foreigners with their heads filled with the Brazilian beachparty stereoptypes of Samba/Carnival and futebol? I’m betting ever-hospitable Brazilians won’t want to disappoint their guests and the party will indeed kick off. And of course, Brazil is the nation where Carnival comes together only at the last minute.

vivaSo yes, the 2014 World Cup will be a success, and in social media terms #vaitercopasim and #vaitercopapracaralho (“We will have a World Cup”, and “It will be a fucking good World Cup”) will gain millions more followers and likes than #naovertercopa. (“The World Cup won’t happen”). Opinion formers like the Economist also think the event will take place with only subdued local protest.

Nao va terYet just weeks before the tournament began, I was in São Paulo struggling to find any FIFA-related tourist tat in the stores. Nor at the end of April were there any green-and-yellow painted streets or pavements plus the usual heady Copa atmosphere I remembered from back in the 1980s. Local taxi drivers (always the resource of slothful foreign correspondents) were vocal repeating-stations of dour pessimism. “Tomara que percam logo” ( “I hope the Brazilian side loses”) was one I heard several times.

Foreign correspondents I met in the city were similarly baffled. Why were things so subdued? And how could it be that a nation whose populist identity has since the late 1940s been carefully crafted around global soccer supremacy, could be deeply ambivalent about a defining event taking place on its own doorstep?

So in recent weeks how could the prevailing narrative have been so thoroughly seized by #naovertercopa and those portraying the evils of the FIFA event at every possible street demo, that even Brazil’s uncrowned king, Pelé (hitherto an unrepentant booster of all things FIFA) now sounds like a hesitant and insincere voice crying in the wilderness? “The money spent on the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been,” apologised Pele.

Stadium toiletInstead the government finds itself on something like a war footing against its own people, spending lavishly to rent a squadron of pilotless surveillance drones and their Israeli flight managers, to hire former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani to advise on crowd control, plus an unnamed cast of security men still with Afghani sand in their trouser turn-ups. To say the least of levies from the Brazilian armed forces, its state militia and civil police all trained and ready.

None of this has stopped a rash of strikes, demonstrations, marches and bad feeling. There certainly will be a World Cup. The eve of tournament demonstrations haven’t been that big — but they were a year ago when I was visiting São Paulo. If today the demonstrators have become more media savvy (writing their placards in English) and  skilfully targeting logistics, in June 2013 it felt like a generalised wave of complaint.

protestThe FIFA-approved camera angles inside each stadium are tightly plotted – as are those approved for seat allocations that will be in camera view. The media is already reporting there won’t be sufficient bandwidth for in-stadium tweeting by all fans who want to. Foreign journalists are also being warned about potential limitations to internet connectivity. Perhaps there’s a veiled threat in there.

vai terLet’s set aside the rights and wrongs of the long litany of protests about domestic social, economic and political ills within Brazil that has been steadily growing since the June 2013 demonstrations coinciding with the Confederations Cup matches that served as a warm-up to the June/July 2014 event. It’s now a rolling story and you can read about these issues in every newspaper and media outlet from reporters way better-informed than I who are on the case, such as my friend Mac Margolis.

And let’s also set aside the squabbling with FIFA and a rising tide of discontent with the multinational (or should that read Swiss) governance of sporting mega-events and the financial exploitation of emerging markets, all in the name of making sport the global campaigning arm of what used to be called the “Washington Consensus.” Spreading western values through democracy may have hit a rough patch after the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square, and Crimea debacles, but the job is being carried on nicely through international sport.

Something has changed with Brazil’s social consensus – and it’s all coming out on the eve of  the World Cup. The underside of social transformation is discontent. Obviously, complaining about inequality/corruption/bad governance won’t affect the tournament outcome. Yet becoming a mature democracy means people exercise their right to complain about things. And that’s a bit like rape statistics – meaning they don’t necessarily record a worsening over time, but the reporting is higher as people feel more confident about their right to complain.

demosComplain about what? The country is much, much richer than it was when I lived there in the 1980s. Material and social progress has been stunning. Corruption and police violence are no worse than before. Drug related crime is (probably) on a long-term downward trend, despite horrendous blips. There is near-full employment. Brazil occupies a bigger place in the world (despite a misguided diplomacy that attempts to be friends with all and the critic of none).

Everything should be peachy. But from repeated return trips there I can conclude Brazil is not a happier place than before – and the so-far chilly reception for the World Cup proves it.

So back to my idea of Brazil reliving its 1960s moment. Actually for this one I’m indebted to my friend Julia Michaels, doyenne of the Rio-based opinion-formers, who noticed a return of Afro hairstyles and an emergent, California style counterculture.

black consciousnessMatch this sense of diversity and protest with real-time social media’s capacity to organise demos, rolezinhos (flash-mob type events inside shopping centres), and you have a powerful mix.

The net of all this is that the carefully engineered social consensus that lasted long after the 1964-1985 military years, giving Brazil such slogans as “Brasil: ame-o ou deixe-o” (Brazil: love it or leave it), is unravelling.

The country has reached a point where diversity, not unity, is what defines it. The late 19th century Brazilian project embroidered on the national flag “Order and Progress” has – more or less – been delivered. Yet there’s nothing to replace it, no natural focus of forward evolution.

People I speak to feel as anxious, uncertain and downright unhappy as at any time in the past three decades – and that’s all coming home to roost just at the World Cup comes to town.  Hositing a World Cup is supposed to be a globally televised set-piece of national unity and homogeneity.

But it’s turned into something very different – and that must be giving  Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff pause for thought as she contemplates her re-election bid this autumn. If I’m right about the  Sixties theme, then she might turn out to be the General De Gaulle of this particular moment of protest. True, she comes from the other side of the spectrum (she was a youthful urban guerrilla), but she has lectured and hectored her citizens about the need to cheer up and enjoy their bread and circuses.

Which will give the men who control global sport food for thought as they contemplate what comes after Brazil 2014. The next two stunningly ill-conceived venues — Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 – could put the cap on the notion of sport (rather then democracy) carrying western values for a century into the future.

What the World Cup is showing is that economic prosperity doesn’t equal satisfaction. Or, as they said in the Sixties: Money Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Fifa go home

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5 thoughts on “FIFA to Brazil: “Let’s get this party started!”

  1. Hi Richard, thanks for the reflection (and the mention). Not sure if there is nothing to replace what’s written on the flag. Seems to me that the two-tier system of health care, education and transportation is what is at the center of Brazilian discontent. Both for those who crave equality and for those who feel disconcerted by the approach of those who used to be much further down the pyramid from them. Hope to see you here in Rio, soon!

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  2. You’re 110% right about healthcare, education and transportation: but aren’t these the “hows” or enablers of a national aspiration … rather than the “what” and the “where” Brazil is actually heading? Creating a more equitable society certainly starts with fair access to health, education etc, but goes way beyond that — a conversation few politicans anywhere are keen to start.

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    • Well it’s curious that, after 11 years and many billions of dollars’ worth of social engineering by the PT to ‘level the unequal playing field’ as its primary political goal, inequality is still the WHAT. Copa makes it look much like a glass half empty.

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  3. Social engineering is an exaggeration. What we have had is a number of factors, some external, some internal, that increased real incomes for millions at the base of the pyramid. Plus some rather inept spending to improve poorer urban areas and mobility. What all of this did was 1) unleash expectations and 2) point up the injustice of the two-tier system for the delivery of healthcare, education, housing, transportation and justice. You bet the glass is half empty!

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