Circus Without Bread: Reflections on Brazil 2014

By Editor | July 17th, 2014 No Comments


Guest Post by *Derek Charles Catsam

I recently returned from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It was a remarkable experience in a beautiful country. Everywhere we went people were gracious, joyful hosts. We ate fantastic churrasqueira (the Brazilian barbecue that will fuel my dreams for months) and drank among friends. The games were tremendous, the colorful visiting fans (with special mention to the dancing, chanting, singing, drinking Argentine throngs) made the World Cup the event that it is. The protests were more intermittent than expected. But the issues raised were as valid as ever.

I was based in Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul on Brazil’s southern border with Uruguay and Argentina. I attended four matches in Estadio Beria-Rio, the home of Sports Club Internacional: France-Honduras, Algeria-South Korea, Argentina-Nigeria, and the round of 16 match pitting eventual champions Germany against the Algeria. With 32 teams competing, the first two weeks of the World Cup are an unparalleled Carnival of Nations. Porto Alegre was in the midst of a Brazilian winter, hardly freezing, but occasionally raw and damp. The bikinis and swimming shorts that many of you saw as the regular going-to-commercial interludes on ESPN were many hundreds of miles north.

The tournament, which equaled the most goals (171) ever scored in a World Cup, was spectacularly entertaining and Germany is certainly a worthy champion. But once the confetti cleared, the last drinks were downed, tourists returned home, and Brazilians shook off the shameful way the Seleção flamed out of the tournament (and I do not for one second believe that the presence of Thiago Silva and Neymar against Germany and the Netherlands would have made much difference—Brazil’s problems were systemic) a familiar question looms: Was hosting the World Cup worth it?

The same question was posed after the joy subsided in South Africa in 2010. Or I should say re-emerged—they were never far from the surface for those of us who know South Africa and were able to see beyond the bread and circuses. To be sure the 2010 World Cup, if not as splendid on the pitch, was every bit as fun as Brazil was. South Africans regardless of race, class, and gender seemed fairly unified and patriotic because the world was watching, international fans were visiting, and the ruling African National Congress fervently believed in global sport as a means for post-apartheid nation building.

Still, the price tag was staggering: about 40 million rands (nearly $6 billion at 2010 exchange rates). For a country struggling to cope with poverty, inequality, and unemployment, access to health care and quality education, and shortcomings in service delivery, it was an expensive marketing campaign. Several of the beautiful stadiums built for the World Cup have become white elephants.

There were, unquestionably, infrastructural improvements—to highways, airports, and light rail in some host cities—but these benefits redounded to the burgeoning but still small middle classes and only haltingly trickled down to the masses. South Africa added 46,000 police officers for the tournament and thousands of foreign tourists spent money (less than 0,4% of GDP). On the whole, however, the country could have more efficiently used public funds without unduly benefiting a small circle of political and business elites and FIFA’s shameless hucksters whose exacting demands necessitated such massive expenditures.

In 2010 there were small protests against the allocation of resources, against wayward priorities. Intellectuals disinclined to take to the streets wrote op-eds and scholarly papers asking some of the questions I pose above. But little became of it. In general, even skeptics enjoyed the 2010 World Cup, showed pride in South Africa, celebrated, lamented the early exit of Bafana Bafana, the national team, from the competition, and then moved on with their lives.

While in Brazil I could not help but think about—and compare—that country’s World Cup hosting experience with South Africa’s. One of the original BRIC nations, a group South Africa joined in 2011, Brazil spent at least twice as much as South Africa to put on a successful World Cup show. Its economy dwarfs South Africa’s, but in the aftermath of 2014 World Cup Brazil is grappling with the same intractable issues of poverty, inequality, and service delivery.

As the huge demonstrations of June 2013 made clear, Brazil’s World Cup preparations stoked citizens’ demands for “FIFA Quality” stadiums, schools, and hospitals. Brazil built more stadiums than FIFA required, several of which await a fate similar to the South African venues that have found little purpose after the FIFA festival departed. And hundreds of millions of the state’s reals went toward benefiting privately owned facilities. Internacional of Porto Alegre got lots of upgrades to a perfectly functional stadium. The Maracanã Stadium was privatized. Is this the purpose of state allocations? Billions in public money for millionaires, and in some case billionaires, to improve private sports palaces?

BRICS nations have recently devoted themselves to using sports as a form of geopolitical positioning. Rio has the Olympics coming up in 2016. The Winter Olympics took place in Sochi this year and Russia will host the 2018 World Cup. The 2008 Olympics were held in Beijing. South Africa had 2010, bid unsuccessfully for the 2004 Olympics, and has also staged cricket and rugby World Cups. India has not put its hat in the ring for Olympiads or football’s premier event, but it has invested heavily in cricket, hosting the World Cup in 2011 and set to do so again in 2023.

The World Cup has now left Brazil. Yet millions of Brazilians still go to bed underfed, undereducated, underemployed, and under no illusions about who really benefited from FIFA’s traveling circus without bread.

*Derek Catsam is Associate Professor of History and Katryn Cosper Dunagan Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He writes about race, politics, and sports in the US and southern Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @dcatafrica


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