Sepp Blatter, the all-powerful don of FIFA, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, and Pelé, the legendary soccer star are three extremely different people. But they all share the same perspective about the demonstrations rocking every major city in Brazil: Don’t even think about blaming the World Cup.
As Dilma said in her nationally televised address, “Brazil, the only country to have participated in every World Cup and a five-time world champion, has always been very well received everywhere. We must give our friends the same generous welcome we have received from them—with respect, love and joy. This is how we must treat our guests. Football and sport are symbols of peace and peaceful coexistence among peoples.”
Sepp Blatter, displaying his renowned empathy, was more blunt saying simply, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard…. When the ball starts to roll, people will understand!”
And Pelé had to backtrack dramatically after saying that people should stop protesting and ”think about the national team.”
They are begging the people of Brazil to not turn the 2014 World Cup into a symbol of what ails the country. What frightens them is that clearly people don’t see the World Cup—not to mention the 2016 Olympics in Rio—as some sort of abstract, postmodern symbol of poor public services and high taxes. They see the World Cup as a literal tool of neoliberal plunder.
Neoliberalism at its core is about the transfer of wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever had to rely on public services—little things like schools or hospitals—would understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular with much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police and simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense such as trade unions, general assemblies and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we’ve seen in Turkey, Brazil and even New York City in the early days of the Occupy movement, police repression can make demonstrations seem sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.
The Olympics, World Cup, and other kinds of mega-events have over the last thirty years provided something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals. That’s why these events are best understood as “neoliberal Trojan Horses.” The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan Horse are the games people are initially proud to host, until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed out stomach and start taking their pound of flesh.
The countries change but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and tax haven for both corporate sponsors and private security firms; obscene public spending on new stadiums, and then brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party’s over and the hangover begins. But in Brazil, they’re not waiting for any hangover after the cameras are gone and the confetti has been swept away.
The mass actions of the last two weeks have exposed all the neoliberal theft rooted in the planning and execution of the World Cup. A prominent slogan in the streets is, “We need FIFA-quality hospitals and schools.” This is a direct reference to a line from the World Cup planning committee that repeated ad nauseam, “We need FIFA-quality stadiums.” The people have taken the neoliberal priorities of the international athletic complex and turned them on their head, and their demands are influencing even those in the world of sports.
As former Brazilian soccer star Romario said last week, “FIFA is the real president of our country. FIFA comes to our country and imposes a state within a state. It’s not going to pay taxes, it’s going to come, install a circus without paying anything and take everything with it. They are taking the piss out of us with our money, the public’s money. The money that has been spent on the Mane Garrincha stadium could have been used to build 150,000 housing units.”
The politics amidst the masses are mixed and there are real battles in the streets that will determine where this goes. Brazil’s disorganized right wing certainly sees an opportunity to turn masses of people against a nominally leftist government. But the overwhelming mass of people are actually in the streets because they want basic economic justice in a country where it’s promised but most are left at the mercy of the market. As Theresa Williamson, the director of the Rio-based organization Catalytic Communities said, “It is about individual demands and frustrations that converge into a unified whole. This is a future-oriented movement. If a handful are trying to appropriate it you can bet the movement will get them out. If they don’t, things will digress only to evolve in a few years into something even more substantial.”
Next Sunday a mass demonstration has been called for the finals of the Confederations Cup at the gates of legendary Maracaña Stadium in Rio. On that day we’ll see even more clearly just where this movement is going and who is on the ground fighting for its future. Whatever politics carry the day, it is clear that masses of young people are marching with the basic hope that their dreams for a more just and democratic nation will take concrete form. They’ll be acting to reshape their country with incredible bravery amidst the tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. If people in the stadium feel the itch in their eyes, or hear explosions in the distance, then they will be forcibly conjoined with those in the streets in seeing the reality of international sports in the age of neoliberalism. Sepp Blatter did say, “When the ball starts to roll, people will understand.” They might understand when the ball starts to roll. But as the smoke wafts into Maracaña, they will understand something far different than Blatter, FIFA, and President Rousseff had planned. They will understand that the World Cup in the twenty-first century arrives with a terrible price.
• This article first appeared in The Nation.