Brazil: How We Fell Out of Love With Our World Cup

The sweaty, pounding joy of a soccer game, standing mob-close in the bleachers of a working class stadium. Or the aseptic and air-brushed television-friendly World Cup stadiums thatFIFA wants? Slums bulldozed for parking lots, and terrorism laws with 30-year prison sentences threatened for anyone who protests. Smooth, modern, and utterly detestable: the FIFA-mandated transformations to get Brazil’s cities and stadiums ready for this summer’s World Cup have accomplished an inverse miracle, writes Joao Sette Camara, soccer fan and Rio-based journalist: Brazilians have a bad taste in their mouths about the upcoming World Cup.

I don’t feel at home in my hometown anymore. I am a 33-year-old journalist, born and raised in Rio. Over the years I have seen this city change a lot, for better and worse, but I have never seen it like it is right now. That is why I feel I should share my impressions of what is going on in my hometown, only months before Brazil hosts its second World Cup.

joao721Photo CC by Maria Hsu.

Rio is a city in a hurry to clean up the house and make it pretty for the guests 15 minutes before they arrive, by sweeping everything that is ugly and dirty under the carpet or into the closet. One might imagine that we needn’t be in such a hurry; after all, we have had seven years to get ready for it (we were chosen as the host of the 2014 World Cup in 2007). But anyone surprised that only months away from the event, Brazil has only finished about half of the projects it was supposed to do, knows nothing about Brazil and Brazilians. I should explain a few things about my country before I start to give my personal impressions of what is going on here. Brazilians procrastinate. “Never leave for tomorrow what you can do the day after” is a popular saying here. But I’ll get back to that. First, I would like to talk about some other Brazilian traits.

Brazilians have an underdog complex. As cliche as that may sound, it is true. Historically speaking, Brazil has always been eager to be recognized as an equal in the theater of nations, but we always seem to stumble on our own low self-esteem. The person who coined the term, the late Nelson Rodrigues, regarded as Brazil’s greatest playwright, came to that conclusion after the country lost the first World Cup it had hosted to Uruguay in the last minutes of the final match, in 1950, inside the recently finished Maracana stadium.

Losing that World Cup to Uruguay in the now mythical Maracana has always been the biggest skeleton in the closet of Brazilian football history, and ever since July 17, 1950 Brazilians have yearned for payback. Therefore, when FIFA announced back in 2007 that we were finally hosting our second World Cup, the hungry-for-revenge underdog was bursting with happiness.

On the topic of Brazilian cliches, one cannot forget the sentence “Brazil, country of the future”. That is the title of a book by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer who came to Brazil in 1940 fleeing from World War II. The phrase became an nickname for Brazil, and it was used largely by the military generals that dictated over the country from 1964 to 1985. In the long run, it only contributed to enhance the underdog complex, because the future never seemed to arrive for the country of the future, and nowadays it is regarded as a joke.

So, when FIFA announced that we would be the hosts again, the overall feeling in Brazilian society was that the future had finally arrived for us: Brazil was growing economically, it had gained more importance on the international scene, investors seemed happy to pour their money here, and the international community showed trust in us by allowing Brazil to hold such an important event. We didn’t know better then, and today all of that seems ridiculous. We all knew that our country would have to go through some changes in order to receive a World Cup, but no one ever imagined how damaging those changes would be, and the general feeling now in Brazil is that we have been played for fools.

Over these last seven years, many promises have been made by our own government and by FIFA, and most of them were not fulfilled at all. Back in 2009, Dilma Roussef (now our President, then Chief of Staff to President Lula) said, for instance, that the Government wouldn’t spend a dime building new stadiums or rebuilding old ones: all of that would be paid for by private investors. As of today, Brazil has spent more public money to host a World Cup than any other country: on the stadiums alone we have already spent 8.5 billion reais (roughly 4 billion dollars) of taxpayers’ money. And with the World Cup only months away, half the stadiums are still under construction, and none of the public transportation reforms that were a big promise back in 2007 are being carried out.

The figures are staggering, but they would be less scary if that meant that the World Cup would leave an amazing legacy for the country and its population once it is over; not the case. All of the reforms carried out until now only favor big companies that get government contracts, politicians and FIFA itself.

The case of Maracana, arguably the most iconic of football stadiums, and its surroundings helps us understand this classic Brazilian modus operandi. The stadium was built for the 1950 World Cup, and its construction ended literally one day before the competition started (remember that Brazilians procrastinate). Over the course of history, the stadium became legendary, and for decades it was the biggest-capacity arena in the world: 200 thousand football fans filled the concrete walls of the UFO-shaped stadium every week crying, among other things, “O Maracana e nosso!” (“Maracana belongs to us!”). Until recently that cry was very dear to Brazilians, especially Rio’s residents, but not anymore.

The real beginning of the end of Maracana started in the year 2000, right before the Club World Cup, when FIFA demanded that the long communal concrete benches located at the top floor of the stadium, a ring-shaped mezzanine, had to be replaced by individual seats. That measure alone reduced the capacity of Maracana to 100 thousand fans. This remodeling project was to include a museum and an entertainment center with restaurants and movie theaters. The money for the project was spent, but the restaurants and movie theaters were never built. Maracana was no longer the football stadium that could hold the most fans in the world (the title now belongs to Aztec Stadium in Mexico City).

Five years later, Maracana went through a new series of renovations in order to receive the Pan-American Games. At the time the Government said they were merely adapting the stadium to FIFA standards, so it could receive a World Cup in the future. They reduced the capacity of the stadium to 80 thousand fans and demolished the popular sectors of Maracana, right beside the field, where the working classes would pay around 2 reais (1 dollar) to watch the matches standing up. That was another of FIFA’s demands: they said that those areas of the stadium, where there were no chairs and people would watch the matches standing up, were not comfortable enough for the new kind of fan they meant to attract to Maracana (i. e., people with money). During the works to prepare Maracana for the Pan-American Games, a Track and Field Stadium and a Water Park were built right beside Maracana to receive the swimming and track and field competitions.

In 2011 Maracana was closed again for yet another series of renovations so it could receive the World Cup (don’t forget that in 2005 they had supposedly done that already). The stadium was closed for two years, and it was now that they really destroyed it. The field was shortened, the concrete structure taken down, and the capacity reduced again, now to 78 thousand fans. People used to watch games there for ages simply couldn’t recognize the stadium: Maracana now has no soul; it looks like any ultramodern European arena. Cariocas feel they have lost one of the most iconic landmarks of Rio.

joao821Museo do Futebol, Rio de Janeiro. Photo CC by Eduardo Zarate.

Strangely, one of the things I personally miss the most is the concrete mezzanine structure that was taken down: when the stadium was full, once the roar of the fans hit the concrete, it would create an echo like you’ve never heard before, to the point you could feel the stadium tremble. I’m a Flamengo fan, and I’ll never forget the many cathartic moments I’ve experienced there, like when we won the national championship in 2009. That was a horrible year for Flamengo, we ran the risk of being relegated to the minor leagues because of our poor performance. But we bounced back, and ended up playing the finals against Gremio, a team from the south of Brazil. By the middle of the second half, the score was tied at 1-1, and it wasn’t looking like it was going to change. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere comes Ronaldo Angelim, one of the greatest players in recent Flamengo history, and scores a goal, winning the championship for us. The crowd of fans went wild like never before, and the world seemed like it was going to burst in an explosion of happiness and relief; me and my friends and everyone around us in Maracana were howling and screaming for what seemed like forever. In the new, polished and behaved Maracana, the experience would have been a lot more aseptic, I’m sure.

In this new wave of renovations, the Track and Field Stadium and the Water Park built for the Pan-American games (which, at the time of their construction, were announced as another part of the legacy left to the city by the games) were demolished because there was no room for them in the project of the new stadium.

Along with the waterpark and track and field stadium, the state government of Rio announced they would also demolish the former Indian Museum, a neoclassic construction protected by law (due to its architectural and historical values) that was then inhabited by groups of Brazilian Indians.

joao521Aldeia Indian protest in Rio. Photo CC by Ninja Midia.

The allegations were that the new Maracana needed a parking lot that was to be built where the Museum is. The governor managed to suspend the protection and ordered the Indians to vacate the building. They refused to leave, and the governor then decided to send the police inside and evict the Indians using brute force. It all happened in March 2013, and that was the first of a series of evictions promoted both by the municipal and state governments here in Rio; they got international attention and I believe they were the igniter for the wave of public demonstrations that swept over the country starting last June. To this day the Indians are fighting in court to get their building back, and the state government keeps policemen in the entrance of the building 24/7 in order to keep the Indians from getting inside.

joao621Rio police evicting Aldeia Indians from vicinity of Maracana Stadium. Photo CC by Ninja Midia.

Another eviction that gained international news happened less than a month ago, when police and city representatives gave the residents of Favela Metro Mangueira, not far from Maracana, notice that they had zero days to evacuate their houses, because the demolition of that favela planned for that day. The slum dwellers revolted, and police decided to invade the houses at gunpoint, threatening to kill families and pregnant women if they didn’t leave. The favela was to be emptied to give way to the construction of yet more parking lots.

joao321Rio police evicting slum dwellers from their homes at gunpoint in Favela Metro Mangueira. Photo Midia Informal.

Aside from the evictions and the remodeling works that are creating havoc in the city’s traffic, some of the biggest problems Cariocas are facing now are the skyrocketing prices and the gentrification of the city as a whole. Speculation has made the prices of rents almost unaffordable unless you are basically rich. Apartments that had rents of around 300 dollars five years ago are now being rented for up to ten times that price. Many traditional businesses all over Rio are closing down because they can’t afford to pay the new rent. A recent investigation conducted by newspaper Folha de S. Paulo showed that out of the twenty most expensive neighborhoods to live in Brazil twelve are located in Rio. The prices for services, groceries and everyday items are also rising rapidly, to the point that last week the residents of Rio, as a joke, created a new currency: the $urreal (Brazil’s currency is called the “real”), whose bills have a photo of surrealistic painter Salvador Dali instead of the figure of the Brazilian Republic.

joao421Rio’s fake currency, the $urreal.

A website was created so that cariocas could denounce establishments that practice abusive prices and give tips of places with fair or low prices. And here comes into play one of the biggest Brazilian assets, in my opinion: our ability to carnivalize everything.

Brazilians have a unique ability to take a problem, turn it into a joke and try to find creative solutions for it; that’s what I mean by carnivalization. A clear example of that is the recent Movimento do Isoporzinho, or Little Cooler Movement. Tired of the high prices charged by bars for beer and food, groups of friends are now gathering together in public spaces to drink and eat exclusively what they bring from home or what they buy at a supermarket for much better prices.

The scheme of things is simple: invite your friends to a town square or park. Bring beer, food, coolers, kiddy pools and ice. Wait for the beer to chill and have a great time with friends without having to pay a three figure bill after a couple beers and some snacks at the end of the night. The movement has gained amazing strength, and it is being reproduced now all over Brazil. Some establishments here in Rio, fearing the possible loss of costumers, have already started to lower their prices a little bit. It is not the ideal situation, but hopefully we’ll get there.

With the World Cup only months away, it is safe to say that for the first time Brazillians are having mixed feelings about it. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to cheer for our national team or that we will ignore the event. That would be impossible seeing that football is almost in our DNA. The population here doesn’t hate the sport or the event; their hatred is aimed at FIFA and our politicians. Brazil still has a lot of core problems that never seem to be solved by any government. What irritates people and is making them protest is the fact that the speed in which World Cup issues are being solved is not the same speed in which other issues, some of them historical, are dealt with. Our public hospitals are simply shameful, as is our public school system, just to name a few examples. Brazilians have complained about those issues for decades, and the many different parties that take office every election never seem to be able to make things better. But the country seems to be spending more and more with stadiums and other works that will leave virtually no legacy for the cities that will participate on the event. Another big worry is corruption: the costs of the World Cup have more than tripled since the initial estimate in 2007, and the population sees this rise in figures as a consequence of our corrupted system. In order for costs to soar to the sky like they are, someone must be taking some money, that’s the general thought.

All over the country now there is another movement that is slowly gaining strength: it’s the “No Cup” movement (“Nao vai ter Copa”), composed of people from many different extracts of society that are scheduling protests in front of the stadiums for the days of the World Cup matches. Brazilian Congress has already reacted to that, and there’s a bill in the Senate right now that proposes that demonstrations during the World Cup be considered acts of terrorism, for which there’s a 30 year prison sentence in Brazil. It’s needless to say that this bill made protesters even angrier than they are, and there’s already a part of the population and of our politicians that are criticizing the proposal of this heinous bill. Hopefully it won’t pass.

joao221“December Protest Schedule. Rio de Janeiro.”

I believe that the World Cup will not be the same after its passage through Brazil. The general feeling here right now is that we were fools to have even wanted to bring the World Cup here. It is causing us more problems than we think it should, and the result of it will be rich construction companies, rich hotel owners, richer politicians, and super modern football arenas that will have no real use after the end of the World Cup in cities like Manaus, for example, where football tradition is not strong or expressive. The World Cup will also leave us with a mass of evicted people that have no place to go, and the scars caused by the series of disastrous police actions during the protests that started last June.

Brazilians will keep loving football and they won’t be able to avoid watching Brazil’s matches and cheering for our national team, even those that are part of the No Cup Movement. But we have learned a valuable lesson: we only want to host events like that in the future with the condition that taxpayers won’t have to pay a dime for them, as it was when the US hosted the World Cup in 1994.

joao921Soccer in the mud. Photo CC by Lucas Nino .

I believe we should keep protesting against what we feel is wrong no matter what happens. But I know that, in the end of the day, we’ll probably carnivalize everything and show the rest of the world a great spectacle this June, for better or worse.

Joao Sette Camara