- Luke Starkenburg
- The scene of the accident that killed a worker in Sao Paulo last month.
"That Metro line, that’s for the World Cup," my host in Sao Paulo told me as he pointed up at a hulking wishbone-shaped rail support structure looming over Congonhas Airport. "But, you know, that's, um, not happening for the World Cup. Maybe next year. Maybe the next after that." There was pre-World Cup construction all over Sao Paulo, which now qualifies as post-World Cup construction. To my untrained eye this looks like a project a half-decade away from opening. There are just these big structures. No rails, no stations, no power. "One of these pieces fell over recently," he tells me. "Yes right there!" He points at a gap between support structures filled with construction equipment. "I think someone died when it fell on them. Yes, one death." Fuck.
Yet whenever I asked about how people felt about the World Cup—this was at the tournament's midpoint—the response was overwhelmingly positive. The tournament had produced thrilling soccer, Brazil had yet to be eliminated at this point, and sentiment had turned towards the celebratory. The massive protests that had occurred during the previous year's Confederations Cup seemed to have completely dissipated. At a match I attend in Rio de Janeiro between Colombia and Uruguay, the only thing being protested was the exclusion of Uruguayan star Luis Suarez, who was suspended for the match as a punishment for biting a player on the pitch.
Two points of context that complicated matters: First of all, anyone who was speaking to me was solidly middle-class. English is at best the tertiary language of Brazil, with only 3 percent of the population fluent. Second, and more significantly, the lack of protests on match days likely had something to do with the absurd military presence around the stadiums.
So, with the caveat that the threat of force was a factor in dampening protests, more broadly the sentiment in Brazil had shifted as the tournament began. The failure of promised infrastructural improvements was dwarfed by the excitement created by the tournament itself. And even with a lackluster performance by the host nation in the final two rounds bringing down the mood, the 2014 World Cup was a very specific sort of success for Brazil. The staging of the tournament was at its core a gamble for the country: Could the nation harness its passion for soccer into staging an event that would show Brazil to be a capable neoliberal player on the global stage?
To partake in this gamble, Brazil had to ante up significantly. The costs of Brazil's effort have been well documented. Of the dozen stadiums built or renovated for the tournament, four with nine-figure price tags were built in cities that don't have professional teams to take them over now that the tournament has concluded. Infrastructure projects lay half completed all over Sao Paulo, the economic hub of South America. Billions of dollars leaked out of the state and into the hands of major sponsoring corporations and the governing body of world soccer, FIFA. The short-run displacement and subjugation of lower class populations around these stadiums were severe, and the military presence that enforced these changes only served to normalize the use of martial law within the country.
But there is an ugly paternalism intrinsic to the hand wringing associated with what happened in Brazil. Brazil is a massive country with a sizable economy, and while effectively lighting billions of dollars on fire for circuses is ugly for a nation whose per capita GDP is 21 percent of America's, to suggest that this is somehow a different beast than what happens in more developed countries around athletics is to fail to recognize the strength of the Brazilian middle class. Billions is a lot, but it's also a rounding error in the amount the US lights on fire actively fucking with other countries. And the successful operation of the World Cup was an opportunity for middle-class Brazilians, who now represent around half of the nation's population, to claim their seat in a neoliberal game of musical chairs that is post-recession capitalism. If the games are a success, regardless of the direct financial losses associated with them, the credibility that the nation gets will benefit a large portion of the population for a long time; the general hope is that Brazil will have tightened its grip on the role of “responsible steward of South America” and will remain a haven for outsourcing of white-collar jobs and investment.
I don't know how to feel about this outcome. Who am I to tell people that they should not attempt to benefit from the same global system that provides me with a sense of safety, clean water, and a complete dissociation from the hardships of physical labor, just because their version of capitalism doesn't have the resources to make the benefits as inclusive for the lower classes of the society? Is funding the World Cup fundamentally different than what’s happening with sports in Seattle or is it merely different by a matter of degree? Because our growing problems with poverty and homelessness are still considered tolerable, we're entitled to pursue packing a fourth and fifth major professional sports team into our mid-sized American city, while watching our largest research institution spend a quarter of a billion dollars renovating a football stadium while in-state tuition grows at five times the rate of inflation?
I left Brazil right before their national team lost to Germany by a horrific 7-1 scoreline, which means I do not know how significantly the Brazilian National Team's failure has shifted overall sentiment toward the tournament. While the tangible benefits of the tournament went to the wealthy global elite, and the promised benefits remain there for the middle-class, the psychological benefit of having a winning team was unifying the population of the country in a broad way. The celebrations after Brazil beat Chile and Colombia to advance to the tournament’s semi-finals were genuine and all-inclusive. The team was the glue that held together these disparate classes through the tournament. Had Brazil won the tournament (a notion that seems comical now) one could imagine the goodwill from winning turning into political will related to completing the projects associated with the tournament. Now? Things are far more uncertain. And so Sao Paulo is left with a half-built monorail, a failed promised made by the wealthy to the middle-class, that quietly is killing the poor who actually have to build the thing.