June 1st 2014. Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. I´m standing at the desk of a hostel after returning from 3 days in the Amazon rainforest. As I attempt to check in for my final two nights stay in the city, the receptionist shows me a bill which amounts to more than twice what I had paid for my previous two nights. At first I’m taken back, even slightly angry, and as I ask why it costs so much his reply is simple, ¨It’s June 1st. It’s the Cup.¨ Despite the fact that the competition doesn’t start for another 11 days, and Manaus doesn’t actually host it’s first game for almost two weeks, the month of June began today and that means everything is now priced at premium rate. So, without any further question or argument I promptly pay.
There are reasons for my swift u-turn regarding this blatant and bold profiteering from the hostel. Firstly I have already met the owners and because of that I realize something important. For this middle-aged couple the next two months represent two of the most important months of their entire lives because, after spending 17 years living and working in Manaus, the money which they will make will allow them to return to their hometown of Bonito in the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Without the lucrative revenue of football fans they would likely have been stuck in Manaus continuing to offer cheap competitive rates to the many backpackers who stop off in this jungle city on their way into the rainforest. For them, this tournament is truly life-changing and will offer them the golden opportunity of a better quality of life, closer to relatives in a home they can retire and live into their later years in.
Upon arriving in Manaus in the early hours of a weekday morning, I was greeted at the airport by Luis who was working on the rainforest tour I would later take. Luis, a fifty-something man of short stature, had a surprising attitude towards the impending tournament. While smoking a cigarette outside the architecturally sharp and modern airport terminal he began to talk about the recent protests and general feeling of anger that many Brazilians have felt towards the World Cup. ¨These idiots who protest and complain, they know nothing. They are stupid. People here complain about schools and roads and hospitals and so on. I´ll tell you, they could build the best hospital in the world right in the middle of Manaus and you know what would happen? Within a month it would be ruined. That is what the people are like here. They have no respect for these things.¨ I was shocked to hear this. Up until this point, every Brazilian I had spoken to over the previous two weeks or so, had complained about the government, about lack of infrastructure about corruption, about FIFA. Yet here was a Brazilian who appeared not only to be in favor of the World Cup, but also seemed to lay the blame for the social and economic issues that Brazil suffers at the feet of it´s general population. I was skeptical. I couldn’t tell if he was simply in a bad mood or if he genuinely felt this way. As he finished his cigarette, Luis looked for a bin to dispose of the butt. After a minute or so of scanning the walkway outside the terminal, walking round the huge concrete pillars, huffing and sighing he looked at me and said ¨You see? You try and be polite and you can’t even do that here.¨ He threw the cigarette butt on the floor and we got in the car.
As we drove through the city and past the Arena da Amazônia, I thought hard about what Luis had said. I was sure he wasn´t right but it struck me that there was at least some semblance of a valid point in there somewhere. After asking him what he meant and delving a little deeper I discovered that he was in fact disillusioned at the lack of a holistic approach to development. His point, to put it a little more succinctly, was that it is little use providing the appearance of physical infrastructure with big expensive new buildings without actually investing in the personal and social infrastructure of education so that local people can achieve a true progression and improvement in their quality of life. It was actually an incredibly important point, albeit one which he made right before he hypocritically littered in front of one of the very infrastructure projects he so passionately claimed his fellow Brazilians did not know how to respect.
I had met Nicholas whilst staying in the city of Foz do Iguassu on the border of Argentina and Paraguay. He was in his early 20´s and had moved from the sprawling urban metropolis of São Paulo to the green state of Paraná to be closer to family. He now worked both in a hostel and a bar in town and was a fluent in English and Spanish as well as his native Portuguese. Nicholas was very vocal about the upcoming tournament and had some genuine concerns about the image of his country on the world stage. ¨Be honest with me¨ he said. ¨When European and North American people think of Brazil you think of three things; samba, football and big round asses in thongs.¨ I laughed, but there was a good deal of truth to what he said. ¨Yes. Maybe.¨ I replied. ¨But, that´s true of every country on earth. There are stereotypes for every place.¨
He agreed but the point was that for Nicholas this tournament was a fantastic opportunity for the world to see more of Brazil than this clichéd postcard stereotype. However, he was concerned that, with the money involved and with the ways that the media choose to portray his country, this opportunity would be missed and the old stereotypes would be reverted to. ¨I wish that people could see the true Brazil. How people here really live and the problems we really have here. The government is so corrupt and many people have stopped taking notice or paying attention to this. All they care about now is money, celebrities, clothes, cars etc.¨ What Nicholas was referring to was the double-edged sword that economic success has brought. In the past 25 years, over 40 million Brazilians have risen above the poverty line and there is now a rapidly expanding middle-class in the country. However, with this rapid acceleration of wealth comes one of the crises of any capitalist society; the distraction of materialistic obsession. In Brazil this has happened so quickly that, along with many other young Brazilians, Nicholas feels that people have almost forgotten about politics and instead now focus on material possessions. As a result of this disinterest the political process has become diluted and blurred. Add into this mix the repeated corruption of successive governments and even those Brazilians who wish to actively engage in the political process are feeling a sense of bewilderment and mistrust towards all politicians.
And so we come to the topic of FIFA. Brazilians have learnt to recognize corrupt organizations, when they see FIFA setting up camp in their country and receiving huge tax breaks, whilst the Brazilian government ensures that small businesses are squeezed out to the margins of host cities and stopped from trading nearby the venues, they know what is happening. Brazilians are aware as locals and natives are pushed from their homes in order to make way for corporate visitors or extravagant stadia and all the while the Brazilian police become more and more aggressive and violent in their enforcement of law & order.
For some Brazilians, like those lucky enough to benefit directly from the tourist industry, the pay off seems worth it, if uncomfortable. For others, those who lose out and those with a wider sense of social responsibility it seems like the beginning of a dictatorial class-based dystopia where protest is banned and you can be arrested, beaten and thrown in jail for little or no reason at all. With the Rio de Janeiro Olympics just two years away, there is a fear amongst the general population that this could signal the beginning of a new form of authoritarian governance in Brazil.
The presidential elections will take place in October, and the fortunes of the Brazilian team on the pitch will invariably have a baring on the fortunes of incumbent Dilma Rousseff. If Brazil win the tournament it could save her political career, however if they fail at any stage then those displeased voices will grow louder. In fact anything less than an emphatic victory in their opening game against Croatia and any buoyant party atmosphere may soon dissipate and very quickly descend into the kind of violent and chaotic scenes we have already seen. The converse is also true however, let us not forget the cynicism which greeted the London 2012 Olympics in the United Kingdom. There were serious issues raised then too when costs were public knowledge and many people asked whether that money could have been better spent elsewhere. There were also scandals relating to tickets and multi-billion dollar private contracts which never delivered. However, within a few days of the opening ceremony the cynical voices had been drowned out or even changed their tunes. This unifying effect is possible in Brazil over the next month. It is in fact likely, after all that is the mass appeal of major sporting events. At their most basic level they give strangers common ground to converse at bus stops and when they are truly successful they can unite opposing political and social factions.
After the tournament is done though these social issues will still exist just as they did long before it began and so, the question is; does the World Cup actually have a responsibility to address these issues? Can it actually ever hope to achieve this? Or, is it in fact just 32 teams of football players competing against each other for a shiny trophy?
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