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In Brazil, soccer may star, but social issues set the stage

COMMENTARY

By Christos Michalakis
Special to the Michigan Citizen

I have always been infatuated with Brazilian soccer, as well as Brazilian culture.  As a die-hard soccer fan and a Greek American, when the opportunity came for me to see the United States and Greece play in the World Cup, I jumped at the opportunity.

Planning my trip, I began to learn about the public unrest in Brazil surrounding the World Cup and upcoming Olympics. While as an activist in organized labor I should have probably known better, I was surprised to see a nation known for their love of “futebol” actively protesting the sport’s biggest and most prestigious event.  I hesitantly went forward with my trip, not as an investigative reporter, but as a soccer-loving tourist.

Rio De Janiero

Being from metro Detroit, I could not help but to draw comparisons to Brazil’s famed metropolis. Rio, like Detroit, has its wealth and resources concentrated in a few central neighborhoods, the “Zona Sul” (South Zone), which includes the affluent neighborhoods of Ipanema, and Leblon — the most expensive square meter in Latin America.

Throughout their World Cup contest against the U.S., fans of Ghana’s “Black Stars” often broke out in song. CHRISTOS MICHALAKIS PHOTOS

Throughout their World Cup contest against the U.S., fans of Ghana’s “Black Stars” often broke out in song.
CHRISTOS MICHALAKIS PHOTOS

Meanwhile its favelas are often void of city services, with residents having little to no police protection. Unlike Detroit, however, whose affluent residents may go months without going outside of Grand Boulevard, what I find interesting about Rio is poverty and income inequality are almost always visible.

With favelas occupying almost every hillside, all one needs to do to see extreme poverty is look up. Even Rio’s iconic soccer stadium, the Maracanã, stands in the shadow of “Morro de Telegrafo” — a favela I doubt made many of the aerial television shots of Brazil’s most famous soccer cathedral.

Rio’s protestors look to Athens, Greece, my other home, to see what the long-term social costs are in hosting large-scale sporting events.  My family in Greece is quick to tell me while Greece’s economic situation has many sources, none are bigger than the cost of hosting the Olympic Games in 2004. While the costs of World Cup are different than the costs of hosting the Olympics, Rio has been tapped to host both events in the span of two years.

Edgar Pagaza, a Mexican American living in Brazil had this to say about hosting the event, “I think is too early to tell whether (the World Cup) will be a good thing or a bad thing. What it did do, was awaken the people to all the corruption and poor handling of the government so it may just bring some change.” Many of the stadiums went way over their initial budget, he said, costing more than twice as much as their original estimates.

Pagaza’s sentiment was common; many times Brazilians would say how unhappy they were with their government for taking on such costs, yet how happy they were the world had come to their country to celebrate “The Beautiful Game.”

Natal

Natal, a touristy beach town, in the North of Brazil, is built around its famous sand dunes.  These beautiful dunes stretch for miles, shaping the overall topography of the city.  Natal is an affluent city with exclusive high-rises, and shopping centers that put Somerset to shame. Unlike Rio, and perhaps more like Detroit, however, its poorer and working class neighborhoods are almost out of sight to visiting foreigners.

I stayed in Ponta Negra — perhaps the most affluent neighborhood in the city, and an area that boasts as being one of the safest in all of Brazil. This safety, however, comes at a cost. It was not uncommon to see hotels and residential neighborhoods surrounded by high walls, electrical fences, and razor wire.

“Gated community” has a whole different meaning here — with heavily fortified gates, manned by armed guards in small towers.  Was this safety necessary, or merely theatre to impress its wealthy, vacationing residents?

Despite the positive attitudes of those in the tourism industry, many in Natal were quick to point out the cost of hosting World Cup matches outweighed the benefits.

Aniha Lopez, a nutritionist from Natal, put it best to me. Showing me a picture of a road washed out and in desperate need of repair, she said, “See?  We have money to build a new stadium, but we don’t have money to repair our roads.” I laughed, as I told her I come from a city where our roads are in equal disrepair, and yet our government plans on building a stadium for a billionaire that will essentially own it upon completion.

Ms. Lopez then showed me a popular Brazilian Facebook meme — a picture of a woman with the Brazilian flag painTed on her face with the phrase “Protesto inteligente e` na URNA e nao na COPA!!” which roughly translates to “protest intelligently at the ballot, and not at the (World) Cup.”

One criticism I have often heard about nations hosting high-profile sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics, is that it allows private-security firms and consultants the ability to get rich quick from government contracts at the expense of said nation’s working class.

Every day on the beach, while drinking from a freshly-cut coconut, I would watch as military helicopters flew up-and-down the beach, while kite-boarders surfed in front of a back drop of military patrol boats. Each team bus was welcomed to the stadium with a full military escort.

I could not help but think, with so much emphasis on security and safety around the stadium, the teams and the tourists, these resources would have been better deployed to help more citizens of Natal. In Detroit, we see extra security around Comerica Park during a Tiger game or the additional patrols around Rock Financial properties. Does extra security in some parts of Natal or Detroit come at the cost of more danger in poorer parts of the city?

In my opinion — one I share with many others — this was the best World Cup of my lifetime. This is due to the exciting games and amazing talent on the field, along with the amazing and passionate fans, and most importantly our gracious and inviting hosts — the people of Brazil.

These are the elements that make this tournament great, not the corporate sponsors, not FIFA, not the contractors who overcharge for construction of stadiums, and not the politicians who let this happen.

When these events occur, they should strengthen a country’s infrastructure, while benefiting all of the host nation’s working families — not lining the pockets of a few corporate sponsors and contractors and leaving behind unusable, and expensive to maintain buildings. In an era, when working families all over the world are questioning the social costs of putting together these large-scale events, I can’t think of better people to lead this discussion than the people of Brazil.

Learn more about issues of social justice surrounding the 2014 FIFA World Cup at DemocracyNow.org,, and in David Zirin’s book, “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy.”

 

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