Political Change and the (Not-So) Beautiful Game in Brazil

by Robert Coates

The recent World Cup in Brazil and its accompanying protests highlight a broader context of urban social struggles in the country.

First published: 11 August, 2014 | Category: Culture, International

Following Brazil’s disastrous exit from its own World Cup there were widespread predictions on social media of a national malaise or crisis, a new round of riots and protests, and even the downfall of Dilma Rousseff in the forthcoming elections. US magazine Slate argued that Dilma’s chief adversary Aecio Neves would be ‘silently thanking the likes of Müller, Klose, Kroos, Khedira, and Schürrle for the assists’ following the 7-1 hammering, and a piece in the New Statesman claimed that ‘the country's politicians will never be allowed to forget this moment: where they quite literally mortgaged the nation's future in anticipation of a victory parade that never came.’  Football-related drama makes good headlines, but if the answer to the question “What next for Brazil?” actually turns out to be “not much”, is there anything more we can say about the relationship between the joga bonito and state politics in Brazil?

For their part, Brazilian media has by and large kept its dissections of crisis to the subject of the pitch, with Rio’s O Globo choosing to see defeat as a brief blip in a glorious history and a chance to rebuild for 2018. While they’re right to separate what happens on the turf from larger questions of political representation, between the lines we can read not just a small hint of injured national pride. And we should not ignore the protests that have accompanied Brazil’s alliance with all things FIFA over the last couple of years. If football and by extension the World Cup do go beyond the sport itself, we’d do well to learn something of its history – particularly in Brazil’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro.

In contrast to British football’s working class roots, in Brazil it was urban elites that dominated its organisational development in the first decades of the twentieth century, strongly identifying as they did with the latest trends imported from Europe. In his well-known romp through Brazil’s footballing history and identity, Alex Bellos describes the foundation of clubs like Fluminense and Corinthians in the wealthy districts of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Poorer areas were also intrigued by the new sport –Bellos recounts the story of the creation of a club at Rio’s Bangu textile factory in 1903– but slave emancipation had only been signed into law fifteen years beforehand in 1888 and black men were quickly banned from competing in Rio’s prestigious Campeonato Carioca. Most of the poor districts of Rio, expanding with migration from the interior, were a long way both spatially and politically from those of the whiter and richer classes. While the club at Bangu later became the first in the country to field black players, the ban remained in place until the late 1920s, by which time the city’s Portuguese-heritage club Vasco da Gama had successfully pushed racial boundaries in the city’s mainstream.

The story of Bangu is relevant now for two reasons. It was a sugar plantation based on slave labour until the Brazilian Republic was declared in 1889. Bought by industrialists eyeing new opportunities as sugar declined, cotton was planted and the Bangu sugar mill transformed for textiles. In those early decades of urbanisation, as bosses and workers sought increased production, leisure and solidarity, football fitted the bill. The sport became a key battleground for inclusion of black and mixed-race men within both the working class and Brazilian society more generally. As football clubs grew and their support bases extended into all areas of the city, man-to-man on the pitch it was increasingly hard to uphold racism in its nineteenth century form. Football could clearly serve both as oppressive elite conception and opportunity for struggle in the social arena.

Secondly, on a note of more contemporary relevance, Bangu’s history reminds us of the specific forms urbanisation has taken. Now a peripheral district of the wider Rio metropolis, Bangu’s population remains mainly black, it has two large favela complexes, is home to Rio’s most notorious prison as well as a large mall in place of its textile factory, and it has a commuting time to Rio’s centre of anything between one and three hours. With most jobs located in the city’s centre and south, if you’re lucky you can cram into a packed and decrepit SuperVia train – and though at risk of frequent breakdown or fainting from the heat, you should get to Central do Brasil station in around an hour, from where you can continue to your workplace. If you’re not lucky or the station doesn’t serve you, you’ll brave the bus and risk some of the worst traffic jams on Earth.

Many residents of Rio who have been removed to make way for stadium and transport developments for the World Cup and 2016 Olympics have ended up in neighbourhoods like Bangu, Campo Grande and Santa Cruz, between 50 and 70km from the centre of the city. In a recent article for New Left Project Jeff Garmany explains how the reformulation of urban space in an era of economic prosperity has actually contributed to new types of segregation in Brazil, despite significant reductions in poverty achieved by governments over the last twenty years. While financially the new lower middle class have access to previously out of reach luxury goods and internal flights, gentrification in Rio’s wealthy and touristic Zona Sul (South Zone) together with favela removals are pushing the poorest out to the periphery. More maddening still is the fact that some communities evicted for the Cup now lie in ruins, without the promised redevelopments.

While achievements in the reduction of inequality and poverty are much touted –the minimum wage, limited pension reform, basic education and social safety net must be applauded– the impact is nonetheless spread unevenly across Brazil’s vast territory. In Rio, for instance, inequality has in fact increased slightly over the past twenty years. Defenders of these economic achievements will be quick to point out that there has been progressively much more to go around throughout this period, with per capita income growing some two-thirds since 1991 and numbers in poverty more than halving. But the stats must be examined carefully to feel how this plays out on the streets: with the top twenty per cent earning twenty-seven times that of the poorest twenty, in real terms Rio’s (and Brazil’s) wealthy classes have made extraordinary gains over the same period. Rio’s oil wealth has irrigated the top tier of the social pyramid more than anywhere below it, and at the base the poor are asked to live happily with a meagre state handout. Life expectancy is up and infant mortality down, but with cost of living increases and the social and spatial bases for inequality remaining intact –and at a real terms financial level never seen before– there are plenty of reasons for urban disquiet. In Bangu the new lower middle-class may have bought cars and some of the poor may now own fridges, but their counterparts in wealthy districts are buying yachts and helicopters in ever-increasing numbers. What’s more, politicians’ squandering of public money seems to be ever more ostentatious and exaggerated.

So how does the World Cup fit into these political and urban developments?  In a new and interesting edited volume on football in Brazil Chris Gaffney argues that global hyper-commercialisation of football, including supporter consumerism, has provided a powerful new means for rearticulating the sport away from participation and towards commodification and big business. For Gaffney the Cup has enhanced the connection between the Brazilian government and civil construction firms: across the country some four billion dollars has moved from the public purse to the construction industry for stadium building alone, with double that figure used for infrastructure, training facilities and other costs. For their part the constructors eagerly finance election campaigns at state and federal levels. Deaths of stadium workers and others hint at poor worker safety and shoddy construction, while crowds at the expensive World Cup matches were widely reported in Brazilian media to be comprised of only the elite branca (white elite). Highly telling, also, were remarks made in May 2014 by Joana Havelange of the World Cup organising committee (who is daughter of Ricardo Teixeira the former head of the Brazilian Football Federation, as well as the niece of former FIFA boss João Havelange,). Responding to protesters’ anger over public spending and profiteering she stated:

what’s already been spent or robbed has already gone. If you want to protest you should have done that beforehand…what I want is that those arriving here should see a Brazil that knows how to welcome and knows how to be kind. I want to see a beautiful Brazil.

The quote shows us the importance of national image to the Brazilian elite. In Havelange’s version of the country, all negatives are hidden and Brazil is presented to the world as happy, welcoming and a real player on the world stage. This is nothing especially new in Brazilian history: through the 1930s and 1940s football was one of a variety of cultural forms used by the populist dictator Vargas to promote an authentic Brazilian identity – and particularly one seen to be made up of healthy, disciplined and integrated urban workers. Vargas sought to ‘Brazilianise’ cultural activities (among them samba and carnival parades) that had their origins in particular ethnic histories, and this backdrop informed the building of Rio’s Maracanã stadium in 1950, as a statement of Brazilian intent to the world on and off the pitch. Vargas is often seen as the father of modern Brazil; yet while his tenure undoubtedly saw a growth in industrial- and urban-rooted national identity, he left the old hierarchies of class and race largely intact.

The military dictatorship of 1964-85 used football to its advantage more comprehensively, investing heavily in training facilities and low entrance prices to games while also manipulating Brazil’s World Cup triumphs for nationalistic purpose. While urban space was being reformulated like never before, with numerous clearances of favelas from wealthy neighbourhoods, football’s era as a mass spectator activity –with nationalistic fervour to spare– had begun. Increasingly, football players and cultural icons in music and film were used as pawns in a national political game by this repressive authoritarian government. In this context it is perhaps no surprise that football players like Sócrates and musicians like Gilberto Gil became such prominent anti-establishment figures in the Brazil of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Anthony Pereira argues that the demonstrations in major Brazilian cities over the past year may be more linked with this authoritarian past than it initially appears. The protests, which continued during the Cup albeit in smaller numbers than in 2013, may be unconsciously linked to the same ‘status project’ of old. People protested about lack of investment in public services, public transport price rises and political corruption, rather than against the World Cup per se. But beyond this the key point is that the political system is seen as more receptive to the interests of foreign actors like FIFA than it is to the country’s citizens. The media spotlight offered by this most Brazilian of cultural activities provided the necessary trigger for action on these long-held grievances.  It is worth considering that in the scale of current Brazilian corruption scandals and misuse of public funds, World Cup spending would come second to a larger set of scandals currently engulfing Petrobras, the 60% state-owned oil giant, over accusations of money laundering, bribery and overbilling amounting to hundreds of millions. Yet football’s cultural force provides a much more clear and emotive focus for action on these issues of representation and transparency, built as it is on the sensitive framing of national cultural identity.

 While World Cup spending, corruption, and urban removals can be easily criticised for their social cost –and rightly so– further analyses show us that the whole performance has held few surprises for anyone familiar with Brazilian history. That’s not to say that politicians and constructors should be let off the hook - far from it; in fact, it seems clear that the politics of football, coupled with the sport’s dubious international governance, has revealed and added further impetus to traditional battles. But if Dilma Rousseff loses this October’s election – a somewhat unlikely prospect given opinion polls– it will have a lot more to do with distrust over issues related to the economy, public services, and unsavoury political alliances.

In advance of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games Rio de Janeiro’s government has undertaken a complex, widespread, and militarised programme to ‘reclaim’ selected favelas from narco-gangs. Following an operation deemed successful in Rocinha, the largest of the city’s favelas, O Globo newspaper ran a front-page headline proudly claiming “ Rocinha is Ours!”  The key question here, as a well-known Rio blogger notes, is how the ‘we’ is formulated in this equation. If the favelas, and by extension poorer and darker-skinned Brazilians, are to be excluded from this constructed national identity, then the World Cup and its attendant protests will in due course be seen as part of a wider struggle in Brazil - between business-as-usual, with all the manipulation of national identity that entails, and alternative visions of state, citizen and urban development.


Robert Coates is a PhD student at King’s Brazil Institute and co-author of The Rough Guide to Rio de Janeiro.

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