Neoliberal games

From June 12, the month-long soccer World Cup will capture global audiences of hundreds of millions, generating vast revenues for FIFA (the game’s notoriously venal governing body) and its sundry corporate partners. This time around, the quadrennial competition exerts a special fascination because the host country is Brazil, where the game is a mainstay of national identity and culture, played in a seductive style that has won global admiration. Brazil is also the country that witnessed mass protests only last year against the skewed priorities of World Cup development, with one million on the streets demanding better transport, schools, and hospitals.

Dave Zirin’s new book is an exploration of this contradictory phenomenon (which embraces both the soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro). At the outset of his research, an expert warns him that “Brazil is not for beginners.” But, exercising due modesty, he succeeds in supplying beginners with the historical, economic, and political background necessary to understand the televised spectacle.

The book is, among other things, a critique of sporting mega-events, which Zirin characterizes as “Trojan horses” for neoliberal assaults on the general population. These events are variants of the “shock doctrine” through which natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or military coups create a “state of exception” that allows the elite to impose drastic economic and social alterations. Instead of “disaster capitalism,” sports events become “celebration capitalism” —but with similar results.

Zirin shows a clear pattern in World Cups and Olympic games of recent years. Again and again, these events witness mass evictions, social cleansing (in which the poor, the homeless, drug addicts, and others are removed from sight), gentrification, the corporatization of public space, the erosion of civil liberties, and a massive increase in surveillance and “security.” Vast public subsidies pour into private hands as host cities are reshaped to the advantage of the rich. It’s always a boon for construction, real estate, security, and media interests, but often a tragedy for the communities left behind. As Zirin observes, these mega-events provide elites with “something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: the consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals.”

In Brazil, all the features associated with mega-events elsewhere are magnified in intensity. Hundreds of thousands have been evicted from their homes. More than a thousand surveillance cameras have been installed in Rio alone. Billions are spent on event facilities while public services are cut back. Corruption is rife, with the former head of the Brazilian football federation found by a Swiss judge to have received $41 million in bribes for World Cup marketing rights. “Exclusion zones” ring the stadiums, baring local street traders from vending their wares. (“It’s now open season on Brazil’s informal economy,” writes Zirin.) There are special “World Cup courts” to fast track proceedings for select offenses, including any unauthorized use of FIFA’s very broadly defined “intellectual property.” As Romario, the former soccer star turned acute critic of the establishment, observed bitterly: “FIFA is the real president of our country, FIFA comes to our country and imposes a state within a state.”

A key moment in Zirin’s narrative is his visit to the legendary Maracana stadium in Rio, where the World Cup final will be played on July 13. The stadium has undergone a $500 million facelift, resulting in fewer and more expensive seats. In keeping with FIFA dictates, open seating will be replaced with luxury boxes and a VIP-only zone where, Zirin observes, “modern Caesars can sit above the crowd.” A local activist describes the Maracana refit as “killing a popular space in order to sell Brazil’s culture to an international audience.”

Zirin also visits the nearby Vila Autodromo favela which four years ago was marked to be flattened and replaced by a parking lot for the Maracana, but which is still standing thanks to the determined resistance of the residents. Zirin is rightly wary of romanticizing poverty, but at the same time he warmly evokes the unique character of the Brazilian favela, which he sees as an accretion of human ingenuity and adaptation. At Vila Autodromo, he finds a “community where people keep their doors open and children play joyously in the streets.” It’s a “peaceful, beautiful community, and that is exactly why it is in danger. It is too beautiful”—and therefore too attractive to developers. With the Maracana redevelopment, they thought their chance to seize the land had come, but in this case, at least, they were stymied. 

Elsewhere, the World Cup is being used to intensify the ongoing campaign “to pacify, sanitize and Disney-fy the favelas.”

The victims of this social engineering are the urban poor, the very people who made soccer what it is in Brazil. There’s long been a special aura around Brazilian soccer, seen as synonymous with spontaneity and individuality, the subtle touch and the improbable shot. The sinuous, graceful, dance-like style of play won fans worldwide and made Brazilian soccer a valuable cultural commodity. But here too the invading forces of neoliberal development have taken their toll. The urban property boom has closed down the open spaces in which the game was once played; youngsters are funneled into formal competitions at an early age. 

The upshot is that Brazilian soccer had become increasingly standardized, increasingly un-Brazilian. Socrates, the midfield genius and committed radical who died in 2011, aged only fifty-seven, lamented that “the freedom that let Brazilians reinvent the game decades ago is long gone. . . . Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes.”

 Zirin shows why it was unsurprising that mass protests erupted during last year’s Confederations Cup (seen as a trial run for the World Cup). A 20 percent fare hike was the catalyst, but the grievances ran deeper. Reversing the media mantra about the drive for “FIFA quality stadiums,” demonstrators demanded “FIFA-quality hospital and schools.” Zirin quotes Eduardo Galeano (who is the book’s presiding spirit) on the meaning of the moment: “Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few.”

Zirin addresses the awkward truth that many of us who are “horrified at every eviction, every instance of police brutality, every community destroyed, will be swept up in the energy, color, and yes, joy of the World Cup.” But it’s precisely because of his enthusiasm for sports that Zirin is able to depict with such piquancy the greater tragedy emanating out of this World Cup.

It’s a story of the pitiless violence with which capitalism in its neoliberal phase reshapes our world, threaded through with examples of resistance and glimpses of an alternative destiny.

World Cup boosters claim that once the competition is underway and “the ball is rolling,” all the discontents will vanish. What’s certain is that there will be a concerted effort to convince us that this is the case. Those who persist in talking about the social cost underlying the festivities will be condemned as killjoys and naysayers. This is “celebration capitalism” at work. We are cast as consumers and nothing but consumers, expected to imbibe the corporate-branded spectacle without qualms or conscience. In that context, engaging critically with sports, seeing them as part of the broader human current, becomes a necessary subversive act. With his wit, compassion, indignation, his love of the games and the people who make them vital (that is, the players and the fans), Zirin performs this vital function with aplomb.

Issue #84

June 2012

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