/ 17 July 2014

Brazil’s shattered football hopes mirror society’s failings

A kick in the teeth: Brazil's 7-1 World Cup thrashing by Germany reflects the shortcomings of a disillusioned nation.
A kick in the teeth: Brazil's 7-1 World Cup thrashing by Germany reflects the shortcomings of a disillusioned nation.

“Football is the vehicle for a series of dramatisations of our society,” wrote Roberto DaMatta, a prominent Brazilian anthropologist.

In this country of 200-million, football isn’t merely a game; it is a cultural construct with parallels in Brazilian society, and the transformations evident in football correspond to the changes in society.

As far back as 1933, when football was professionalised in Brazil, the country’s president, Getulio Vargas, used the sport as a powerful tool to consolidate national identity.

Football victories became important. They were glorifying moments for Brazil, a society with a low self-esteem and dubbed by British historian Eric Hobsbawm as “the world champions of inequality”.

Football and the Seleção Brasileira (national team) were transformed into a metaphor for the nation, tasked to show the supposed grandeur of Brazil to the world.

The ramifications of Brazil’s horrendous 7-1 semifinal defeat against Germany at the 2014 World Cup stretch beyond football. The national sport is seemingly going through the same breakdown as Brazil’s society.

False image
“Football had no problem of different classes,” says Vladimir Safatle, a philosopher and columnist for Brazil’s largest newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “Everyone was part of the same feeling.

“Football was an expression of the Brazilian way of life. Now that turned out to be a false image, a fantasy, an ideological illusion.”

Resentment about the public spending on the World Cup stadiums, about $11-billion, still festers, but not so overtly.

“Where is the social unrest?” asked Fifa president Sepp Blatter midway through the World Cup in one of his “Blatterisms”. The World Cup generated $4-billion in revenue for Fifa.

“Sepp Blatter’s declaration is very arrogant and ignores the reality of what the state did to eliminate the protests,” says Christopher Gaffney, a visiting professor of architecture at the Federal University of Fluminense in Niterói and an expert in Brazilian football.

“The police presence and militarisation were tremendous. There was a normalisation of a security apparatus that was oppressive and a criminalisation of poverty and protests. People were scared.”

Inside the stadiums, the atmosphere was festive, but less so when Brazilian fans populated the stands. Polling institute Datafolh conducted a survey at the game between Brazil and Chile.

Upper middle class and elite
The survey showed that 90% of Brazilians attending the World Cup were white and rich, members of the upper middle class and elite.

They came dressed in Tommy Hilfiger and Armani, and wore Ray-Ban glasses. Selfies and Facebook posts were compulsory.

Sou Brasileiro, com muito orgulho, com muito amor [I am Brazilian, with great pride, with love],” they sang, but they didn’t ooze the same genuine fandom that the Chileans so proudly exuded.

Ticket prices for Brazilian residents ranged from $13.50 for a group game to $892 for the final, so the crowds at the football bonanza were always going to be homogenous. Brazil’s gross domestic product per capita is $11 208, according to the World Bank.

“It’s different from the Brazilian league,” Alexandre Gontijo, a journalist from Globo Esporte, says. “It is posh people, it’s corporate.”

“Brazil had three World Cups,” Gaffney says.

“One, the military completely excluded and kept away the poor and lower middle class, so that, two, the wealthy and upper middle class could take holidays, go to the stadiums and party a month long.

“The very low-paid labourers at the stadiums formed the third World Cup. The private security guards and the cleaners, who swept the dirt off the floor, made the World Cup happen, but are never remembered.”