Monday, June 16, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil

A demonstrator holds a banner during an anti-World Cup
 demonstration in São Paulo, Brazil, on January 25, 2014.
The 2014 staging of the FIFA World Cup of soccer--football to the rest of the world--is now underway in Brazil, having begun last Thursday. Yet despite the fact that this international tournament of the world's top national soccer teams is taking place in the country most widely considered the sport's powerhouse, having won the most World Cup championships (five), produced the the greatest soccer player of all time, Pelé and originated a unique and highly regarded style of playing, known as o jogo bonito (the beautiful game), Brazil's version of the event has experienced extensive problems and sustained controversy even before its official start date.

This year's World Cup unfolds within the context of a sputtering national economy after years of an economic surge and the glimmers of success in lifting many of Brazil's lower middle classes and poor up a few notches under previous president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. As a result, for over a year there have been public protests across Brazil against the country's federal and state governments' exorbitant expenditures--well over $11 billion and counting, making this the most expensive World Cup in history--on construction and renovation of stadiums and of public infrastructure, both in conjunction with the soccer tournament and with the Olympics, which are set to open in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In some places, as in São Paulo, workers have died during the construction and renovation process; there and in others, the stadiums were barely finished by the time the matches were set to begin; and in many, such as Brasília's Estadio Nacional, costs have run far over budget (3 times the estimate in the capital's case), for structures that, as is in the case in the Brasília stadium or the one in the interior Amazonian city of Manaus, very well could become future white elephants very soon.

Other infrastructure projects that were supposed to have been completed, like Salvador da Bahia's subway system, have ground to a halt, with little explanation or accounting. Many middle and working class Brazilians want to know why the country has been so profligate at a time when pressing needs like new hospitals, schools, housing, transportation upgrades, and so forth, go unmet. Some affordable tickets are available, but it would take a very person to be able to afford flying all over the country to follow the matches of any given national team, and the already inflated prices of Brazilian goods and services are witnessing increased inflation as a result of the World Cup and Olympics. Alongside all of this, the ongoing crisis of corruption, which plagued the tenure of the prior popular Workers' Party government of Lula, which still hangs over that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, colors perceptions of the government's and corporations' actions.
World Cup participants

On top of the financial issues, the Brazilian government undertook a "pacification" scheme to address the violence affecting some of its poorest communities, particularly the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and other cities, without addressing the continued, evident problems of racial discrimination, poverty and wealth inequality, joblessness and underemployment, precarious housing and health care, under-education, and so on.

As numerous reports have made clear, the government approach has tended to be brutal and counterproductive, leading to the deaths of numerous favela residents, as well as of the police themselves. In the immediate lead up to the World Cup government forces have occupied favelas and evicted people from their homes in several of these communities, such as Mare and Telerj; violently expelled the newly homeless who in response occupied the city's Prefecture; and killed innocent people, including a well-known, 25-year-old TV dancer, Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira in Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, near Copacabana Beach.

Any thought that the start of the World Cup and the arrival of the international media would quell dissent has foundered on the shoals of reality; in São Paulo right before the start of the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, people gathered at the gates of the barely completed renovation of Corinthians Stadium to denounce the cost of and corruption linked the public spending, and protests continue there, in Rio, and in other cities. In addition just yesterday at least two policemen are alleged to have fired live bullets at protesters in Rio. Opposition to the World Cup appears likely to continue through the championship game, which the host country is not only favored, but expected to win. Should Brazil win its sixth championship, a respite might temporarily ensue. Should it lose or not even make it to the finals, things could grow even more restive as the nation's coffers continue to shell out funds for the Olympics in two years' time.

This is the background against which the first match, pitting Group A teams, took place. Brazil won with strong but not especially sharp play, posting a 3-1 tally. Racist ugliness, however, marred the victory, as Brazilian defender Marcelo (pictured at right) accidentally scored an own goal, the game's first, momentarily putting Croatia in the lead, which provoked racist and homophobic invective against him and black Brazilians ("Tinha que ser preto," which translates as "It had to be a black person," as well as comments about his "cabelo ruim," or "bad hair"--ugh!) on social media sites like Twitter. Though self-identified black and brown Brazilians are the now numerical and demographic majority at over 50% of the population, they still face a landscape of overt and veiled personal and structural racism and white supremacy, often couched in discourse suggesting that Brazil's acknowledged mixed racial makeup means there is no racism there. Some Afro-Brazilians smartly countered the slur with their own repurposing of the negative term, but it was nevertheless an ignominious way for things to commence.

Subsequent matches among the 32 national participants in eight groups have included unsurprising outcomes as well as shockers. On Friday, Group B's Chile beat Australia 3-1, and Group A's Mexico squeaked past Cameroon 1-0, but the first major upset occurred in another Group B match when a sharp Netherlands squad walloped the defending champion Spanish team 5-1. Even accounting for the Dutch team's evident talent, this was a stunning turn of events. On Saturday, which included four contests, Group C's Colombia beat Greece thoroughly 3-0, Group D's England, always heralded as a potential champion or finalist, lost to a better Italian team 2-1, Group's C's Côte d'Ivoire beat Japan 2-1, and in another surprising turn, Group D's Costa Rica, expected to have a middling tournament, shut down Uruguay, hyped as a possible contender, 3-1. Yesterday, Group E's Switzerland beat Ecuador 2-1, Group E's France, last seen in South African in 2010 in the midst of a public meltdown, apparently got its act together with a younger crew of players and put on a clinic with Honduras, winning 3-0, and Group F's Argentina, another highly regarded squad, defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-1.

I have yet to mention the US team, which is in one of the most difficult groups, G, truly a group of death, and which played its first game today in the far northern Brazilian capital of Natal, in Rio Grande do Norte. The clearly dominant team among the four is three-time World Cup champion Germany, which played with control and precision today against the other team thought to be a strong entrant for the Cup, Portugal. Instead, Portugal looked scattered and sloppy, meriting a red card and losing badly to Germany 4-0. Should the Portuguese squad's play not improve, the US could advance on more than a prayer to the second round, since the Americans beat the Black Lions of Ghana 2-1, defeating a team that has sent them home in each of the previous World Cups. American forward Clint Dempsey struck early, in the first minute, catching Ghana off guard with a shot to the net that put the US ahead 1-0. Ghana, however, took charge of the ball for the majority (59% to 41%) of the match, with 21 shots vs. 8 from the US side, and evened things in the 82nd minute when midfielder Andre Ayew caught the US's usually porous defense off guard. (Weak defenses have often proved the US's Achilles heel.) US midfielder Graham Zusi's corner kick led to a successful set-piece header by substitute defender John Brooks, putting the US up 2-1, which they held onto until the final whistle blew.
John Brooks, after his goal

To advance the US will have to control the ball more and take more shots and chances; today they were lucky and caught several breaks, while also making the best of rare scoring opportunities. They are going to have to have every bit of luck in the world to get past Germany, but they need only defeat Portugal now to advance, and that does not seem as impossible as it did before the tournament began. Today's final match pitted Iran and Nigeria, who played to a 0-0 draw, which was a positive for Iran and less so for Nigeria. Tomorrow Belgium will play Algeria at noon EST, Brazil and Mexico will each try to win their second games at 3 pm, and Russia will play South Korea at 6 pm. I'm most curious about that Brazil-Mexico match up. The host country should win easily, but if they don't, it's could be a sign that this tournament is Germany's, or someone else's (the Netherlands? France?) to walk away with. Meanwhile, outside the stadiums, the public rallies and marches critiquing what these games truly signify will continue.

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