Beyond samba, sex and soccer: The World Cup riots in Brazil

Brazil’s rich and poor will face off next month and the stakes are much higher than any of the football matches.

Demonstrators protest against the FIFA soccer World Cup Brazil 2014, in Sao Paulo, Brazil [EPA]

Only 22 years old, the footballer known simply as “Neymar” is far more than the “face of Brazilian soccer“. Since donning the iconic, canary yellow and blue kit for the first time, Neymar has sidestepped defenders as if dancing the samba, and raced up and down the pitch with the cavalier and carnival spirit definitive of Brazilian football. 

As Neymar sprints into his prime, Brazil is primed to host its first World Cup in 64 years. This year’s tournament, furnishes the Brazilian government with a rare opportunity to showcase its greatest export on its home soil. Brazil and football are synonymous: A conflation the state has engineered to carry forward its policies inside and outside of the country. Its iconic lineage of soccer stars, starting with Pele and ending with Neymar, provide the state with single-named ambassadors known and loved all over the world.

Through football and its stars, the state has crafted a global image of Brazil that – until recently – has distracted from the range of racial, economic, political and intersectional ills plaguing the South American giant. While playing abroad, the Brazilian football team embodied the stereotypical trilogy that has come to define the nation for the rest of the world: samba, soccer and sex.

However, this time the World Cup will be staged at home. And Brazil is set to host the World Cup during an impasse over riots ripping through the country. The majority of these riots or protests, are led by youth, aptly titled Generation June“, who embody a portrait of Brazil that threatens the state’s neatly crafted global image.

Can Brazil afford the World Cup?

Brazil has spared no expense for the upcoming World Cup. The month-long competition will feature 64 matches in 12 cities across the country. Refurbishing old stadiums and building new ones has cost Brazil $3.6bn. Several of the new stadiums will seldom be used after the World Cup, and Brasilia’s World Cup stadium is estimated to have cost taxpayers $900m.

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Tack on an additional $7bn bill for infrastructure, this makes this World Cup an extremely costly one for Brazil, and more specifically, its growing population of unemployed and underemployed, neglected and mistreated citizens. Broken down, each World Cup match will cost Brazil roughly $62m.

Popular protests across Brazil focus squarely on the state’s excessive spending on World Cup preparations and planning, in addition to draconian tactics displacing the poor from coveted communities. The state has cut expenditures and public programmes targeting poor and working-class Brazilians. From the vantage point of these communities, the nexus is clear – a fraction of the billions spent on World Cup stadiums, lodging for tourists, and cosmetic projects could have cured a number of ills plaguing the people.

Put simply, these preparations reveal that this is a World Cup intended for the country’s elite and affluent tourists to enjoy, at the expense of Brazil’s rising indigent and working class segments. Instead of improving urban housing or public transportation, raising the pay of government workers or funding much-needed social projects benefitting the country’s rising poor, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff gave a blank check to Sports Minister Adelo Rebelo.

Her assignment was clear: Showcase Brazil’s most prized product and players while the world’s light shines brightly on it. The unholy trinity of samba, sex, and soccer will draw millions of tourists that pour in billions of dollars into the nation’s economy during the World Cup’s month-long competition. Dollars likely not to trickle into the communities that gave us Pele, Romario and Rivaldo, nor earmarked at improving the quality of life of millions of poor and working class Brazilians.  

Between Neymar and the nameless

His sun-kissed skin, exuberant smile and flair on the pitch personify how the world has come to see the South American nation. One that promises fun and sun, carnival and carnal pleasure. All of this is carefully packaged to lure soccer and sex tourists, corporate sponsors, and the billions of dollars they bring into the country. The advertisements plastered throughout Brazilian cities leading up to the World Cup feature the youthful Neymar, offering to the world a carefully marketed, yet misleading image of its youth.  

Viewfinder – Occupying Brazil

Brazil’s protesting youth, however, are little like Neymar. Their struggle harkens back to the heroes of yesterday, such as Romario and Rivaldo, who both hailed from humble beginnings to hoist the Word Cup trophy for Brazil in 1994 and 2002, respectively. Not surprisingly, both Romario and Rivaldo are among the most vocal critics of FIFA and the Brazilian government’s exorbitant expenditures for this summer’s World Cup.

Romario, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro, listed a range of public programmes in need of a fraction of the cost of those vital resources. A Brazilian Horatio Alger who pulled himself from poverty by his soccer cleats, Romario embodies the struggles of the young protestors in a way Neymar does not.

Yet for every Romario, there are millions of Brazilian youth whose dreams of donning the canary yellow outfit are permanently deferred. A long way from brandishing a wicked kick on the pitch, these anonymous youth have been sidelined by economic, racial and political injustices which sparked popular protests against a World Cup millions of marginalised Brazilians cannot win. Their World Cup is on Brazil’s streets, not in its multi-million dollar state-of-the art stadiums.    

Largely young, black and brown protestors, hailing from indigent or working class backgrounds, began to organise protests last year. The protests include students and street kids, state employees and unemployed college graduates. FIFA and the Brazilian government want nothing more than to hide these youth and their demands, from the world’s gaze. Yet, they have been protesting for more than a year and seem poised to march forward even after the World Cup kicks off.

Brazil’s people cannot win

On May 16, the riots took a violent turn. Security forces were deployed to violently quell the “Day of Action” protests in Rio, and the state’s aggressive attack on a police union strike in Recife ended with seven deaths. Organisation among protestors, on social media and on the ground, is growing stronger as the World Cup nears, while the state’s desperate attempts to hide them has resulted in increased police profiling and violence, mass incarcerations and death.    

With Rousseff and Rebelo dismissing the “riots [as having] nothing to do with World Cup”, the protests are sure to swell after the matches begin on June 12, and swarm around the very stadiums where they are played. The protestors are also well aware of the tourists filing in, the scores of journalists and their cameras, and the billions of eyes all locked on Brazil, which provide an unprecedented platform to amplify their grievances and shame their government.    

The millions of sidelined youth, protesting outside of stadiums, will neither don yellow nor kick around the ball with the Brazilian flair the world has always known. They are marching to demand the basic necessities the state has denied them while a $900m stadium in a city with no club team has been built; these protesters are calling for livable wages while the pockets of World Cup handlers grow fatter.   

The stakes of this face-off – for Brazil’s people – are much higher than any match played inside Brazil’s multi-million dollar stadiums. They march for food, better schools, livable wages, and recognition from the state. Winning on the streets, for the protesters, means far more than Brazil winning a World Cup at home. Victory will come with World Cup viewers and tourists seeing their protests and hearing their demands, forcing the world to acknowledge the millions of Brazilians living beyond the samba, sex and soccer mirage.    

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.