HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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14 July 2014

Lead and Circus

The lion tamer and Sideshow Sob
Felipão showed that herding well-groomed cats into a functional football team requires more than an emotional whip and a neatly trimmed moustache. The abundant talent at his disposal fell victim to their own incessant preening (the team spent the day before the Holland match at the salon), a lack of tactical cohesion, a penchant for petulance and hyper-inflated expectations of easy success predicated on a military-era worldview. The continual displays of adolescent weeping from nominally grown men were contrasted by the lion tamers’ glib assertions that everything was going just fine. The mewing display of the Seleção on home soil will hopefully force a long-overdue cleaning of the litter box.

The flea show
Messi, Rodriguez, Muller, Ruiz, Navas, Jones, Howard, Mascherano and hundreds of brilliant athletes played more than 130 hours (five and a half days!) of competitive, entertaining and emotionally draining football with a damn interesting narrative arc. Seen from the height of a surveillance drone, the movement on the pitch might look like dancing fleas.

The painted and bearded ladies
I kept waiting for a goal celebration in which a player scores from a free kick, scoops up some of the magic spray and lathers it on his face only to take off his boot and give himself a shave. While I was waiting, FIFA kept showing me beautiful women in the stands. The loveliest of the lovelies had their faces and nails painted in national colors, raw emotions on display for me to consume. The bearded ladies were in drab sackcloth, cleaning the toilets after the show was over.

The Ringling Brothers, Bynum and Bailiff
FIFA is making money as quickly as they are losing credibility. How is it possible that year after year, tournament after tournament, we face the same issues of ticket corruption, black box management, a lack of transparency and consistency in refereeing decisions, partial and selective use of technology to apply sanctions to players, and the innumerable other banal absurdities that surround people that insist on five star hotel accommodations and limousine service? The owners of the circus established the logic and sequence of the show and make their demands known to all. Once you step out of that narrowly framed mind-set there is suddenly nothing to talk about because the money is in the bank, the crime has happened and Whelan has made his millions on the Lamm.

The elephants and their tents
Have you ever had an elephant trumpet directly into your ear? If not, you clearly haven’t been to a World Cup match. The hyper-mediatized spectacle under the big top assaults all the senses except smell (there is a small army of dark-skinned workers to shovel away the mess). Before and after the match, the tens of thousands of singing and chanting fans were drowned out by the state-of-the-art sound system, eliminating any possibility of soaking in the moment (for a neutral). As the fireworks exploded around the Swiss and German manufactured roof of the Maracanã, tear gas and percussion grenades pounded the faces of those who dared to question the financing of the circus with public money. The elephant tents won’t come down once the circus has gone, but their exclusionary structures and violent assaults on common sense and public culture will continue.

The trapeze act
There was not much mention of the eleven workers that died while constructing the World Cup stadiums, nor did they receive a collective minute of silence before any match. The dangerous conditions under which most heavy construction workers in Brazil toil were exacerbated with time pressures. True, many thousands of men made many millions of dollars constructing the tents and roadways and hotels for the circus. The vast majority of them made it home every day without injury. The same can’t be said for those who were crushed under a hastily constructed overpass in Belo Horizonte. The lack of outrage is itself outrageous.

The carnies
How is it possible to pull off the World Cup in a country without a highly qualified work force? Put billions of public funds behind it, hire temporary employees en masse, convince people to volunteer their labor, and get highly mobile global technicians to do the rest. There is an ever-larger cadre of companies that roam around the world to design, build, and run stadiums, provide security, manage tourists, run catering, install telecommunications, negotiate with gadflies, and pay handsomely to convince themselves and others that this is all for the good of the people. These carnies make good money and are invariably dependent upon the Ringling Brothers to get their contracts signed and credentials guaranteed. The other carnies are local surplus labor hired by companies with links to prominent politicians. After the party they’ll return to a state of under-employment until the circus returns.

The strongmen
Oh my, oh my, how strong they are! They are so strong that the newspaper puts them on the front page and explains the myriad ways in which they have been trained to use their strength in emergency situations. The strongmen need not say a word, indeed, dialogue is considered a sign of weakness! They are so strong that they exude dark clouds of poison and move through crowds with sticks. The strongmen are so strong and so big that they are everywhere, even when they are not. Without the strongmen, we are told, the circus is impossible. Yet no one informed the strongmen that they are not the main act, that the performance of strength should be left to those who don’t have weapons, that the spectacle of raw and unbridled power is weakness incarnate.

The locals
Brazilians are, on the whole, lovely, warm, generous, friendly and hospitable. They made the best of this World Cup both for themselves and for others. The delays, inevitable confusions, dysfunctional systems and other daily inconveniences of daily life that tourists confronted were made better through innumerable small and felicitous encounters. Brazilians made Brazil seem like a tremendously functional place for a short time, and their warmth and charm will be the lasting impression that most tourists take away. There were also demonstrations of the dark side of the Brazilian character that went unnoticed by many visitors as well, mostly because they didn’t catch the meaning or didn’t recognize what was no longer there: the tasteless chants towards the president at the opening and closing ceremonies, the elimination and privatization of public space in the service of a fickle and arrogant elite, and a more generalized transfer of public wealth to private hands. Before the World Cup the Brazilians were saying “Imagina na Copa…”, wondering how we were going to have so many extra people in the cities. Now we have to  “Imaginar realidade…” with cities in debt, traffic worsening, WC projects unfinished and an election on the horizon.

The hangover
Deficit spending, infrastructure collapse, slow economy, literal hangovers, and divided opinion about whether or not it was worth it. The party, as predicted, was amazing. Brazilians can put on a show de bola like no one else. There will be massive saudades for Brazil four years from now while journalists are trying to get to Yekaterinburg. Just because it was an amazing World Cup doesn’t mean that it’s ok to have it. It’s not some kind of global potlatch where the international tourist class can come a feast at the expense of others every four years. The impacts are as real as the spectacle is ephemeral. It doesn’t make for good newsprint and it’s not a story with a happy ending, no matter how many saves Tim Howard made.

Football is probably the only thing that would bring so many Latin Americans to Brazil in such numbers. This was a great tournament for South American solidarities to develop (except for the Brazil-Argentina taunt fest). Through the overwrought infrastructure projects, the Brazilians were showing off their wealth to their neighbors and to the Germans and Swiss and other truly wealthy nations (and making them even more so through contracts and tax breaks/subsidies).

In a country as desperately unequal as Brazil, the party should have been more modest and more inclusive, the spending more transparent and the dialogue with the population should have happened years ago still has not begun. The strengths and weaknesses of Brazil were on partial display during the WC. This was not a normal month. There were 64 games and 64 holidays in twelve cities. Life in Brazil doesn’t usually run this smoothly but there were many important lessons that we can take from the Brazilian capacity for organizing the World Cup. When there is a real (or perceived) necessity, Brazilian cities can work for many people some of the time for specific events. The organizing committees did a great job of pulling everything together within a regime of exception and the tournament pleased even Jerome Valcke. Things were so good that for a short period and for some people it seemed as if the chronic problems of police violence, education, infrastructure, labor conditions and socio-economic disparity didn’t exist in Brazil. The Brazilian media continues along with this narrative that has been echoed in the international press.

Now that we are back to reality, there can hopefully be a more frank analysis regarding the lack of transparency in government and the private sector, the irregularities in constructing stadiums and WC related infrastructure, the forced removals of low income communities, rampant real-estate speculation, the gross human rights violations that happen as a result of hosting mega-events, the diminishing access to public space and leisure activities (including professional football), and the lack of general consciousness about the impacts of consumer choices (from food production to sewerage). Of course, none of these problems are unique to Brazil yet the hosting of the World Cup exaggerated them.

There should also be a larger conversation about the mega-event business model that brings the circus and all its actors to town before moving on to the next town, the next country, leaving behind fuzzy memories of a fantastic party and vague recollections of some terrible things that happened along the way.


The 2016 Olympics are x days away and will be until they are not. Until then we can put all of these conversations on repeat, use the same sound bites, talk to the same people about the same things and very little is going to change. The World Cup has shown the potential of the circus to crush public debate and to anesthetize critical thought while the tents are illuminated and the fleas are dancing under the brutalizing glare of the strong men.

07 July 2014

The best new FIFA World Cup Brazlian Porn

This may be the most violent World Cup in recent history. The average number of yellow and red cards per game is the lowest since 1986, yet the players are bigger and faster, the fields smaller, hotter and wetter. As a result, the ball moves faster, there is less space, less midfield play and coaches like Brazil’s Scolari set out to destroy their opponent’s rhythm through systematic fouls. The injuries are not worse only because the physical condition of the athletes is so high and their tolerance for physical abuse nearly comic.  It is clear that FIFA has told their referees to keep their cards in their pockets and the result has been shocking injuries (concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments, fractured vertebrae).

This is also the World Cup in which the FIFA television producers have delighted in bringing us the violence in ultra slow motion. The beauty of dribbles, crosses, feints and smooth athleticism is not shown with as much care and detail as are the kicks in the face, cleats to the knee, stomps on the ankle and collisions of heads. We are glued to the set as we watch the violent meeting of sweaty, striving human bodies performing for our benefit. There are no consequences at home, just a grim pleasure in the money shot of human pain.

Violence has become such a fundamental element of spectatorship that we don’t give it much thought, nor consider our own reactions to it. Yet when a big name goes out with an injury no one can talk about anything else. This violence exists in visual contrast to and in philosophical concert with the infantilization and sexualization of World Cup marketing. All over Brazil there are ads for the World Cup that feature cartoon characters or beautiful people with their mouths wide open. The mascotization of professional sports lures children and their parents into a hyper-commercialized arena where events happen but have no consequence. How are children to react when they see a boot to the face or a knee in the back? They will take their cues from those around them. Sadly, no one seems to mind that the fusion of football and MMA and open-mouthed, infantile, consumerist desire (just don`t bite!) have been hidden behind a handshake for peace.

Of course, FIFA has no consistency when applying discipline. Suarez received a four month ban for an impulsive and childish but ultimately harmless bite whereas Neymar received no further punishment for his deliberate elbow to Croatia`s Modric, Mautidi received no further punishment for breaking Onazi`s ankle. Innumerable other instances of ultra-violence have gone unpunished throughout the tournament.

Many years ago there was more variety in the ways in which the world watched the Cup. Television producers could choose the cameras and sequences that they wanted to show and there were more television stands in the stadiums. I’m not sure when it happened, but now the only narrative of a game is that which FIFA’s production crew delivers. The cut away to coaches on the sidelines, the slow motion replays, the camera angles for particular moments of the game, in short, everything we see and interpret of the game is dictated by a FIFA producer in a truck. Not only are we “all in one rhythm” in the stadium but on the outside we are all in a singular televisual sequence. This homogenization allows FIFA to control completely who represents fans (beautiful women and carnavalesque men), what sequence of events led to a particular outcome, and the global interpretation of localized events. This also means we are exposed to the FIFA porn for as long as we continue to watch.

An overpass fell on Neymar, now do you care?
There is a human desire for the dramatic, beautiful, terrible and violent that makes this a profitable endeavor. We don’t wake up after 120 minutes of football with anything but a hangover. The athletes wake up in traction. And while the degree to which Brazilians have rallied to Neymar’s bedside is impressive, there has been more outpouring of public sympathy for the broken vertebrae of a multi-millionaire footballer than for the families of the people who were killed in an overpass collapse in Belo Horizonte last week. I was expecting that there would be some questioning, some insinuation that the World Cup projects were too hastily constructed, with not enough oversight, with few control mechanisms and that this bridge collapse would expose the problems of the mega-event business model in which national and local politicians use the political smokescreen of the event to release public funds to contract their friends in industry to build over-priced infrastructure that may or may not serve the long-term needs of the public, when it doesn’t fall and kill them. This is the deeper pornography of the World Cup that we should think about as traffic gets rerouted for the semi-final in Belo Horizonte.


30 June 2014

Accumulating Brazil

In a normal month of June, Rio de Janeiro hosts at least 16 professional soccer matches. São Paulo will typically see the same number. Salvador typically has around 8 first division matches; ditto Recife, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and Curitiba. None of these cities will host more than 7 during the World Cup.

Compared to this time last year, Brazilian airlines transported 15 % more passengers per day than they are doing during the World Cup. The airports seem empty because they have fewer passengers. Planes are on time because they have fewer problems getting out of the gate. This is not to say that the Brazilians aren´t doing a good job with airline transport, but that the predicted problems have not emerged because Brazilians were so afraid of the problems that they aren´t traveling the way they normally do.

In a normal month of June, Brazil receives around 600,000 foreign visitors. That is the expected number of tourists that the country will receive for the World Cup. “Normal” tourists have been replaced by World Cup tourists, who are being bilked by hoteliers and tour operators.

In every host city, for every game, there is some kind of holiday. This means that during the World Cup there will be 64 holidays. Bank and government holidays mean fewer people on the streets, freeing up space for the circus acts. Schools schedules have also been altered to keep kids, parents and teachers at home. If kids are not getting to school, parents have to find a way to stay home too.

The holidays, fears of logistical headaches and general party atmosphere have been disastrous for Brazilian productivity – a decline in as much as 30% during the first round of the tournament. These costs are never factored into the general budget for the event. This is in addition to the deficit spending of cities. A little known fact about the World Cup is that all of the host cities were granted an exception to the Law of Fiscal Responsibility (LFR). The LFR prohibits urban administrations from deficit spending. Once released from fiscal responsibility, urban administrations started borrowing heavily and will have to start repaying as soon as the Cup has run dry.

The FIFA-standard stadiums have worked for FIFA, but they are antiseptic containers of global corporatism that negate the history and football culture of the cities in which they sit. We know about the elephantitis and the opportunity costs, we know that the vast majority of people cannot afford to go to football matches, but not many people are talking about the anti-urbanism of these stadiums. In the majority, they are completely isolated buildings, surrounded by a sea of parking and “zones of exclusion”. They may have LEED certification (a form of greenwashing) but they are DUMB in terms of weaving together the urban fabric. 

The party is rolling on and there have not been any major horrors, so the international media parachuters are doing a kind of mea culpa, saying “oh, it´s not as bad as I thought it would be, sorry Brazil, we were unkind.” This is a position that ignores the extent to which the entire country has been retooled to host 64 games of football. The repressive and reactive police mechanism is there to guarantee that this event happens. The upper middle and middle classes from Latin America and elsewhere are enjoying the Brazilian festival while the elites of the world jet into and out of wherever they please, however they please, whenever they please. Yet those excluded from the party are suffering with even more repression than normal, or are hurting from a lack of police coverage because the “normal” coverage has been moved to the World Cup.

The media is underreporting the continuous protests that are unfolding in Brazilian cities. There continue to be strong undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the realization of the World Cup. For the government and FIFA, the amazing football and smooth logistical operations for the tournament have been a blessing. However, in the peripheries, the same repressive and violent police force continues to kill poor black people. While there is more conversation about these kinds of things than there was even two years ago, the World Cup has doubled down on the military model of policing the Brazilian population.

Geographer David Harvey´s concept of accumulation by dispossession is a useful framework to understand all of the processes I have outlined above. The city governments dispossess residents of their streets by declaring holidays, keeping people at home. Public culture and public space are taken from the public realm as stadiums are sanitized, corporatized and privatized. The right to free circulation and protest is limited by the police. Tax burdens for multi-national corporations and FIFA are annulled though special legislation (while the Ghanaian players have to pay taxes on their bonuses received in Brazil and Suarez is deprived of his right to exist as a person while Ricardo Texeira is back in the fold). In short, the entire weight and power of the Brazilian state has collaborated with global financial and political interests to ensure that the World Cup happens in the smoothest manner possible.



24 June 2014

Gol de barriga

Clint Dempsey´s gol de barriga against Portugal sent me into fits of belly slapping. It may be the most famous goal of its kind since Renato Gaucho´s 1995 tally that won the Campeonato Carioca for Fluminense. As I was pounding out a batucada on my stomach it came to me that the bacchanal of the Copa is all about the gol de barriga.

Mysterious circumstances landed me in one of the hospitality suites for the Belgium x Russia match. In order to get there I had to pass through four levels of Military Police, two levels of ticket checkers, one turnstile, and then a credentialing center where I was given a multi-colored wristband that identified my place in the consumption circus.

Once the three business-attired, very thin, very attractive multi-lingual Brazilian women had kitted me out and opened the door to the consumption zone, I was met by the leveled gaze of three very dark, very plump, very unhealthy looking women who were standing in the foyer to the handicapped bathroom. Their dark crimson uniforms said more than they ever would about their position in the hierarchy. Between them and me was a table heaped with salads and deserts. The open bar offered champers, wine, gin and tonic, beer, whisky, vodka, capirinhas. Russians, Belgians, Brazilians were going back and forth to the buffet as the noise of the crowd built outside.

The hospitality sector of the Xaracanã was not close to full when the game started, nor would it be for the match as a whole. Yet the official attendance figures tell a different story. The emptiness of the stands is a reflection of the corporatization of the event as a whole. Mutli-nationals buy up these packages through MATCH and then give tickets as gifts to clients or friends. The major purchasers of these packages in Brazil are the civil construction firms that have made billions through over-priced stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.

Here´s the flow: Civil construction firms finance election campaigns. The World Cup projects are hastily proposed in back room agreements between government officials and the civil construction firms. Brazilian taxpayers finance multi-billion real projects that are contracted to the civil construction firms. These firms then spend millions on MATCH hospitality packages. Employees go to the hospitality suites to fill their bellies in the same way that their companies have filled their coffers with public money. Cheap labor increases MATCH´s profits in the same way that slave labor enriches Odebrecht in Angola. Belly size increases while the poor stare hungrily at the banquet table.

This is why it is so easy to score a gol de barriga in Brazil.

22 June 2014

What happens when the Cup of Cups runneth over?

The Cup of Cups is limited to the field of play and even then there are massive problems with the governance of the game. We see innumerable possibilities of concussed players staying on the field after getting dinged. There is no doping lab in Brazil capable of analyzing anything but belly button lint and FIFA is threatening to sanction the Mexican fans for saying “Puto” while tens of thousands of Brazilians call Diego Costa a “viado” with impunity. While we have seen amazing football, been on emotional roller coasters and exposed to the furious athleticism of the male body as consumer spectacle (thank you Puma) this continues to come at a heavy cost.

Scalpers, ticket touts and cambistas who are operating freely around the Maracanã are exploiting the desperation of fans to get into matches. Outside the Spain x Chile match a dodgy looking Englishman tried to get US$ 2500 for three tickets. That is maddeningly expensive and exploitative and theoretically illegal. There were dozens of these transactions happening on a newly constructed overpass that linked the stadium to the hospitality center on the other side of the tracks.  The hastily constructed overpasses and lack of organization may eventually create some nasty problems. Combine this with a military police that is not there to help but to hit, and there is an explosive combination waiting for the fuse to be lit.

Continuing north from the Maracanã and into the Manguinhos favela, at the same time that tiki-taka was dying, the Military Police assassinated Jonathan, a 19 year old, by shooting him in the back. As geographer Carolyn Prouse has pointed out on her blog, the protests that occur far from the eyes of the national and international media are not necessarily against the World Cup but for basic human rights: “There is less circling of the cops with cameras when people are running for their lives. And because favelas are typically depicted as being run by drug traffickers, it is very easy for the state and the media to accuse protestors of being paid by the traffickers, as ridiculous a claim as it may be. This is a form of criminalization of protest activity that rarely sees any media coverage in World Cup reports. And it’s done to silence activists.”

In short, the military model of dealing with insurgent populations has been amplified with the World Cup. While the ostensive policing of areas around the stadiums may be a normal aspect of football culture in Brazil that does not mean that it is acceptable. The cordons sanitaires that are part of the fan experience have their inverse in the cordons du terroire of a repressive police apparatus.

If we think of the stadium as a city in miniature then by looking at what is going on there we can better understand the dynamics of the city. If fans are renting their spaces in the stadium, and those prices are too high for them to pay, then they look for a cheaper seat (in a bar), spend their savings or try to invade. If ticket prices are comparable to housing costs, we see the same thing happening in the mega-event city. The middle and lower classes can no longer afford to live near places of work and leisure, get pushed to the periphery and are forced to cede space to the international tourist class (however defined). Those who try to invade (squat) are treated as criminals and expelled from their occupations. In this sense the deportation of the Chileans who tried to squat  in the Maracanã is the equivalent of the violent repression that Cariocas have faced when they try to occupy vacant buildings. 

The invasions of the Maracanã undertaken by the Argentines and Chileans during the first two games are getting all of the media attention and the security will be reinforced in all stadia. However, this does not go beyond a mere re-entrenchment of the hyper-territorialization of FIFA-space. The continuation of this process by more repressive means is happening throughout the World Cup host cities.






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