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.

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