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Political Futebol: The World Cup and Brazilian Democracy

- June 24, 2013

We welcome back  Diego von Vacano , a political theory professor from Texas A&M University.


With Brazilians protesting the organization of the 2014 World Cup, it would appear that hell has officially frozen over. Few countries in the world are as soccer-obsessed as Brazil. What would cause the sudden surge of mass demonstrations against the building of new state-of-the-art stadiums for the first World Cup to be held in Brazil since 1950?

 To understand this seismic shift at the nexus of Brazilian politics and culture, we should place it in the historical context of the game in that country. In the 1980s, Socrates was one of Brazil’s best futebol (soccer) players. With flowing hair, long limbs, and often wearing a bandanna and a jersey with the word “democracia” on it, he became a leading figure of the Brazilian national team. His unusual name, and the fact that he was a medical doctor who smoked despite playing at the highest levels, lent him a charisma that made him an iconoclastic icon when he started to support the democracy movement against military dictatorship in Brazil. He also led a players’ democratic structure within his professional team, Corinthians FC, that granted voting power to players on all issues affecting them. This was Brazilian futebol in the 1970s and 1980s: full of creativity, eccentric characters, and politically engaged soccer stars. The zeitgeist was reflected in Brazil’s World Cup teams of 1982 and 1986, which were characterized by artfulness and attacking flair.

 Cut to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the quarterfinals at Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth, Brazil played The Netherlands. A strong and well-organized Dutch team eliminated a stolid, defensive, and utterly unremarkable Brazilian team full of multi-millionaire stars, most of whom plied their trade in global brand-name teams such as Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Manchester United. Robinho, a player with a diamond earring in lieu of a pro-democracy bandanna, scored Brazil’s last goal of that World Cup. The Netherlands sent Brazil packing. At least as far back as the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Brazilian teams have slowly abandoned the jogo bonito (“beautiful game”) style of play based on refined skills and aesthetic imagination in favor of pragmatic, results-driven tactics.

 What does this tell us about the mass, pro-democratic protests of the last few days in Brazil? It tells us that futebol is both a reflection and a catalyst of social change in Brazil. To see Brazilians protest against the organization of the World Cup, in a country where the sport is nearly a religion, shows us that what used to be sacred is now nearly profane. The underlying cause of this erosion of a cultural pillar is the confluence of disaffection with democratic institutions and the transformation of the national soccer culture. As Brazil’s economic growth has produced economic and political elites, there is also a growing perception that those who benefit most from soccer are corrupt CBD (Brazilian soccer federation) officials, not the average fans.

 Democracy remains incomplete in Brazil. The military left power in Brazil in 1985, but corruption persisted under the Collor de Mello administration, and even under the center-left, popularly-supported Workers’ Party of Lula da Silva. Dilma Rousseff, the current president, is also dogged by accusations that she is not doing enough against corrupt elites. The protesters are against PEC 37 (Constitutional Amendment 37), which would prevent criminal investigation of elected officials; they oppose National Congress President Renan Calheiros, who is accused of corruption; and they fight the protection granted to elected officials, many of whom are believed to benefit from over-budget stadium projects for the 2014 World Cup. The decline of the “sanctity” of soccer in Brazil is thus a reflection of the disdain for sheltered elites that exists in the country despite having formal, regular, multi-party democratic elections.

 At the same time, soccer is one of the catalysts of the new democratic movement because the erosion of jogo bonito over the last thirty years and its displacement by a more cynical, money-centered form of the game no longer satisfies the average torcedor, or football fan. When Brazil’s World Cup teams performed well, the Brazilian people would revere them and exempt them from social or political criticisms. Now that the team is made up of one great player, Neymar– who seems to be alone in trying to keep the jogo bonito alive– and ten other largely pedestrian players, people are no longer willing to grant soccer its traditional higher-than-normal status in Brazilian society. Pharaonic projects that do not come with infrastructure for the people, which displace indigent and indigenous populations, and which seem to benefit only wealthy elites (whether they are players like Robinho or the heads of the Brazilian soccer federation or of FIFA) are thus no longer justifiable. As Nietzsche said, art justifies life. When art is no longer part of life, the latter cannot be justified. It seems that the political and football paths of Brazil have finally reached a twilight for idols like Socrates now that Brazilian futebol is largely bereft of artistry.

 Unlike the United States, where pro sports teams are part of a massive and highly profitable entertainment-industrial complex, soccer in Latin America has deep cultural and political roots despite frequent economic troubles. A large number of teams are mismanaged, ridden with corruption, and often near-bankrupt. Still, they retain central social and cultural roles and are often associated with specific class backgrounds. The mismanagement of clubs by wealthy elites runs parallel to the way governments are often seen to be mismanaged by political elites. Formal democracy prevails in almost all Latin American states, but the mass-elite tension is as ardent as ever. Soccer is the mirror of Latin American nations: it reflects deep social currents, but can sometimes be the instrument to start fires like those in Brazil this past week.