THE BLOG
06/12/2014 08:15 EDT | Updated 08/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Ordinary Brazilians Don't Want to Play Ball With FIFA

From the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to FIFA World Cup 2014, it's always the same pattern: there are "unforeseen" construction cost overruns, taxpayers get stuck with the final bill while profits remain in private hands. Ordinary Brazilians are told that the world cup represents a unique opportunity to showcase their growth and to free themselves from the label of a third world nation. Brazilian trade unions and protest groups refuse to play ball. Can you blame them?

Shutterstock / Marques

The French say "Sois belle et tais-toi," a misogynistic way of telling women to make themselves pretty and keep their mouths shut. This expression captures the high-minded contempt with which the South African elite treated Township folks when it hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The governing ANC told its firebrands to keep quiet about the country's numerous challenges and celebrate its post-Apartheid accomplishments. For one glorious month, South Africa swept poverty, racial inequality, political corruption, criminality and HIV AIDS under the rug while the country's elite enjoyed its vanity project.

The World Cup was supposed to bring massive infrastructure projects, prosperity and foreign investments to the country. Beyond white elephants, it's hard to see what ordinary South Africans have gained from hosting the event. According to the 2013 UN Human Development Index, not much has changed. South Africa ranks 121st out of 187th countries (they ranked 129th in 2010). Four years later, more than a third of South Africans still live on less than $2 a day. If that's progress, I wonder what failure looks like.

From the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to FIFA World Cup 2014, it's always the same pattern: there are "unforeseen" construction cost overruns, taxpayers get stuck with the final bill while profits remain in private hands. Ordinary Brazilians are told that the world cup represents a unique opportunity to showcase their growth and to free themselves from the label of a third world nation. Does that script sound familiar? Brazil and South Africa are part of what the financial elite calls the BRICS, an acronym that lumps together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa as emerging markets where foreign investors can make a buck on the back of cheap labour or an abundance of natural resources.

Brazilian trade unions and protest groups refuse to play ball. They're pointing to the obscene amounts of money being spent on the World Cup to give FIFA's sponsors a guilt trip about their complicity. Can you blame them? During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa an estimated 3.2-billion TV viewers tuned in, that's nearly half the world's population. Brazilian protest leaders want to use this unique platform to put the spotlight on the country's endemic socio-economic problems.

Pelé, the most recognizable player in the history of the game, is trying to ratchet down the rhetoric. "Let's forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let's remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and life and blood," Pelé said on a Brazilian television network.

If the 2013 UN Human development Index is anything to go by, Brazil ranks 85th, behind countries such as Iran (76th) which has been under an American embargo for since 1979; Lebanon (72nd) which has faced war and military occupation for much of the past three decades and Ukraine (78th) which has just negotiated an emergency bailout with the International Monetary Fund to stave off bankruptcy.

According to Forbes magazine, over the next 30 days the World Cup will generate $4 billion dollars in total revenue for FIFA, soccer's international governing body. How much of that money is going reach poor people living in its infamous Favelas? Not much if South African Townships are the reference. It's no wonder that graffiti depicting hungry children being offered a soccer ball to eat have become commonplace on the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo as an expression discontent.

As the tournament kicks off on June 12 under a cloud of controversy, Adidas, FIFA's longest-standing backer, took the unusual step of declaring that the negative coverage is "neither good for football nor for FIFA's partners." In this poisonous atmosphere, sponsors are refraining from rolling out their usually glitzy marketing campaigns. For its part, Coca-Cola says it is prepared to tone down its branding message due to growing social unrest while Sony is pressing FIFA to fully investigate allegations that Qatar won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup through improper means.

Nigel Currie from sports sponsorship agency Brand Rapport told the BBC that "companies and brands are becoming increasingly aware, and have an added push and impetus towards showing ordinary people they are aware that there is a social aspect to being a sponsor."

"When firms are involved in major sporting events like the World Cup there has to be an increased awareness of the outside world, and to take a more realistic approach to the world that people can respect," adds Currie.

If FIFA is blinded by dollar signs, its sponsors know when it's time to cut their losses.

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