When the Circus Came to Brazil: A Final Look Back at the World Cup

The month-long tournament was a fantastic party with some brilliant soccer, but larger questions remain


Panum et Circenses, or bread and circuses, was the Roman policy of providing food and entertainment for the masses while the empire crumbled. It may be that the unraveling of empires is marked by an increasing social polarization and incessant entertainment options. The World Cup provides both, and serves to distract and repress populations in radically unequal societies. The four weeks of the tournament brought the complete cessation of urban and social normality, the suspension of critical thought, and the jack-booted force of the state onto the streets. Now that it’s been just over a week since the circus has moved on, we are left with the lead of police bullets, costly, privatized big tops, a retrograde national footballing clown show, and a financial mess to deal with. All this while we prepare for yet another circus, the Summer Olympics in 2016.

The Criers

Step right up ladies and gentlemen to see the greatest show on earth, the Copa das Copas! Never mind those persistent rumors of human rights violations, the overpriced venues, the collapsed roadway over the beautiful horizon, the shady dealings between elected officials and European rights holders. It’s all part of the show! Come on in and enjoy the best-ever performing acts (all with top medical treatment, nice hair, and good teeth)! Feast your eyes on Robben the wonder whiner, Messi the vomiting flea, and King James of Colombia. Put those critical thinking skills away, don’t look behind the tents or under the carpets, the fun-house mirror is reality! We believe you will believe!

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 adamn 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 foam and slathers 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 emotionson display for me to consume. The bearded ladies in drab sackcloth cleaned the toilets after the show was over. No one even saw them.

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 continualdisplays of adolescent weeping from nominally grown men were contrasted by the lion tamer’s glib assertions that everything was going just fine.

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 elephantine piles.) Before and after each act, tens of thousands of singing and chanting fans are drowned out by the state-of-the-art sound system, eliminating any possibility of soaking in the moment (for a neutral). After the final, as fireworks exploded around theSwiss 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 hardly a mention of the 11 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 of the construction workers in Brazil toiled were exacerbated by time pressures. True, many thousands of men earned money 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 the two who died (and dozens who were injured) when a hastily constructed overpass in Belo Horizonte collapsed. 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 the world to design, build, and runstadiums, providesecurity, manage tourists, runcatering, install telecommunications, negotiate with gadflies, and pay handsomely to convince themselves and others that this is allfor the good of the people. These carnies make good money and are invariably dependent upon the organizers to get their contracts signed and credentials guaranteed. The other carnies are local surplus labor hired by companies withlinks to prominent politicians. After the party they’ll return to their perpetual state of under-employment until the circus returns.

The Strongmen

My, oh my, how strong they are! They are so strong that the newspaper puts themon 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 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 for themselves and for others. The delays, inevitable confusions, dysfunctional systems, and other inconveniences of daily life that tourists confronted were made better through innumerable small and felicitous encounters. The suspension of normal life and the good will of Brazilians made Brazil seem like a tremendously functional place for a short time. Circus-goers probably had an excellent time at a great party.

There were also demonstrations of the dark side of the Brazilian character that went unnoticed by many visitors, mostly because they didn’t catch the meaning or didn’t recognize what was no longer there: the tasteless chants toward the president at the opening and closing ceremonies, the elimination and privatization of public space in the service of afickle and arrogant elite, and a more generalized transfer ofpublic 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 dysfunctional cities. Now we have to “Imaginar realidade…” with cities in debt, worsening traffic, unfinished transportation and social projects, more guns on the streets, and an election in October.

The Hangover

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 toYekaterinburg. Just because it was an amazing World Cup doesn’t mean that it’s OK to have it in this way. It’s not a global potlatch where the international tourist class can feast at the expense of others every four years. The impact is as lasting as the spectacle is ephemeral. This doesn’t make for good newsprint, and it’s not a story with a happy ending, no matter how many saves Tim Howard made.

In a country as desperately unequal as Brazil, the circus should have been more modest and inclusive, the spending more transparent, and a dialogue with the population should have happened years ago. The strengths and weaknesses of Brazil were on display during the World Cup. This was not a normal month. There were 64 games and 64 holidays in twelve cities. A country of 200 million was put on hold while the circus rolled through. In those conditions, almost anything is possible.

Life in Brazil doesn’t 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, FIFA’s Secretary General. 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 VIP treatment of journalists and gallons of chachaça washed this milquetoast down our throats.

Now that we are back to reality, there can be a frank analysis regarding the lack of transparency in government and the private sector, the irregularities in constructing stadiums and tournament-related infrastructure, the forced removals of low income communities, rampant real-estate speculation, thegross 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 thehosting 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, leaving behind fuzzy memories of a fantastic party and vague recollections of some terrible things that happened along the way.

The 2016 Olympics are two years 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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