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The Party’s Over: A Critic’s Take on Brazil’s Dismal World Cup Legacy

If a favela can be displaced, they are going to try to displace it, and if they can use the World Cup and the Olympics as a pretext to do that, they are going to be used.

About a five minute walk from Rio de Janeiro’s historic Maracanã stadium, the site of today’s Argentina vs. Germany final (Update: Germany won, obviously), there used to be a small community of about 700 families called Favela do Metro. The reason the city demolished the tightly-packed neighborhood is hotly disputed: Residents said it was to build a parking lot, while the city claimed it had more ambitions urbanization plans, such as a park. But at least for now, there is little left except a jumbled mess of concrete and brick.

“They were displaced ostensibly because there was a desperate need for a parking lot for the World Cup, and when I was just there the week before last, the homes were rubble, they were knocked to the ground, but there was no sign of any parking lot – just piles of rubble,” said David Zirin, a columnist for The Nation and author of the book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

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“But what it looks like to mean, more than anything else, is like a real estate land grab,” Zirin continued. “And if a favela can be displaced, they are going to try to displace it, and if they can use the World Cup and the Olympics as a pretext to do that, they are going to be used.”

For Zirin, the tale of favela do Metro – which has been told in full elsewhere, such as in The Guardian, and by the activist site Rio Watch – is emblematic of what the World Cup has come to represent beyond the games. As Brazil prepares to move on from the Cup and toward the presidential elections in October and the preparations for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, we asked the critic and sports writer for his assessment of the tournament and how he thinks history will view this Brazil 2014.

Get Dave Zirin’s timely book now with a contribution to Truthout. Click here.

Fusion: For you, what’s the legacy of this World Cup?

David Zirin: The legacy for the World Cup in Brazil is a financial windfall for the construction industry, which is near all-powerful in Brazil, a financial windfall for the tourist industry, a financial windfall for the real estate industry, and an ideological windfall for the idea of Brazil becoming more of a surveillance state and having a bigger military and a more militarized society.

As a legacy that is going to positively impact regular Brazilians, I think that is an illusion at best, and a cruel joke at worst.

Fusion: When people look at the Maracanã now, what do you think they should keep in mind?

Zirin: They should keep in mind that the Maracanã is a Maracanã in name only. This has long been referred to as the Sistine Chapel of international soccer, it’s the most famous soccer stadium on earth and a place that people in Brazil discussed in revered and hushed tones. Yet the Maracanã, which is the site of so many grand moments in Brazilian history – and I’m talking not only about soccer matches but visits from the Pope, by Frank Sinatra, events that people discuss to this day – that Maracanã is not there anymore, because it’s been neoliberalized to become just like any old stadium.

I went to the Maracanã while it was undergoing its internal plastic surgery – while they were bashing apart the upper bleachers, putting in the luxury boxes and the jumbotrons per FIFA dictates, and now it’s just a soccer stadium that seats 74,00 people, as opposed to this place that really celebrates Brazil as a mass. Brazil as a crowd, Brazil as a collective roar. That’s not there anymore.

The Maracanã is representative of the changes in the World Cup and Brazil in general. It has been a place where Brazil’s mosaic of people has come together for the purpose of cheering, laughing and crying. It is a huge space where 225,000 people can sit and stand in the Maracanã. That means in 1950 during the famous Maracanazo, when Brazil lost to Uruguay during the World Cup, it was full, mostly of Cariocas (Rio residents) which means 10 percent of the city’s population was in attendance.

To be honest, I saw a couple of games there while I was in Brazil and I’m not saying that I didn’t get a chill upon entering its doors. It’s still the Maracanã, for goodness sakes. But once you get inside, one would have to be willing to ignore the sterility of the surroundings. They took out all the standing room where the people would cheer on and if you were poor you could go, you could afford to watch the game there. Now it is full of jumbotrons and luxury boxes for foreign dignitaries, so I guess Joe Biden gets a good view of the action.

Fusion: How do you think the Brazilian public will look at at the tournament a year from now?

Zirin: The Olympics complicates all of those questions, because in Brazil, the question of a World Cup legacy is inexorably tied with the Olympic legacy, and the mega events are seen as a one-two tandem. That’s how they were sold to the Brazilian people. That’s how also they were discussed by activists who were resisting the displacement and militarization of public space that these events bring, so it’s really impossible to say until 2017 and 2018, because I think people are going to access them as a whole and not individually .

Fusion: Do you think the kind of protests that we saw in 2013 will occur again in the lead up to the Olympics?

Zirin: It’s not going to be an easy line – first there were World Cup protests, now they are going to be Olympic protests, because the biggest difference of course is that the World Cup is a national event and Brazil is a country bigger than the continental United States, and the Olympics will primarily be focused on Rio de Janeiro. But just because the construction projects are focused on Rio and the surveillance and the militarization are going to be focused on Rio, it is still the entire country that is going to be paying for the Olympics. So who knows how that is going to affect local struggles, knowing that money is going to the Olympics. What’s that going to mean for indigenous rights, what’s that going to mean for environmental struggles? The Olympics will affect all these different social movements: The landless peasants, the homeless workers movement – I can’t imagine that they won’t raise the Olympics at the very least as a rhetorical point in terms of the priorities of the government. And we’ll also see how the election this October might shape the Olympic project going forward. It’s best described right now as “a time in flux.”

Fusion: While the World Cup itself has been popular, FIFA as an organization received a lot of negative attention from activists and even the press before and during the tournament. Do you think we’ve reached a turning point as far as FIFA is perceived?

Zirin: The secretary general of FIFA, Jerome Valke, has said that this would have been a lot easier to do in Brazil if it was still a dictatorship. What they are looking for is a country that will do what they say and say what they do. That’s why I called my book Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, from a line in The Usual Suspects where a character said “the greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing us that he doesn’t exist.” That to me was FIFA. They always got away with everything. What’s amazing about Brazil is that the protestors have ripped FIFA from the shadows. FIFA is like an invisible man and they have thrown a blanket on him and now you see his form and everyone is now talking about him. The press is even talking about abolishing FIFA.

It’s a “holy shit” moment for people like myself who have been ringing the gong about FIFA for years and not getting anywhere.

This is what mass consciousness looks like when it breaks. It’s a pretty amazing thing we are witnessing. We are conditioned to think that change is not an option and you go along fighting for the change and then one day the dam breaks. We are seeing that now with FIFA consciousness, the dam has broken.