When the first World Cup 2014 match kicks off Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, an estimated 1 billion people around the world will be watching. Billions more are expected to tune in for rest of the matches in new or refurbished stadiums in Rio de Janeiro and other cities around the country on which the government spent more than the equivalent of U.S. $11 billion.
That’s an astonishing amount of money, even for a growing economic power like Brazil. And for many in this South American country with a long love affair with fútbol, not to mention more than its share of World Cup victories, it’s just too much.
The ballooning cost of the infrastructure that will be hardly used by Brazilians has become the ignition point for a seething discontent throughout the country over corruption and lack of spending on public services. The protests began about a year ago and in the last few days have been reaching a new pitch with anti-government demonstrations, strikes and poverty activists taking their message to social media.
Brazilian officials reasoned that the stadiums can be used for the 2016 Olympic Games planned for this country, despite the data from the site of the last World Cup in South Africa that say all the hoped-for economic benefits didn’t materialize. They can also point to the jobs the project brings in, plus the economic boost from an influx of millions of tourist from around the world paying for hotel, transportation, food, fun and souvenirs.
The economy is improving in Brazil, at least, according to World Bank data, and poverty rates have dropped significantly in recent years, from 24 percent in 2007 to 17 percent in 2012.
But tell that to the vast majority who feel the economic boom is leaving them behind and only widening the gap between rich and poor, according to a Pew Global survey released last week.
It’s a message that is resonating across the globe.
Last week, a Twitter question from a Colombian radio station – #Novoyabrasilporque … (I’m not going to Brazil because … ) – turned into an impromptu forum for poverty activists to connect with soccer fans around the world to show the contrast between the gleaming new World Cup stadiums and the country’s persistently grinding poverty. It went viral.
Though there are plenty of tweeted laments about not being able to afford the travel or having to study, the trending hashtag includes commentary and graphic photos on the growing disparity between the 1 percent and the other 7 billion of us – a good percentage of whom will watch at least one match. Here’s just one example: “this system transforms fútbol into a spectacular even where the corporations win while the people lose.”
Call it Occupy Brazil, or the Portuguese equivalent.
It’s worth noting that no one is bashing soccer itself. This is Brazil, after all, home of the greatest player ever, Pelé. The animosity is for the power structure, and offers an opportunity for fans around the world to chew over this bigger question while watching their team try to score: Who really wins when big sporting events come to town?