- Dave liked this T-shirt so much I gave it to him.
We just got done watching the World Cup! Some of my friends on the left have pointed to all the corruption and bullshit involved in the World Cup and suggested people should have boycotted it. You’ve written a book specifically about these issues, but you were here rooting for Argentina in the final. What’s your take?
First and foremost, the book is about the fact that masses of people in Brazil have made history over the past couple years. Because anywhere an Olympics or World Cup has been staged over the many decades, you’ve seen to varying degrees debt, displacement, and the militarization of public space.
And Brazil is really the first time, in World Cup history, that you’ve seen mass movements in advance of the Cup protesting these things. In so many of these other countries, people tend to let their governments get away with it because there’s so much propaganda and nationalism wrapped up in hosting these events. That’s what makes Brazil unique. You had the largest protests since the fall of the dictatorship. That’s what the book is about: explaining why this happened in Brazil when it didn’t happen in other places. That’s what I’m going to talk about at Elliott Bay as well. Brazil is the first of what I think is going to be many places that are going to resist—a new era of resistance against mega-events is on the horizon.
As for why we watch anyway? I’ll talk about that too—the importance of not just rejecting soccer out of whole cloth. There’s a lot of incredible majesty to these international sporting events. The problem is how they’re used. And I have to say, anything that pisses off Ann Coulter this much has some positive social value.
So, what did you find in Brazil?
I just got back from there.
You were actually there during the World Cup?
Yeah, I got to go to a few games. Also went to a lot of protests. I have a Brazilian-based publisher as well so they’ve printed up copies of the book in Portuguese.
When I was there, it was very sad. A lot of homes that I interviewed people in are now big piles of rubble. I went to protests where the Brazilian state said they would allow people to gather peaceably. I saw people try to gather peaceably and get gassed immediately by police. That’s happening actually right now as we’re talking, from what I’m seeing. It’s gas first, ask questions later.
And I saw more nationalism around the World Cup when I came back to the United States than I saw in Brazil. I think we’ve been fed a very false picture by the US media as to what’s happening there. First of all, there’s a false narrative that no one’s protesting because everyone’s just happy about the World Cup. That’s not true. People are protesting, but in smaller numbers, and the numbers are smaller because seems like every square inch of public space is totally militarized. And the second part of that is, for example, we see these shots of thousands of people in Copa Cabana Beach, and people are assuming those are Brazilians—when that beach is like a tourist mecca. Not just regionally, but from all across Europe, Australia, the United States. Everyone’s flocking to Copa Cabana beach, but when you watch games in bars or in favelas, like I did, you’d see a lot of interest in the games. But in one of those bars half the people were rooting for Mexico. And that’s a tradition in Brazil too—you don’t root for the national team if you feel like the government is doing you dirty.
How much interaction was there between protesters and all these tourists? I have some friends who went down there and I didn’t hear much from them about encountering protests or tear gas. Were these movements able to have much impact on the holding of the games themselves, or was it like two separate worlds?
Well, I think the protests did a lot of good over the past year for some of the people in the favelas who would have otherwise been displaced and especially, some of the workers got raises through either striking or threatening to strike. The Homeless Workers Movement got promises of public housing to be built. All of that’s very positive. Other sectors of society that tried to protest, not so much—indigenous people are still losing their land and the environmentalists are getting absolutely hosed by the Workers Party government.
You’re saying they were able to wrest some concessions from the state?
There was a lot of carrot and a lot of stick on display at all times. Because the government was under a lot of pressure to get this done. The message was sent with each protest that if you organized yourself effectively, you could win.
As far as during the events themselves, there were several protests when I was there, where they marched by the hundreds through fan-fests and onto Copa Cabana beach as a way to be the most visible to the media. Those tended to not be effective because the police would cordon them off immediately. They would beat them and send them on their way, and as soon as they got protesters in an enclosed space, they would bring out the pepper spray.
Sounds like Occupy.
It was very similar to Occupy. It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Giuliani Partners was one of the partners of the Brazilian police. The other part of the protests that didn’t get much publicity is, the Brazilian military occupied several favelas throughout the country, particularly in Rio and Sao Paulo. A couple of times, over the past several weeks, young children have died after being shot by the police—usually innocent bystanders to gunfights of people resisting military occupation. And we wouldn’t call those World Cup protests, because they weren’t explicitly against FIFA, but people were protesting police brutality during the World Cup, a police brutality that would not have existed without the Cup.
Many of us in the US, I think, view the protesters as a small, fringe group, not really representing the majority of Brazilians. And not only that, we haven’t heard much of anything from the athletes about any problems with FIFA or with the World Cup. I have to imagine that these protests will be more successful once they get to that critical mass point where you start to see more athletes speaking out. And I think you’ve talked about one example of this… was it Romario?
Romario, who was the star in the 1994 World Cup team, he’s now a politician and he said FIFA was committing the greatest robbery in the history of the planet. But I mean, last year in the midst of the Confederations Cup, a bunch of the active players said things. That shows you how big the protests were. You had striking teachers surrounding the team bus and pelting it with fruit while the players are inside. There were millions in the streets, it was unavoidable. You had plumes of tear gas stinging the eyes of people in the stadiums. You really couldn’t get around it.
So what did you make of Brazil being knocked out of the World Cup by Germany so brutally? Was that some kind of cosmic justice and what did people who were protesting in Brazil make of that?
A lot of people said to me to resist seeing this as some sort of karma against Brazil, because if it was karma, then the surveillance industry and the armaments industry and the construction industry and the real estate industry would have comeuppance. That wasn’t about these industries. They’re getting paid through this. For them, the World Cup has been a staggering success. The people who are really hurt by this are of course the die-hard fans, who are devastated.
But from a pure soccer standpoint, I wish there was a word to describe being utterly shocked, but not surprised. That might sound counterintuitive, but that was the main response. It was kind of like, I can’t believe we lost 7-1, and then it’s like, of course we lost. We really weren’t very good. We didn’t have Neymar or Silva. The style of play was horrendous. We were outclassed in our two previous games and somehow won.
I’ll tell you, though, some of the activists down there were pretty convinced Brazil was going to get to the final—not because they thought Brazil was any good, but because they just thought the fix would be in. I’ll never forget, one of them said to me, a team is going to have to outclass the shit out of Brazil to actually win. I thought about that when Germany won, because that is what happened. Brazil were never going to lose a 2-1 game because the refs had their finger on the scale. They could lose by not having their best players and not showing up for much of the first half, though.
That’s how I felt. I was surprised there were so many goals, one after the other, but at the same time, there seemed to be something spiritually lacking about the team. They were scraping through.
And I talk in the book about how, because of the incredible financial power of the European leagues, Brazilian soccer has become just another commodity for export, which has been Brazil’s historic relationship with Europe and the United States. They produce the raw goods and then they’re industrially processed elsewhere. Soccer has effectively joined the ranks of coffee, sugar, gold, and rubber.
So looking forward to 2018 and 2022…
2018, Russia; 2022, Qatar. A lot of love for autocratic states from FIFA there. Its going to be interesting, particularly in Russia, to see if demonstrations can blossom at all. But one thing is certain: There’s a discussion about FIFA and corruption the likes of which we certainly haven’t seen in my lifetime. And I think that discussion is going to keep growing. The scandals keep coming out. They don’t get a lot of coverage. But things like Cameroon match fixing—match fixing in the World Cup—the not paying of Guinean players, the guy who was basically selling World Cup tickets on the black market who was connected to the hospitality department of FIFA. I mean, all of these scandals, it’s like the NCAA in the United States. They might seem like pinpricks but after a while it starts to buckle under the weight of its own corruption.
This World Cup actually set some records, as I understand it, in terms of American viewership and people really being wrapped up in the US team’s progress. What do you think the most constructive way for American soccer fans is to engage with the World Cup and with FIFA?
Yeah, it was like nothing we’d ever seen before in the history of US soccer. Great question. I think mainly just staying aware of what’s happening is really important. I’m excited I’m going to my first Sounders game tonight, because we’ve seen in some countries that fan clubs can take on a political dimension if they feel like this thing that they love is under threat. And make no mistake, the future of international soccer is under threat by FIFA. The very integrity of it. Will fan clubs mobilize themselves if it actually looks that dire? I’ve interviewed people before who were in the Egyptian fan clubs that were a major part of Tahrir Square and kicking Mubarak out of power. I’m not saying I think Sounders fans are going to occupy Pioneer Square [laughs]. But I am really curious about how things are going to develop.