The World Cup: three simple words that instantly instil excitement in people all over the world. Whether young or old, male or female, hard-core football fans or those of us who have their 10 year old England shirt hung up patriotically in the wardrobe but are yet to learn the offside rule, everybody is struck down with inevitable football fever.
Even for me, a reluctant fan, the buzz that the tournament brings every four years is tangible, as 31 nations root for their home team. It is no longer purely about patriotism and a healthy competitiveness; it is about social cohesion on an international level.
But does football really have the power to unite? Or is it just a façade shielding us from harsh social realities?
I am not saying that the World Cup is a bad thing, not at all. I just think that we blind ourselves on purpose, unwilling to let anything ruin these 30 days of competition and taint the winning country’s victory with news of widespread poverty, drug-trafficking and violence. Just like when we turn off the television to distressing news reports; we pretend that everything is hunky-dory and brandish our scarves fanatically when Rooney scores yet another goal. However, ever since Brazil won the FIFA bid to host the Cup in 2014, the gravity of its social crisis has really hit home.
In 2008, Brazil launched a ‘pacification’ programme which aimed to rid the country’s major cities of mounting crime, mainly drug-related. However, these operations have been less than peaceful. For example, in April of this year it was reported that the Brazilian police force stormed a favela, a type of shanty-town close to the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro with the sole intention of kicking its inhabitants, a group of squatters, out.
An unpleasant string of events followed, including arson attacks, the throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails, looting, tear gas, the use of rubber bullets and, unsurprisingly, many injuries. Over the past five years, cases like this one have been a regular occurrence and, at times, have even resulted in death.
In Rocinha, the country’s largest slum, the police who led the pacification programmes there are undergoing questioning after one of its residents disappeared, presumed dead, after allegations of torture were raised against them. It therefore begs the question: are these actions really justified?
On the one hand, the principal reason behind these bold slum clear-up missions is understandable– to tackle the selling and consumption of drugs within many Brazilian favelas, where gangs are notorious. Consequently, police efforts to control the situation, whether this means using violence or not, is defensible, considering that exposure to this ugly side of Brazil could put foreigners in danger.
Yet, the cynical side of me is inclined to believe that the hosting of the World Cup is nothing more than a pretext. It is an excuse to aggressively dislodge some of the poorest people from their homes in some of the most impoverished areas in Brazil. People are going to support this decision globally because, you know, it is the World Cup and nothing will get in the way between football and its fans.
If Brazil had not been chosen as a host and did not have international eyes upon them, would the government have really done anything about these problems in the near future? Or would they have continued to turn a blind eye? Essentially, livelihoods are being destroyed so that the Brazilian government can have their fifteen minutes of fame, while those who they should really be supporting are being hidden away.
Latin America is a beautiful part of the world, attributable to its rich, colourful culture and stunning natural attractions. Nevertheless, the unfortunate truth is that the economic disparity affecting the entire continent is really holding it back.
The contrast between the rich and the poor is stark, as exemplified by the juxtaposition between favelas and multi-million pound sporting complexes. Before anything else, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Yes, entrenched poverty, and the dangerous world of drug trafficking that comes with it, needs to be dealt with and urgently, although with sensitivity.
After all of the football hype comes to an end in the summer and the victor country is crowned for another four years, it will not mark the end of Brazil’s problems. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro is going to be the proud host of the Olympic Games, which are arguably even more of a bigger deal. Again, billions of pounds will be invested into flashy, new complexes, coupled with similar pacification operations, while the most needy, Brazil’s own people, will be left waiting for aid. And then they will wait some more.