26 April 2013

Hunting White Parrots

In an article entitled “White Elephant Hunting” published in the New York Times Goal Blog today, we are presented with a number of fallacies that justify the massive public outlay on stadiums that will be used for the World Cup. The author identifies White Elephants in Manaus, Brasilia, Natal and Cuiabá, citing the Federal Deputy Romario`s criticisms of the stadia but then quickly saying that Romario gets it wrong because:

1. He doesn`t understand Brazilian history. The northeast has traditionally been the poorest region of Brazil and merits the investment in World Cup associated infrastructure projects (citing Fortaleza`s metro extension). 
2. Even though some of these investments were planned before the World Cup, the event is giving a push to completion. 
3. Brazil is huge, so it makes sense to include cities like Manaus and Cuiabá (which is erroneously identified as having a larger population than Atlanta) in order to balance the distribution of the tournament`s investments.

The challenge, the article goes on, is how to make the stadiums useful after the tournament. The felicitous solution? Privatize the stadiums and have monster truck shows, religious gatherings, football matches, and international artists. Shakira will be making a tour of Brazil every six months is she is to play to crowds in all of these White Elephants. Basically, the idea is to force the public to pay for stadiums they cannot afford and at the expense of other public investment,  privatize them, and then charge them top R$ to go to events at high-tech multi-use arenas every week.

The example of the Fonte Nova is a classic piece of data omission. The author tells us that Freddy Adu`s (a recently transferred US player) Bahia is one of the best supported teams in Brazil, and this is true, but their average attendance last year was 18,981. The capacity of the Novo Fonte Nova is 50,000 and will need “at least 33 well-attended football games a year to make it economically viable”. What is the definition of a well-attended football match? How will the average attendances of 2,000 in Cuiabá help to pay for the debt servicing on the stadium? The author thinks that stadiums could be filled by reducing ticket prices, yet as I have demonstrated here repeatedly, the tendency in all of Brazilian football is the increase of tickets to games and even the government is worried about a gentrification process, so how or why does the author think that clubs will look for ways to reduce ticket prices? I agree that prices should be reduced but the political economy of Brazilian football is headed in the opposite direction.

These kind of omissions are a familiar type of journalism associated with these events that only want to tell the “happy story” of global sport, ignoring the economic and social realities in order to circle back in the line at the kool-aid punch bowl. The following quote from the article is typical of such reporting and does nothing to advance the debate, nor to discuss honestly the real problems associated with the preparations and hosting of the event: “Nevertheless, amid talk of delays and spiraling costs, the 2014 World Cup will at least be an event for all Brazil. In a country where the north-south cultural and economic divide is so deeply engrained, that at least is something to celebrate” It is not merely talk of spiraling costs, but a massive public outlay that will have real consequences once the fans and reporters have moved on to the next host. How is hosting an event in 12 cities something for all Brazil? What about Belém? Why Curitiba? What does all Brazil mean socially when tickets for the World Cup have started to be sold at over $500?

The article`s closing argument has some kind of vague emotional appeal that FIFA must love as their product is the passion for the game and not the economic or social realities of their event: “Back when I was a young man, I never dreamed I’d see the World Cup here,” said Brasilino Almeida, an elderly Salvador construction worker who helped build both the original Fonte Nova stadium in 1950, and, 60 years later, its modern replacement. It is a sentiment that will be echoed in Cuiabá, Manaus and beyond.” Let’s say this person did work on the original stadium construction in 1950. Assuming 13 as the minimum age to lift a hammer on a northeastern worksite in 1950, this man now at least 76 years old – and he is still working on a construction site! [ed: to clarify, I never doubted the existence of this man, but find it absurd that at both ends of his life, no labor laws are being respected. Why is he still anywhere near a construction site at 76? Trotting out a old man to marvel at the wonders that hundreds of millions of mis-managed dollars can produce hardly qualifies as a strong argument for what is happening with the World Cup]. 

In sum, the article suggests that the Brazilian World Cup is rumored to be expensive, there may be some massive White Elephants roaming the land, we can see them and have them in our sights, but let`s not kill them because they will make us feel good for the 360 minutes of football (in Manaus, Cuiaba and Natal) that we won`t be able to afford to see in person. All Brazilian cities merit federal investment in infrastructure but we know that the projects associated with the World Cup were poorly planned, hastily executed (if at all) and may not serve the long-term needs of the cities or the country. There is no redress (as the author suggests) of historically-situated cultural or economic divides in World Cup investment, especially when we take into consideration the astronomical sums being invested in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.

The author is keen to ignore the very criticisms that he identifies at the beginning of the article in order to sell the World Cup to an international audience. This article does not attempt to kill White Elephants, but to make them into bichos de estimação (pets).


Peter said...

Great critique of mainstream U.S. media's take on this important issue. What is happening in Brazil is, of course, very similar to what took place in South Africa 2010. For one specific example (there are more), read this:


Christopher Gaffney said...

Thanks Peter. If only the knowledge sharing networks between researchers and activists were as fluid and reproductive as those of FIFA and their "partners", we might have more success in stopping these creatures from being born. It will be an interesting post-mortem as we assess and compare Brazil 14 and SA 10...


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