Sunday, 12 January 2014

Film: FIFA and the Perfect Con

It is said in Brazil that the nation's most popular sport is volleyball, as football is not considered a sport, but a religion. Indeed, though the game originates in England (I'm writing this now just a goalkeeper's kick away from the currently very soggy patch of grass in Cambridge where many of the rules were established) you cannot think Brazil without thinking football.

Later this year Brazil will host what promises to be one of the biggest parties the planet has ever seen: The 2014 FIFA World Cup. However, not all Brazilians are as enthused by the prospect as you might imagine. Several months ago, over a million people poured onto the streets in cities across the country to join anti-government demonstrations fuelled by anger over a rise in bus fares, inadequate public services and corruption. These protests soon developed anti-World Cup sentiments with 'FIFA, go home' being one of the more prominent take-home messages. Why? Because hosting a World Cup that meets FIFA's stringent demands is a huge drain on public resources. Too much of a drain, according to many.

A clear message from protesters. (Photo:

My film - working title: FIFA and the Perfect Con - will explore the contrast between Brazil's unwavering passion for football and the somewhat paradoxical, but no less justifiable, rise of World Cup resentment. It will tell the stories of people who feel neglected by the government - like those who've been forcefully evicted from their homes to clear land for construction projects (170,000 people according to one report) - and those who feel they have been brushed under the carpet as the country prepares itself for the beam of the brightest spotlight imaginable.

Sadly, it's not the first time we've seen a country that is plagued by poverty needlessly overspend in order to tick FIFA's boxes. An assortment of brand new stadiums were built across South Africa for the 2010 World Cup to satisfy football's international governing body and their requirements. This was despite the fact that, in some cases, upgrading existing stadia would have sufficed. One example of an unnecessary new-build was Cape Town Stadium: the focus of my 2013 film Cape Town's White Elephant.

Shooting a time-lapse shot of Cape Town's 'white elephant' for the film mentioned above.

In Brazil, six new stadiums are being constructed and though they stand a better chance of a prosperous post-tournament life, due to the greater popularity of football in Brazil than in South Africa, many Brazilians say the money could have been better spent. 'We want FIFA-standard hospitals and schools' is a common jibe seen inscribed on protesters' placards and graffitied on walls around cities nationwide.

The 'perfect con' in question is of course the World Cup itself. Countries - or more specifically, politicians - want it because of the immediate punch it packs on the global stage. They're willing to do anything to make it happen, but give little thought to the repercussions. Meanwhile, FIFA sit back and dictate; ensuring everything goes their way and nothing impedes their relentless quest to maximise revenue. They even implement strictly enforced 2km 'exclusion zones' around each stadium, inside which they have full control of what is sold and advertised (in accordance, of course, with their lucrative corporate partnerships).

Then, following the last blast of the referee's whistle, they walk away with the lion's share of profits which, as stipulated by themselves from the very beginning, is received entirely free of tax. The prolific Brazilian goal-scorer and 1994 World Cup winner Romário, now a politician, has been outspoken against FIFA, saying: "they come, set up the circus, they spend nothing and take everything".

They get away with it because, unfortunately, one cannot support the World Cup without supporting FIFA by unavoidable association and, for me at least, every fourth summer would be agonisingly dull without the damned thing.

England fans in 2010 before it all went horribly wrong. Bloemfontein, South Africa.
The last time the World Cup was contested on Brazilian soil it ended in disaster for the hosts. On July 16th 1950, Uruguay stunned the world by coming from behind to win the decisive match at Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã Stadium in front of 200,000 spectators. It's a day Brazilians have never forgotten. The goalkeeper who was ultimately blamed for the defeat suffered immeasurably for the rest of his days; was considered a curse; and died penniless. Shortly before his death he revealed the saddest moment of his life was when, twenty years after the event, a woman pointed at him in a supermarket and told her young son "he is the man that made all of Brazil cry".

That defeat made the World Cup a national obsession and Brazil went on to dominate future competitions to become arguably the greatest team of all time. Regardless of the success, however, a victory on home soil is what Brazilians crave, and sixty-four years later they have the chance to exorcise the demons of 1950. This time though, their young and inexperienced team will have to compete amidst a distracting backdrop of political tension and civil unrest. The World Cup is not expected to pass without incident, and to curtail any rebellion, a special riot force has been formed and armed with rubber bullets and tear gas bombs.

Rio's iconic Maracanã Stadium. (Photo: The Guardian)

When I heard of the growing voice among Brazilians calling for a boycott of the tournament, there was an element of surprise. However, after taking a moment to consider their position, I found it easy to understand why they're so discontented and why they believe FIFA has stolen the soul of football's biggest festival. It's thanks to FIFA that the World Cup continues to be less and less about the football and more and more about the money.

Nonetheless, football is still very much a lifeblood of this vibrant nation and regardless of the dubious motives of FIFA as they're pulling the strings, I find it hard to believe that, come June, Brazil won't be bouncing to its own samba-infused beat.