When Terry Eagleton wrote that ‘football offers its followers beauty, drama, conflict, liturgy, carnival and the odd spot of tragedy’ he was reflecting, above all, on the place of the sport in working-class cultural life in Britain. He wrote about the way that capitalism has generated carnival and entertainment as a distraction for people who might otherwise be tempted to question the established social order. His point is that what was once simply a game played by men at the end of a long working day is now intimately implicated in politics and driven by demands for profit. Football is, above all, a business, the purpose of which is to generate money for people who are already obscenely wealthy.
I was reminded of Eagleton’s comments when I read about the two Brazilian workers who died on 14 December at the construction site of what will be a World Cup football stadium in Manaus, Brazil. Employment conditions are appalling for workers and there are no rest days. The deaths of Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, aged just 22, and Jose Antonio da Silva Nascimento, aged 49, come less than a month after two workers were killed in the Sao Paulo Stadium, where the opening ceremony for the 2014 World Cup will take place.
When Eagleton talked of the tragedy of football he was not thinking about the price being paid by workers in Brazil for commodified forms of global entertainment. But as football has become another fixture in the global economy, so the tragedies associated with it have inevitably become transnational in scope.
If these deaths tell us something about football as a facet of capitalism, they are also revealing with regard to the challenges of international development today. Traditionally, questions about the unequal distribution of global power and the place of sovereignty have been the crux of development debates.
Development has been concerned centrally with how to build post-colonial states that can establish authority and legitimacy internally, while winning the respect of other states in the international system. But what has sometimes been lost in these debates is the responsibility that state élites have in the Global South to reach a just settlement domestically, as well as calling for a new global pact of equality between states.
These days Brazil is often seen as a model for the rest of the Global South. Now the sixth-largest economy in the world, Brazil is fêted as a ‘rising power’ and its voice is increasingly prominent in international fora, from trade to the environment. Despite the major shifts in regimes in Brazil, from military to civilian, from dictatorship to democracy, Brazilian governments have consistently sought to build state capacity and, at the same time, to project the country as a regional and world leader. Manaus, the Amazonian city where the latest deaths have taken place, has a special place in the history of Brazilian attempts at global greatness. The centre of the rubber boom in the late nineteenth century, Manaus was the site of the Amazon Theatre, built to celebrate the country’s integration into the global economy through rubber exports. With the collapse of the rubber boom, the city and the theatre fell into a state of dilapidation and disrepair, only to be resurrected recently as a major tourist destination.
But behind the image of Brazil as a leading member of the developing BRICS economies, there has always been a darker side to the Brazilian miracle. The Brazilian economy has always depended on low levels of independent unionism and poor pay for local workers, whether in agriculture, industry or the growing service and entertainment sectors. Despite recent spending on welfare under Presidents Lula and Roussouff, the Brazilian economic model is still one of super-exploitation of its most vulnerable citizens.
Jean Grugel is Professor of International Development at Sheffield University in Britain.
First published at New Internationalist.