The 2014 World Cup is not only a jamboree for the world’s premier national football teams, but it is also a showpiece for the repressive power of the state. In conjunction with the deployment of more than 170 000 of the country’s security forces , stadiums will be patrolled by Israeli-made drones, US-manufactured surveillance robots and officers equipped with facial recognition glasses reporting back to surveillance centres. Brazilian forces have also received training from the mercenary firm Blackwater / Academi, notorious for its violence against Iraqis during the US occupation. In April 2013, the Paramount Group, a South African arms manufacturer, announced that it had sold “hand grenade attack protected” armoured vehicles to the state government of Rio de Janeiro for service at the World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

This kind of display is not unique to Brazil. Mega sporting events, and particularly the World Cup and the Olympics, have become increasingly fortified and policed with each new tournament. The 2010 World Cup saw the largest internal deployment of police and military forces in South African history, while the London Olympics in 2012 had more British soldiers active than in the warzone of Afghanistan. Host governments and sporting bodies claim these expensive displays are of critical importance in protecting spectators from terrorist attacks and street crime. But the subtext of this concern with security is often more to do with controlling groups that may tarnish the ‘image’ of the event, and mega events have been accompanied by everything from forced removals of the urban poor to greater restrictions on political dissent. In 2014, this subtext has become overt with media coverage focusing on how organisers are trying to contain the antagonistic threat posed by the Brazilian public.

Last year, anger over spending on the World Cup and the Olympics spilled over in the form of massive protests throughout the country. But even prior to the protests, Brazilian authorities embarked on a series of campaigns to enforce social compliance. Most notably, this has seen the rollout of “pacifying police units” in Rio de Janeiro favelas. As noted on Wikileaks, the sort of “pacification” was similar to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as the authorities occupied favelas by force with the stated aim of removing drug gangs and re-establishing state control. But the programme has been intensely controversial. Opponents say gang rule has been replaced by police terror and killings. As Brazilian scholar Sebastian Saborio argues, the choice of the military term “pacification” reveals what the state normally tries to hide: that the programme is an “act of warfare, dressed up as peace”, and aimed at the ghettos.

Wherever they are held, mega events function as what urban theorist Stephen Graham calls an exaggerated version of wider trends in society: “growing corporate power, the rise of ‘homeland security’ and the shift towards much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles”.  Four years ago, South African cities experienced this first-hand with the temporary rollout of a R1.5 billion World Cup security apparatus (such as Casspirs around stadiums and police in new French-made body armour) that dissipated as soon as the tourists left. At the time, this expenditure was explained by the government, and reiterated by biddable media and academics, as building towards a socially beneficial crime prevention “legacy”. But the most visible legacy has been the variety of less than lethal crowd-suppression equipment purchased for 2010, which provide a supporting infrastructure to the SAPS’s increasingly murderous response to municipal protests.

The operation in South Africa came after more than a decade of major sporting events and political summits throughout the world being organised with the creation of temporary ‘green zones’ in host cities, including everything from fences to airspace restrictions patrolled by fighter jets. After the Battle of Seattle in 1999, where militant street protests took the World Trade Organisation meeting by surprise, de facto states of emergency have been normalised whenever major global events are held. This process was further entrenched by post 9-11 panics about terrorism, which legitimated the adoption of almost any legal or spatial restriction in the name of ‘security’. But the policing of sporting events and summits have different emphases. Operations at political meetings are intended to intimidate anyone who may threaten the comfort of the global ruling class, while sporting events see extreme displays of power mobilised to support tourism and public spectacle. But rather than being a practical response to a suddenly more dangerous world, the rollout of these policing spectacles is underpinned by the material and political interests of sporting bodies, commercial advertisers and host governments.

In the case of the World Cup, the dominant pecuniary interest is that of Fifa, whose kleptocratic and oligarchic tendencies are well documented. Although Fifa is registered as a nonprofit organisation in Switzerland, the country uses its ownership of the World Cup brand to rake in billions from corporate advertisers eager to capitalise on access to the advertising opportunities offered by the event. Fifa’s business model would exceed even Ayn Rand’s wildest dreams: a nonprofit that is run along corporate lines, it is granted tax and legal exemption in host countries, and extracts billions in profit before leaving for the next event. Above all, Fifa has the gall to present its publicly funded spectacle as some kind of amazing gift that it bestows upon host nations. The subsiding of Fifa’s profit bonanza is explicit in the security arrangements host countries have to sign as a precondition for bidding. Alongside providing close-protection blue light services for Fifa delegates, host states use police power to ensure that the reputations of Fifa and corporate advertisers are not associated with urban crime or unrest. This also extends to the aggressive policing of ‘ambush marketing’ as Fifa belligerently pursues any unauthorised attempts to capitalise on the World Cup brand. During 2010, special courts handed out draconian sentences for unlicensed ticket sales and Fifa lawyers crowed about showing “no mercy” to infringers. Citizens were even encouraged to look for the enemy within, with a fact sheet distributed in Cape Town warning: “More often, if you think that something you are planning may be considered ambush marketing, it probably is”.

While this is often presented as Fifa tyrannically overriding the sovereignty of states, in reality these measures are supported by local elites as the price of winning hosting rights. At a symbolic level, the scale of mega events, from the stadiums to the huge security displays, are intended to signal the wealth and prestige of host states, particularly significant in the case of aspirant Southern powers like South Africa and Brazil. The funds leveraged by mega events enable various state agencies to rapidly purchase equipment and upgrade their capacities. For example, what President Jacob Zuma called the 2010 “war chest” was used to purchase new helicopters and surveillance posts for the SAPS, as well as extensive security upgrades at airports. Expensive infrastructural projects like the Gautrain were fast-tracked ahead of the tournament. The promotion of mega events as times of festival and national unity also serve a more insidious political goal of supressing social antagonism in the name of sport. During 2010,officials promised to show “zero tolerance” to unauthorised protests and put pressure on urban authorities to withhold permits for marches and gatherings (thereby making them illegal). This was accompanied by the interminable “Feel it, it is here” rhetoric, which fabricated a false image of social cohesion.

French radical Guy Debord observed that “by means of spectacle, the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise. The spectacle is the self-portrait of power.” Based on the image conveyed by mega events, it would seem that the self-portrait of power today is of spectatorship and branding in the designated areas, with cordons of masked soldiers and robots standing ready to contain the poor and disgruntled. But global events since the last World Cup indicate that the spectacle may be more tenuous than it appears. We now live in age of riots, insurrections and occupations in cities across the world sparked of by the kind of power and inequality typified by organisations like Fifa and defended by their willing governmental partners. According to the Wu Ming Foundation, a collective of authors from Italy, mass demonstrations at political summits in the past decade relied on a misleading metaphor of the siege: “You can’t besiege a power that’s everywhere and whose main manifestation is a constant flow of electrons from stock exchange to stock exchange … We were mistaking the powers formal ceremonies for the power itself.”

But public takeovers of urban spaces in the past few years – from Tahrir Square in Cairo and Gezi Park in Istanbul to Occupy Wall Street – indicate a new form of protest, organised and amplified through the internet, and capable of challenging the repressive machinery of the state directly. In the days leading up the opening ceremony, Brazil saw a wave of strikes and demonstrations mobilised in opposition to the tournament, while news and social media were abuzz with images of police using tear gas and protesters pushing back. If further demonstrations flare up, this World Cup may well be remembered less for the events on the pitch than the events on the streets.


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