The build-up to the World Cup quarterfinal between France and Germany at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium later today has already resurrected one of the most thuggish scenes witnessed in the sport’s premier tournament: West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher bulldozing the France midfielder Patrick Battiston in the 1982 semifinal at Seville’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium.
Battiston suffered damaged vertebrae, three cracked ribs and two broken teeth. Schumacher went unpunished – going on to save a penalty that may have turned the match towards the French, who eventually lost 2-1.
France captain Michel Platini later said that he thought his teammate was dead: “He had no pulse. He looked so pale.”
It was a violence that is difficult to distinguish from the events in contemporary Brazilian society, particularly if we are to draw the connection between politics and the manner in which one sets out a football team’s defensive system or orders the control of possession in midfield – or even the state of the world’s most popular game, which is tainted with allegations of match-fixing at this World Cup and improprieties in how Fifa runs the game.
Slovenian philosopher-crank Slavoj Žižek notes the objective and systematic violence that sporting mega-events generate – from Beijing to South Africa – as militarised states wage war on their citizens in the name of progress, development, economic benefits and the Corinthian spirit of sports.
In Brazil, these include the evictions of an estimated 250 000 people from their homes for World Cup infrastructure projects, the cleansing of host cities’ streets of tens of thousands of homeless people and street vendors, and the deaths of eight construction workers as the host nation sped towards completing their stadiums in time for the World Cup kick-off.
And there are also the estimated two dead and 19 injured after an incomplete bridge crashed down on to a public bus in Belo Horizonte on Thursday. The bridge, which is about 3km from the Mineirão stadium that will host a World Cup semifinal next week, is one of several infrastructure projects the Brazilian government ran out of time on and decided to deal with afterwards.
Such stories aren’t uncommon in Brazil. Less than a month before the World Cup kicked off on June 12, the Tancredo Neves International Airport in Belo Horizonte still had air ducts oozing out of its ceiling like the intestines of a disemboweled Game of Thrones character and temporary walls strategically hiding the incomplete workmanship.
“They’ve decided to stop the work completely – only yesterday,” said the taxi driver while winding his way into the city made up mostly of warm, generous people only too keen to rustle up an impromptu Samba session.
“The government is just going to cover up what they can and do the rest after the World Cup – we’ don’t have the time,” he said, adding that, like most of the airports developed for the World Cup, Belo Horizonte’s will be privatised after the global showpiece.
The hubris of developing countries hosting sporting mega-events is as painful – and deadly – as Icarus crashing to the ground after flying too close to the sun.
The intangible benefits for South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup have yet to be felt by South Africans, but the bullets against protesters, the political assassinations and the trauma of forced removals has been.
Fifa certainly felt the $3.7-billion in profit it removed from the country − tax-free.
Brazilian anger over World Cup expenditure has stemmed mainly from false promises. When the country was awarded the World Cup, the assurance from Ricardo Teixeira, then president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, was that stadiums would be built or refurbished using money from the private sector.
Teixeira has long since resigned under a cloud of allegations of fraud and mismanagement. The World Cup infrastructure has come from public coffers to the tune of more than $4 billion. And Fifa projects a 66% increase in profit from the previous World Cup.
At a gathering of Brazilian social movements and “people affected by the World Cup” in Belo Horizonte in May, Raul, an activist from Rio, said: “We have one of the most unequal societies in the world. We want better education, we want better and cheaper public transport, and we want to be treated as equals and not as servants to the rich because of the colour of our skin. Instead of dignity, our government has given us stadiums that will never be used.”
Despite the vicious imagery of 1982, Platini remembers the Germany match as his “most beautiful”: “What happened in those two hours encapsulated all the sentiments of life itself. No film or play could ever recapture so many contradictions and emotions. It was complete − so strong. It was fabulous.”
The youthful German side that France – renewed after the cynicism and player rebellion in South Africa – take on in Rio is far removed from the 1982 team that the Guardian described as “trying to exceed the most extreme German stereotype. They were imbued, individually and collectively, with the most magnificently preposterous arrogance in the history of the entire known universe.”
They play with a contagious verve and joy that has infused this tournament on the pitch: from the insouciant magnificence of Colombia’s James Rodríguez to the spider-like exploits of Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
There has been beauty in football, but very little in the circumstances of the surrounding societies in Brazil.
And, contrary to the common trend, it has been Brazil, who take on the Colombians in today’s other semifinal, who have been winning ugly, with stuttering, nerve-wracking performances that are more workhorse than thoroughbred.
With too many defensive midfielders, despite playing at home, and a default setting of pragmatic “modernism” that belies a glorious footballing heritage, this Seleção is anathema to a mixed, inventive Brazil where capoeira meets samba on the pitch.
Rather, it is a team that represents the conservatism and cynical commercialism being grasped by an elite who will benefit from the tournament through construction contracts and access to high-priced tickets.
The deaths in Belo Horizonte on Thursday could have been avoided. It was a violence perpetrated by the state that, combined with a modern Brazilian team playing futbol-force rather than futbol-arte, emphasises author Simon Kuper’s observation in Football Against the Enemy that “Brazilians are getting it the wrong way around: modern football and backward politics”.