The World Cup: Panem et Circenses et Transit (Killjoy Alert!)

Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the Murphy Institute.

The World Cup is upon us! All praise be to FIFA! In less than a week, millions of people worldwide will tune into what promises to be the largest global bread and circus event of the year. Indeed, an estimated half a million fans will descend on Brazil itself — no doubt, to partake in the spectacle first hand. As is now common with these mega events, the World Cup boasts its own theme song — a predictably forgettable anthem by J-Lo and Pitbull called “We Are One (Ole Ola).” It will also have its own cuddly mascot — Fuleco, an anime-inspired “three-banded Armadillo.” Reportedly, Fuleco is modeled on an endangered species native to Brazil.

With all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, the World Cup is a big deal. For the host nation, the finances alone are absurd. Since “winning” the right to host the tournament seven years ago, Brazil has spent $11.3 billion on Cup related infrastructure projects. Many of these projects — despite the desperate need for hospitals and better transit — have been limited to new arenas and new stadiums. An additional $800 million has been spent on security alone as roughly 170,000 security personnel have been dispatched across the country to regulate crowds and secure arenas. “Ordem without Progresso,” as Brazilians might say.

Beyond the absurdity of its finances, the World Cup, above all else, is a cultural event. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA estimated that a total of 3.2 billion people tuned in — even if only for a minute. This year — with the tourney finally returning to its adopted homeland — viewership is predicted to be even higher. “El Jogo Bonito” indeed!

Part of the World Cup’s attraction is clear: for one month, 32 teams will battle for national honor and pride. Each victory and each defeat will undoubtedly have its own subtext. Argentina and England will refight the Falkland War, Ghana and Senegal will finally stick it to their once colonial masters, and debtor nations will do battle with their creditors. For one month, as it were, real conflicts will be sublimated by theater and real struggle will be replaced by pantomime.

Of course, there is no absence of real conflict in the world, and no less so in Brazil itself. Just this week, a prolonged transit strike in Sao Paolo quickly evolved into a full scale mass protest. Just as contractors were putting the final touches on any one of Brazil’s gleaming new arenas, Sao Paolo’s subway workers left their posts and took to streets to demand a 12% wage hike. For the last week, traffic has been at a standstill. Perhaps the only segment of the population still mobile is Sao Paolo’s uber rich, who — at least since the mid 1990s — have come to rely on private helicopters to avoid the traffic delays and the rabble below. Only several months earlier, teachers in Rio de Janeiro took to the streets to demand much the same thing — higher compensation. For Brazil’s elites, the timing couldn’t be any worse. Think of the lost tourist revenue!

Of course, there is a curious irony to this entire fiasco. As with most work stoppages, the strikes that have recently gripped Brazil have been clear in their purpose. Namely, their purpose has been to halt the gears of production and to draw attention to the living standards of those who keep such gears in motion. Given that the Brazilian government has spent the last seven years subsidizing a one-time mega event at the expense its poor, this message is particularly important. What is ironic is that the World Cup itself may, in the long run, be far more damaging to global productivity than any single transit strike could ever hope to be.

In 2010, the Center for Economics and Business research projected the cost of lost productivity, due to employees taking a break to check on scores, at a cool $4.8 billion worldwide. In 2010, Lizbeth Toscana of the Manpower corporation (quoted by Courtney Knapp) estimated that 70% of Mexican workers would watch the games while at work — leading to a 20% loss in domestic productivity. Soccer related absenteeism was only part of it. With Mexican workers live streaming games during work, the strain on telecommunication networks and bandwidth was predicted to be costly. This year, the estimates of lost productivity in the UK are already out. Over the course of the tournament the Employment Law Advisory Services (ELAS) estimates that the UK stands to lose close to $6 billion. The cause: thousands of workers who “intend to pretend they are ill so they can watch key matches” in the comfort of their own home.

These numbers are startling, but rarely do they ever raise more than a bemused eyebrow. They certainly do not raise the same alarm bells that follow even the most minor of strikes or sickouts. As evidence, simply look to the fulminations that followed the most recent sickout of MUNI workers in San Francisco. If only such workers had been soccer fans, no one would have cared!

This all leads me to the following conclusion: perhaps it’s time for workers around the world to claim the entire month starting this Thursday as yet another worker holiday. Why keep up appearances? In the UK, at least, the numbers suggest that the entire month will be a wash in terms of productivity anyway. With J-Lo, Pitbull and Fuleco at its helm, the World Cup will remain the quintessential bread and circus event it has always been. It will sublimate real conflict with theater and real struggle with pantomime. For the millions of Brazilians who have been forced to watch their government erect new stadiums next to crumbling hospitals, the entire month, no doubt, will be deeply frustrating.

With that said, there may be a silver lining. At least from the outside, the World Cup increasingly resembles something of an inchoate global sickout. And perhaps here is its saving grace. If one must watch the World Cup, perhaps one should do so precisely by treating it like the worker holiday it ought to be — namely, by following the example of Sao Paolo’s subway workers and STAYING HOME — or, better yet, by taking to the streets! That, at least, is what I hope to do. BTW, GO GHANA!

Photo by Edward Zulawski via flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND).