University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

World Cup 2014: Brazils Newest Stadiums Recall the Legacy of Its First

World Cup 2014: Brazils Newest Stadiums Recall the Legacy of Its First
Gregg Bocketti | June 2014

Brazilian critics of the 2014 World Cup have drawn attention to what they perceive as missteps and corruption in the tournament’s planning and execution.  Their message has resonated widely among their fellow citizens, as seen in the steadily declining support for the tournament among Brazilians – Datafolha, for example, finding only 48% backing from respondents in an April 2014 survey, down from 79% in November 2008 – and the massive public protests in June and July 2013, surrounding the Confederations Cup tournament, the dress rehearsal for World Cup.  The protests have continued, and have been revitalized with the opening of the tournament this June, invigorating civil society and embarrassing federal and local governments, which have alternately condemned the protests as unruly and even unpatriotic and promised reforms in hopes of placating critics.

The ongoing protest movement is about more than the World Cup, but the tournament has become a flash point for a variety of frustrations that have troubled Brazilians in recent years.  Preparations have seen massive public expenditure on tournament infrastructure, evidence of corruption in tournament planning, and the cancellation of non-football projects organizers promised would constitute the tournament’s civic legacy, all symptoms, according to critics, of larger and ongoing problems in Brazilian society and government.  Protestors have focused especially on the six new and six refurbished stadiums to be used for the tournament, pointing to communities displaced for the venues, some of which seem destined to become white elephants, as well as fatal industrial accidents and significant cost overruns.  Stadiums have also served as rallying sites during games, helping ensure media attention to protestors and their messages.  Protestors have broadcast the message that Brazil needs hospitals, not stadiums, a response to a widely reported comment by the former player Ronaldo, one of the tournament’s celebrity spokesmen, who told early critics, “You don’t have the Cup in a hospital.”  Surprising many who assume Brazil is football-mad, another popular chant has been that good teachers are worth more to society than great footballers. 

The controversy over stadium construction for the 2014 World Cup resonates in interesting ways the story of Brazil’s first stadium, which the Fluminense Football Club built in 1918, in part so that the club could host Brazil’s first international tournament, the 1919 South American Championship.  Some celebrated Fluminense’s Laranjeiras stadium as a palace to Brazilian modernity, while others criticized the stadium and the special treatment it seemed government afforded the wealthy and well-connected club as it undertook the project. 

Despite its wealth and its influence, building the stadium was not easy or uncontroversial for Fluminense.  Plans for the stadium required the club to acquire several pieces of private property and parts of two public roads in its Laranjeiras neighborhood, which meant the necessity of government support.  The club also turned to the government for a sizeable loan to pay for construction, and it needed government approval for its plans because the stadium would be built alongside the publicly-owned Guanabara Palace, overseen by the National Patrimony office. Moreover, Fluminense faced competition for the support of the government and sports authorities from several other clubs hoping to erect the country’s first stadium and host the tournament.  Before Fluminense announced its plan, the working-class Vila Isabel and São Christovão clubs in northern Rio de Janeiro had been working toward building their own stadiums, and the latter had even obtained the support of the president of Brazil, Wenceslau Brás, and Rio de Janeiro city mayor Amaro Calvacanti, while Fluminense’s great rival, Flamengo, attempted to win the right to host the tournament from the official organizing body, the Confederação Brasileira Desportos (CBD, forerunner of the modern Confederação Brasileira de Futebol, CBF).

The majordomo of the Guanabara Palace withheld his support, alleging that the stadium was an inappropriate neighbor for the stately palace, and his superior, Minister of the Treasury Antônio Carlos Ribeiro de Andrada, briefly backed the complaint, jeopardizing the entire project. And there was public criticism too, for example from the Noite newspaper, which attacked the stadium as “a monster rising up in the middle of the road” and implied that the process by which Fluminense was attempting to obtain cession of public property was corrupt.  It called the entire endeavor “absurd,” “scandalous,” and “immoral.”

But Fluminense obtained its loan from the Banco do Brasil, it acquired the necessary pieces of private property and parts of the Roso and Retiro da Guanabara roads, and it gained the consent of all the relevant public and sports authorities.  On one hand, the club could count on powerful connections; for example, its president, Arnaldo Guinle, a member of one of the then-capital’s most wealthy families, was also president of the CBD.  On the other, the club and its supporters justified the benefits it received and sought to marginalize critics by casting its activities as patriotic and the stadium as a national monument.  One Rio newspaper suggested the club was saving the country from embarrassment in comparison to neighbors that had hosted previous editions of the tournament in their own stadiums, and many supporters suggested that critics were ungrateful and even unpatriotic.  Responding to those who worried about the Guanabara palace, one paper said the stadium would be a palace in its own right, “in which a people until very recently battered and debilitated will continue to build its physique,” and the Minister of the Navy, Alexandrino de Alencar, called it a “coliseum” which demonstrated “much work, much strength, and, above all, much patriotism.” 

The club depicted the situation in the same way, arguing that the stadium “secures not only Fluminense’s greatness, but also guarantees, in an elevated way, civilization itself in the Capital of the Republic,” and one influential club administrator wrote that Fluminense “assumed responsibilities which rightly pertained to the government” in building it.  It would be a private organization that benefited most from the construction of the stadium, but the club and its friends argued that it was acting on behalf of Brazil as a whole, and that it deserved any assistance that government and public-minded citizens could offer.  Critics and rivals could complain, but they were unable to defeat the combination of the powerful and well-connected institution and the patriotic discourse that it employed to justify the benefits it received.  When the Brazilian national team won the 1919 South American Championship, the country’s first victory in an international tournament, the expense and the privileges seemed justified, and when the club expanded the stadium in time to help host events for the country’s 1922 celebration of its independence centenary, it became even more confident and assertive in its claims to patriotism.

Patriotic discourse was a constant whenever Brazilians built sports stadiums in the ensuing years, revived when São Paulo built its first stadium at Pacaembu in 1938, when the biggest of all, Rio’s Maracanã stadium, was built for the 1950 World Cup, and each time the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 executed projects to expand the country’s sports infrastructure.  This is one way that the Laranjeiras episode echoes in 2014, as World Cup organizers have often claimed the patriotic mantle to justify the tournament’s expense, and, especially, the erection of new or refurbishment of existing football stadiums.  Brazilians who protest that the CBF, FIFA, and their partners have obtained extraordinary privileges at the expense of ordinary citizens have heard those privileges justified by assertions that hosting the World Cup is important for Brazil’s reputation and its claims to international respect.  They have heard that to object is to embarrass Brazil and to demonstrate a lack of patriotism.

These echoes remind us of the deep roots of privilege and the hierarchies of power in Brazil and especially in Brazilian football.  But it is also worth noting the significant differences between 1918 and 2014.  The stadiums have been built, and the matches are being played, but in 2014 engaged Brazilian citizens seem less willing to accept, and more able to challenge, the status quo of privilege for the wealthy and powerful than a century ago.  They also seem to reject the notion that it is somehow unpatriotic to challenge the privileged position enjoyed by football, its institutions, and its leading figures.  Further, officials in football and in government seem to be a little more aware of the importance of public perception, and some have taken a few hesitant steps toward taking greater responsibility to their constituents.  It is possible that rather than reestablish the patterns revealed in the construction of Brazil’s first stadium, its newest ones will serve as monuments to a different kind of Brazilian public life.

Gregg Bocketti is Associate Professor of History and Program Director, International Affairs, at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.  His work on the history of Brazilian football has appeared in the University of Calgary Press’s Negotiating Identities in Latin American Cultures (Hendrik Kraay, ed., 2007), in the Journal of Latin American Studies, and elsewhere.  He is currently at work on a book manuscript on the subject.