Brazil’s historical 7:1 defeat in the World Cup semi-final will always be remembered as a national tragedy. Mara Nogueira explains why the search for lessons from the World Cup should go beyond the events on the pitch.
Belo Horizonte is the capital of Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s 27 states, and more recently one of the hosts of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. During the mega-event, destiny somehow reserved a prominent role for this city of 2 million people, barely known outside Brazil and commonly overshadowed by Rio and São Paulo. There, in between the hills of Minas, two of the greatest fiascos of the World Cup took place. On 8 July, the national team faced its greatest defeat in World Cup history, losing by the unbelievable score of 7:1 to Germany. Less than a week before a viaduct — built as part of the infrastructure improvements for the tournament — crashed down on several vehicles, leaving two people dead and another nineteen injured.
The major defeat to Germany has been the subject of numerous analyses and it has made Belo Horizonte quite famous — as a German friend of mine kindly pointed out just after the match was over. My research, however, is more connected to the second fiasco, which is much less explored and scrutinized. I am trying to answer one central question: Were the processes that eventually led to such bad urban planning created by the World Cup or were they already ongoing tendencies? That is, are the events that brought down — literally — the viaduct exceptions or are they part of everyday urban politics?
Mega-events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, have been interpreted by some scholars as sources of exceptions. That is, some governments agree to suspend or alter internal rules and sovereign laws that work under normal conditions in order to accommodate projects – and FIFA or IOC demands. The Brazilian congress, for instance, has approved the “General Law of the World Cup ” under protests, since critics consider it to be unconstitutional. For those who subscribe to this view, mega-events represent deviations from everyday practices. Therefore, one could argue that the tight deadlines for the World Cup have altered the regular procedures of urban planning for the city of Belo Horizonte. The tragedy would consequently be explained as the result of abnormalities engendered by the tournament’s organization.
Other scholars, however, prefer to analyse mega-events to understand ongoing processes and tendencies within host countries and cities. In this view, the events don’t create exceptions, but rather reproduce features of contemporary capitalism. Under this alternative framework, urban practices and politics involved in mega-events organization are only visible features of pre-existing trends. From this point of view, one could argue that the project of the viaduct was already part of a reform plan that envisions the growth towards the North region of Belo Horizonte. Additionally, the project reinforces the existent model of (im)mobility centred on automobiles and the never-ending construction of roads.
I have used the case of the viaduct as a provocative one to try to illustrate some relevant points. My research, however, focuses on three cases where conflict regarding the use and occupation of urban land has emerged in relation to World Cup projects:
- the construction of a viaduct (another one, apparently we love them),
- the construction of a hotel,
- and the local stadium modernization – yes, the same one where the other “tragedy” (7:1) took place.
The central idea is to use qualitative research methods to analyse how the actors involved in these conflicts perceive their own situation. In other words, do they believe that the World Cup is to blame or are their lives being affected by wider tendencies? And that is the question that will haunt me for the next three years.
About the author:
Mara Nogueira is a 2nd-year PhD student in Human Geography and Urban Studies. Her research focuses on the emergence of urban conflicts related to World Cup projects in Brazil. A passionate footballer, she supports Atlético Mineiro and regularly plays 11-a-side in London.
 The Federal Law no. 12,663/2012 was approved in June of 2012 and it became popularly known as the General Law of the World Cup (Lei Geral da Copa). The law consistently violates existent Brazilian laws, for instance, it allowed the sale of alcoholic drinks in stadiums during the event, although alcohol consumption is prohibited since 2003.