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Why the World Cup is no game

The 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is fast becoming the latest international sporting event to spotlight the social and political tensions gripping the country.
A man carries a flag of Brazil during a protest against the World Cup in Sao Paulo.
A man carries a flag of Brazil as members of Brazil's Homeless Workers' Movement (MTST), who are living at the \"People's World Cup Camp\" which houses some 2,800 families of the movement in the district of Itaquera near Sao Paulo's World Cup stadium, Arena de Sao Paulo, block a road during a protest against the World Cup in Sao Paulo, May 15, 2014.

Forget #SochiProblems. When it comes to snafus, the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is putting the most recent Olympics to shame.

Protests, strikes, crime surges, traffic jams, and sinking hopes have all colored the road to next month’s international soccer tournament, due to take place in one of the most soccer-crazed countries in the world. But despite the enthusiasm, this year’s competition has been anything but easy to get excited about.

With an estimated $11 billion price tag, Brazil’s World Cup comes in as the most expensive to date -- nearly triple what South Africa spent in 2010 ($4 billion) and seven times what Germany spent in 2006 ($1.6 billion.) And yet, preparations on all of the event’s 12 venues as well as surrounding infrastructure remain unfinished, driving many Brazilians to forego soccer paraphernalia in favor of anti-FIFA signs.

It's not hard to see why this five-time World Cup-winning nation has suddenly soured on soccer. Watching the government spend extravagantly on a single month-long sporting event, instead of on schools and wages, has infuriated residents, particularly in Rio de Janeiro. The city of 6 million is a showcase for income inequality, with thousands of residents living in squalor in crime ridden slums known as favelas.

This year’s World Cup is just the latest international sporting event to spotlight the economic haves and the have-nots of its host nation, and the alarming willingness of countries to prioritize their starring role on the international stage instead of on their citizens, who in many cases remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation.

The growing unrest has created a nasty set of side effects in Brazil.

With police officers joining throngs of demonstrators -- including teachers, transportation workers, and political activists -- crime rates have spiked. According to Brazil’s ISP security statistics agency, via The Huffington Post, muggings on Rio’s bus fleet have doubled over in the past year alone. And on the topic of buses, drivers have been setting fire to hundreds of them, columnist Elio Gaspari reported recently, in a labor action more hostile than anything seen in the past.

To top it all off, this week, officials declared a state of emergency for Manaus, a host city where England’s national team will stay, because of a flood risk. The warning comes in the wake of fines doled out to hotels scheduled to house England and Italy’s teams after inspections turned up out-of-date food.

The World Cup didn’t bring these problems to Brazil, but it’s certainly highlighting mounting frustration over a stagnating economy and government incompetence there, as well as the intricate relationship between sports and politics. While these events are often viewed as a chance to celebrate the athleticism, nationalism, and international cooperation everyone is supposed to get behind (the International Olympic Committee goes so far as to include a passage in the Games’ charter banning demonstrations to keep the spectacle apolitical) they tend instead to become a platform for the issues that divide us, rather than a pause button of sorts.

Residents look on as Brazilian military police officers patrol in the unpacified Complexo da Mare, one of the largest 'favela' complexes in Rio, on March 30, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Residents look on as Brazilian military police officers patrol in the unpacified Complexo da Mare, one of the largest 'favela' complexes in Rio, on March 30, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“There’s a saying that ‘Brazil’s the country of the future -- and always will be,’ because the future will never come,” Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst at political risk consulting company Eurasia Group, told msnbc. “But for a while, Brazilians were feeling that the future was closer than we thought.”

Under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected in 2002 and left office in 2010, Brazil experienced an economic boom that created a robust middle class. But that growth stalled under his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, who faces re-election in the fall. Now, said Neves, various groups are taking advantage of their moment in the international spotlight to voice their discontent. Essentially, Brazil overpromised and underdelivered on what the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics would bring, Neves said. 

“When Brazil was granted the right to host these events, the big promise the government made was that they would bring prosperity,” said Neves. “A lot of people celebrated and believed that that would happen. But when the run-up to the World Cup started, it became visible that there is no free lunch.”

This isn’t the first time an international sporting event has shined a light on the political and social tensions gripping its host country.

Ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, much of the conversation revolved around Moscow’s intensifying crackdown on civil liberties and human rights -- in particular, a recently-enacted “propaganda” law which fines any Russian citizen who promotes information about same-sex relationships among minors. Despite widely publicized outrage over the law, the Olympics themselves ended up surprisingly devoid of LGBT activism.

Russia also came under fire for its treatment of migrant workers in the construction of Sochi’s Olympic sites, a problem now resurfacing in the context of a different World Cup -- this time, Qatar’s.

According to a recent report commissioned by the Qatari government and conducted by the international law firm DLA Piper, nearly 1,000 migrant workers have died so far in preparation for the 2022 tournament. That number could go up to 4,000, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) warns, if nothing is done to reform labor laws in the next eight years.

“On average, it’s about one worker per day,” said Gemma Swart, press secretary at the ITUC, of Qatar’s World Cup-related death rate. “In fact, 4,000 is a conservative estimate. Probably, the number will be much larger than that, but Qatar doesn’t keep statistics about migrant workers dying in the country.”

According to U.N. Special Rapporteur Francois Crepeau, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world. Yet the country has some of the worst sponsorship laws in the region, human rights groups have found, leaving migrant laborers -- mainly from India, Nepal and Pakistan -- vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

"Under Kafala (Qatar’s sponsorship system,) your employer owns you,” said Swart. “They have total control over your movement in the country, whether you change jobs, or leave the country. That relationship means people are scared about reporting human rights violations.”

The construction sector isn’t the only area rife with abuse.

Sao Paulo Prepares For 2014 FIFA World Cup
Construction work continues at the Itaquerao stadium, also known as Arena de Sao Paulo and Arena Corinthians, on April 29, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Last month, Amnesty International released a report documenting cases where migrant domestic workers faced forced labor conditions, along with physical and sexual violence. Entitled, “‘My sleep is my break’: Exploitation of domestic workers in Qatar,” the report followed up on Amnesty’s research from last year, chronicling workers arriving in the country to find different terms and conditions than those that had been promised, their pay withheld, their passports confiscated, their hours excessive, and their living accommodations squalid.

“All of this is underscored against the backdrop of the Kafala system,” James Lynch, Amnesty’s researcher on migrant workers in the Gulf, told msnbc. “Not all employers are abusive. But the problem is you’re kind of entering a lottery in whether your employer chooses to respect your rights … If they don’t, things can go dreadfully wrong.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently admitted that awarding the World Cup to Qatar was “a mistake,” though the organization quickly walked back his remarks, saying they had only to do with the soaring temperatures that the country experiences in summer. Organizations like the ITUC are urging FIFA to do more.

“We know that if FIFA demands that Qatar abolish Kafala, it will happen,” said Swart. “There have been various statements where they’ve said they want to see football used for social change, and football used to improve conditions in countries. But they need to not walk away from the problem.”

Amnesty believes the U.S. can also take a more aggressive approach in demanding that a certain set of international standards be met.

“Members of Congress and the White House need to incorporate labor rights in [the U.S.'s] bilateral relationship with Qatar,” said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa advocacy director, to msnbc. “Sporting events are frequently used as opportunities for host government to rebrand the country. It’s important that the 2022 World Cup not become a situation where massive human rights abuses are swept under the rug.”