How Brazilian Soccer Became An Elitist Pastime

High ticket prices and fancy stadiums are making the games of the national pastime off-limits for most of Brazil's population.

Fluminense FC's fans
Fluminense FC's fans
Eduardo Scolese

SÃ​O PAULO — Marlene Matheus is filling up a glass of beer when she's suddenly taken aback as the TV cameras zoom in on the crowd at the Porto Alegre stadium. It's June 25, and São Paulo's Corinthians, the soccer team she managed in the early 1990s, is playing against Grêmio. Looking at her sons-in-law, she asks why there are no black supporters in the stands.

It is not an easy question to answer, but it might have something to do with the growing elitism of Brazilian soccer. Starting in the late 1990s, the price of tickets went up, standing room places were gradually eliminated and stadiums turned into well-groomed arenas, all resulting in the gradual exclusion of the population's poorest. And in Brazil, three-quarters of the poorest are black.

Over the past two decades, those who earn minimum wage, or even twice that, have lost their place in the "sport of the people." These days a bus driver, cleaner or laborer cannot even consider going to the stadium.

One explanation might be in the so-called "partner-supporter" model, which gained ground in the south and spread throughout the country, putting an end to long lines outside ticket shops and retaining only the most fanatic supporters. But the model excludes those who only want to attend two or three games per season.

For example, Matheus's club, the Corinthians, functions more like an investment portfolio than a club of supporters: The more tickets you buy, the more points you earn. The more points you have, the bigger your chances of being part of a restricted group allowed to purchase tickets before the others. The tickets remaining after the initial selection go to other partners. If any tickets are left, they go to the ticket office, where the price is always above 150 reais, ($45), too prohibitive for low-income supporters to even consider.

In the past, stadiums used to bring together the rich and poor. They would all enter through the same gate, they would hug each other, cry together. Many would even become friends. Soccer would unite people of different classes and cultures.

Of course, there are some positive aspects to today's arenas: There are more women, decent toilets and clean seats. But recent news reports have also shown that homophobia, violence and ignorance remain rife. Matheus says she knows nothing of all that. But she does know that if a supporter makes the mistake of shouting "goal" a second too early, he could get beaten up by other supporters for having jinxed the player.

Brazil might be the favorite for another World Cup, but sadly, it has slipped far behind in keeping its own national pastime a sport of and for the people.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!