The World Cup begins on Thursday, but what should be a joyful moment for Brazilians has been marred by anti-government protests, with anger also directed at football’s governing body.
Back then, on a brisk October day in Zurich, Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva, the country’s almost unimaginably popular president, beamed as he grasped the coveted World Cup trophy. Brazil was to host the tournament seven years later, and it would, he assured, be “a great one”. There were few reasons not to believe him.
His nation’s economy was booming. Growth was over 5 per cent, and bulging coffers allowed him to implement a series of cash transfer schemes that helped to haul millions out of poverty.
With such developments came a growing middle class, both enriched and emboldened by their country’s economic success. The few, too, who were already wealthy, were by no means forgotten. Modern agribusiness continued apace, and those who plied their trade in the stock market watched the Brazilian bourse rocket by over 500 per cent in eight years.
Brazil was widely seen as Latin America’s political success story. Even a conservative Washington viewed the country as a more palatable wave within the “pink tide” of leftist leaders that had rolled in across much of the continent.
While the distinct brands of populist politics championed by Evo Morales of Bolivia or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez drew either ire or adoration, Lula was different. He boasted revolutionary credentials as a former union boss, yet embraced neoliberal economics with the zeal of a recent convert. From left to right, few didn’t love him.
Then to football. The seleçâo, as the national team are known, wielded a record five titles. Their players past and present were household names around the world. The game really was coming home, to where it belonged. As one of Brazil’s most venerated players, the aptly named Sócrates, wrote: “Football is part of our most primitive genome, like dance.” Seven years on, and the narrative has taken a different turn.
As the riches of the long Chinese boom start to wane, Brazil has endured four years of slow growth. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, carries little of her mentor’s charm, nor his popularity. World Cup winning footballers are criticising the very tournament that elevated them to demi-godlike status.
How has it come to this?
Governed by a military dictatorship from 1964 until elections in 1985, Brazil still bears the scars of a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime, rife with corruption and political patronage. The country is undoubtedly a thriving democracy by various measures, but it remains mired in its recent past. Despite some social advances, the elites still live like kings, while their masses languish below.
Yet it was the added ingredient of football that brought it to the boil.
The anti-government protests that marred last year’s Confederations Cup were unprecedented in Brazil both in their scale and ferocity. More than a million people took to the streets as anger swelled and the list of grievances grew.
First it was bus fare hikes, then police brutality, then government spending and corruption. A light was being shone on the state of Brazil’s democracy, and the authorities were struggling to find an answer.
A year later, and many of those grievances remain. Recent protests have been smaller, but anger against the government is paramount everywhere. A recent survey found that only 34 percent of the population think that the World Cup will help their sluggish economy.
The estimated $11bn spent by the authorities on stadia and infrastructure projects rile almost everyone you meet. “It’s such a waste. Imagine what we could have done with all that money,” said teacher Ana Rosa, over a coffee. In her Rio neighbourhood, Providência, few have much good to say about the tournament.
Yet such anger is not only directed against their own rulers. Football’s governing body Fifa has come under mounting criticism here too. Critics argue they have forced new laws on Brazil to placate sponsors, and that all the money garnered from the World Cup will go to them (Fifa’s estimated profit from the competition is around $2bn).
The organisation is facing fresh allegations of corruption in its ranks, but here the behemoth already was a dirty word. “He´s here?” Eduardo Silva asked me last week in Sâo Paulo when I probed him on what he thought about Fifa President Sepp Blatter’s presence in his home town. Smiling as he squinted at me under his orange hard hat, he told me: “No-one wants him here.”
Yet on the streets, a fragile truce has remained. The recent tube strike in Sâo Paulo highlighted how tenuous this can be. With a population of over 20 million in its metropolitan area, it is rarely anything but a challenge to make your way through the city.
But with the underground closed, tailbacks stretched to over 200 kilometres as the city ground to halt. When police threw tear gas at some protesters, the amateur videos of the incident spread rapidly across social media. Nevertheless, just three days before the first ball is due to be kicked, talks resumed, and the city rumbles on.
In Maré, one of Rio’s most violent favelas, the army moved in a few months ago in heavily armoured vehicles. Several have been killed in the last year in sporadic clashes between police and traffickers, including some civilians simply caught in the crossfire.
It is not part of the government’s programme to pacify a number of areas. Many of the 140,000 residents say the army is only there to stifle the drug gangs and keep tourists safe while the World Cup is on. And few trust the security forces, after years of fractured relations.
Widespread demonstrations may flare again, but thus far it has mainly been striking workers or smaller fringe protests. But here now, there also lies a certain fatigue. One that is weary of what they see as condescending foreign criticism of Brazil’s preparations.
As Inácio Araujo wrote in the Folha de Sâo Paulo newspaper this week: “In the end, what is it we admire about the team that represents us? It’s not German order, or Russian drive, but improvisation, a capacity to solve problems where it seemed impossible.”
That said, it still does not yet feel like a World Cup should. Neighbourhoods that usually decorate their streets for the tournament have been sluggish to get in the mood, and there is less confidence in the team than I have seen before.
I was living in Sâo Paulo last time Brazil won the tournament in 2002. The games were being played in Asia, so several matches began very early in the morning in Brazil.
Still, almost everyone found a way to watch every minute of their team. Although the victorious final finished mid-morning, within minutes, thousands descended on Avenida Paulista for an impromptu party that blocked traffic on one of the city’s busiest streets for several hours.
I have no doubt that most Brazilians will watch their team play this year too. And if Brazil does win, spontaneous street parties will surely appear again. Excitement so far, however, has been tempered, and there remains a malaise in the air. A good performance by the seleçao may go some way to curing it.
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