Social unrest in Brazil raises fears for World Cup

After over a million protest on the streets, Fifa deny Confederations Cup is in danger

Riot police fire tear gas towards protesters during a protest  in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Sergio Moraes/Reuters

Riot police fire tear gas towards protesters during a protest in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Sergio Moraes/Reuters

Fri, Jun 21, 2013, 20:11

Football supporters fleeing rubber bullets, roads into stadiums blocked by angry crowds, mobs throwing stones at Fifa offices, Confederations Cup placards being ripped down and burned in the midst of mass protests.

These are unlikely scenes in a football-mad country and the last thing organisers of the World Cup wanted to see in Brazil before next year’s tournament, but for the past week they have become an almost daily occurrence as the country’s favourite sport has become the focus of the biggest demonstrations in decades.

More than a million people took to the streets on Thursday night in at least 80 cities in a rising wave of protest that has coincided with the Confederations Cup. This Fifa event was supposed to be a dry run for players and organisers before next year’s finals, but it is police and protesters who are getting the most practice.

The host cities have been the focus of furious demonstrations, prompting local authorities to request security reinforcements from the national government.

The rallies, and the violence that has often followed, were not solely prompted by the tournament. The initial spark last week was a rise in public transport fares. Public anger has since been further stirred by police brutality. Longstanding problems such as corruption, dire public services, high prices and low levels of safety are also prominent among the range of grievances.

But the World Cup has been the lightning conductor. Many protesters are furious that the government is spending 31 billion Reals (€10.5 billion) to set the stage for a one-time global tournament, while it has failed to address everyday problems closer to home.

“I’m here to fight corruption and the expense of the World Cup,” said Nelber Bonifcacio, an unemployed teacher who was among the vast crowds in Rio on Thursday. “I like football, but Brazil has spent all that money on the event when we don’t have good public education, healthcare or infrastructure.”

It was all very different in 2007 when Brazil was awarded the tournament. Back then, the crowds in Rio erupted with joy and Ricardo Teixeira, the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, was bathed in adulation as he said: “We are a civilised nation, a nation that is going through an excellent phase, and we have got everything prepared to receive adequately the honour to organise an excellent World Cup.”

In the outside world, few doubted the wisdom of the decision. Football belonged in Brazil. In the home of carnival and samba, it would be a party like no other.

But euphoria has steadily faded as preparations for 2014 have drawn attention to the persistent ills of corruption, cronyism, inequality and public insecurity. Those who appeared to have the Midas touch in 2007 now seem cursed.

Teixeira was forced to resign last year amid accusations of bribery. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been tainted by revelations of massive vote-buying by the ruling Workers party. Fifa, too, is mired in a series of corruption scandals that have led to the resignations of several senior executives.

The renovation and construction of most of the 12 World Cup stadiums has been late and over budget. Several have been pilloried as white elephants because they are being built in cities with minor teams. The new €381 million Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília – which hosted the opening game of the Confederations Cup – has a capacity of 70,000, but the capital’s teams rarely attract more than a few hundred fans. Similarly, the lower-division sides in Cuiabá and Manaus will struggle to fill a fraction of their 40,000 plus-seater stadiums.

The government downplays such concerns, saying the stadiums promote development and have been built for multi-purpose use so they do not have to rely on football for revenue.

But suspicions that the construction companies – a main source of kickbacks for politicians – will be the main beneficiaries of the tournament have grown, particularly in Rio, where the Maracanã stadium has been refurbished for the second time in a decade at a cost of more than €346 million. It was rebuilt with public money, but the concession to run it has been offered to a private firm, covering barely a fifth of the costs.

Meanwhile, Fifa has announced record revenues from broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship for 2014 – none of which will go to Brazil’s public coffers.

With negative headlines also related to evictions and poor engineering quality, the growing public unease alarmed many in the sport even before the protests began.

Former national team players Romário, Tostão and Zico have been warning for many months that something is amiss. “The population of Brazil seems distant from the World Cup because of what people see as corruption and the overspend on the stadiums and the lack of transparency,” Zico told the Guardian.

With public fury now on full display, football’s leading lights also seem divided about how to respond. The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and Pelé – the superstar turned MasterCard ambassador – have drawn derision by calling on protesters to decouple the Confederations Cup and the demonstrations. Ronaldo has been lambasted for remarking: “A World Cup isn’t made with hospitals, my friend. It’s made with stadiums.”

Bruno Danna, a shop employee who joined the protests on Thursday, said: “I’m not against football. I will cheer the national team. But I’m mad at Ronaldo and Pelé.” The current national team, in contrast, have been vocal in their support for the demonstrations. “I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest!” wrote Neymar on his Instagram blog. The Chelsea defender David Luiz and the midfielder Hulk have also expressed solidarity with those on the street.

What happens next is hard to predict. The government has backed down on the bus fare increase, but it will be harder to meet the protesters’ demands about the World Cup. The funds are mostly spent and the stadiums cannot be unbuilt.

The next potential flashpoints are the Brazil v Italy game in Salvador, and Japan v Mexico in Belo Horizonte ahead of more planned marches on Saturday, as well as the final on June 30th.

Fifa has denied speculation that it will call off the Confederations Cup, and the authorities have beefed up security, but the tense situation is hurting the chances of a successful event next year.

In a country where football is almost the national religion, people want to enjoy the World Cup, but for millions Fifa has become a tainted brand, associated with a distant global elite who profit at the expense of local people.

As one banner, held aloft by a football-loving protester – Leandro Ferreir – said on Thursday: “We don’t want a country that is beautiful only for gringos.”

Guardian Service