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
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.