As Neymar scored Brazil’s first goal in the World Cup's opening game in São Paulo yesterday, not all eyes of the country — or the world — were on the field.
Many observers were following events outside the stadium, where police met demonstrators with rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas, injuring several in the process.
'The Brazilian people have had enough.'
It was a familiar scene, as the image of officers in riot gear clashing with protesters in black masks has become as much of a symbol of this tournament as the green and yellow jerseys of Brazil’s national team.
“The Brazilian people have had enough. Everyone thought, ‘Oh, they just love football, as long as they see a football being kicked by a Brazilian there won’t be a problem,” Andrew Jennings, a British journalist who has written extensively about FIFA corruption, including in Brazil, told VICE News. “Well, they got that wrong. You have seen the demonstrations: ‘No World Cup here.’ That’s Brazilians saying it, Brazilians saying, ‘We love football, we just don’t want the World Cup here.’”
'Brazil is a radically unequal country, even more so than South Africa. It’s the least egalitarian society the World Cup has been held in.'
How one of the world’s most football-loving countries came to resent the tournament so much has been subject of much debate. Yet the “Fuck off FIFA” and “Whose cup?” graffiti sprayed on walls across the host cities reveal both national discontent with Brazil’s growing inequality and a more global rejection of the multibillion dollar machines that huge events like this have become.
Global sporting contests such as the World Cup and the Olympics, which Brazil will also stage in two years time, have increasingly encountered anger and dissent from residents of the host countries. The sky-high price tags — $11 billion, in Brazil’s case — are hard to digest, especially in places where poverty and inequality are rampant.
'Brazilians are not against football, Brazilians are only tired of being robbed.'
In Brazil, the controversial “pacification” of the favelas, the militarized security throughout the cup, and the harsh police response to demonstrations in recent months, did not much help either.
“Brazilians are not against football, Brazilians are only tired of being robbed,” Anderson França, a social entrepreneur who spent 11 years living in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, told VICE News. “It’s about priorities… We are not a country that can afford FIFA.”
'Football is known to be inclusive; this cup is not.'
That’s a common criticism among opponents of the tournament, many of whom would have preferred the government put that money towards education, health programs, and infrastructure, rather than into money-sucking projects like the infamous Manaus stadium — a $300 million structure deep in the Amazon jungle that will host a total of four World Cup games.
“Football is known to be inclusive; this cup is not,” Maria Pereira, an educator from Rio, told VICE News. “We are contesting the large investment put into the event in relation to investment in education, health, and mobility. Because the event is so expensive, it’s made only for the richest portion of society. It seems the World Cup didn’t really help the country. It’s just a way to give a good image to Brazil.”
But as images of collapsing infrastructure and brutalized protesters made the rounds on social media, and police, bus drivers, and airport workers threatened to walk off their jobs in the middle of the tournament, that image doesn’t really look all that good.
“Things are really crazy right now, there might be a metro strike that will prevent people from getting to the stadiums, FIFA said there’s no plan B, the streets are militarized. It’s kind of a mess actually,” Christopher Gaffney, a geographer working in Rio who has written about the World Cup and the Olympics encroaching on public space, told VICE News. “Brazil is a radically unequal country, even more so than South Africa. It’s the least egalitarian society the World Cup has been held in. The discontent is even more serious because it’s even more unequal.”
Brazilians may love football, but many of them were not going to welcome the World Cup without a fight.
That discontent hit a peak last June, when up to 2 million Brazilians took to the streets of more than 100 cities in a movement sparked by proposed fare hikes for public transportation.
The crowds chanting “FIFA, paga a minha tarifa” [FIFA, pay my fare] set the tone for months of protests ahead. Brazilians may love football, but many of them were not going to welcome the World Cup without a fight.
Galvanized by a similar movement in defense of public space that enflamed Turkey around the same time, Brazilians poured into the streets en masse.
“Most of the protests were just next to my office, the noise was so big that we couldn’t even work, so the only possibility was to join,” Pereira told VICE News. “In the biggest one, everybody who works downtown closed their doors and joined the crowd; it was really amazing to see.”
Since then, the movement has splintered somewhat, and while the protests have continued, some in Brazil are growing tired of the unrest.
“You cannot see what’s going on today as what was going on a year ago, it’s completely different,” Felipe Lacerda, the Brazilian director of Bus 174, a documentary highlighting police abuse and incompetence in the country, told VICE News. “It seems like a bunch of people started moving away from protests because they were scared of the violence that was happening.”
'Is the police violent? Yes. Has the police sometimes been decent? Yes... It’s not black and white.'
Lacerda condemned the brutal police reaction to demonstrators, but also noted that the protests against them had grown smaller, more radical, and provocative.
“Is the police violent? Yes. Has the police sometimes been decent? Yes. Has the police sometimes been too tolerant? Yes. Have there been evictions that were absurd? Yes. Have there been evictions that were completely justifiable? Yes. It’s not black and white,” he said. “And it’s not like Brazil all of a sudden became this fascist state.”
While agreeing with the protesters’ complaints, some Brazilians are also getting tired of the daily disruptions.
“Protesters have a voice. But the people who just want to go to work and don’t want to stop because some nut guy blocked a five-lane road, or because 30 people blocked the road protesting, they don't,” Lacerda said. “Those people, they were there in June last year, when they had one million people there. But you don’t need to do that every day to say that you are fed up with something.”
As the tournament approached, a series of strikes — and threats of more during the cup — paralyzed several cities in Brazil.
'Everybody else is making money on the World Cup, so the unions are saying, ‘Why shouldn’t we?'
Police have walked off their jobs several times in the last few months, occasionally leading to a surge in lootings and murders that forced the government to send in the military to reign in the chaos. And bus drivers striking in São Paulo sent the city of more than 11 million into total chaos.
“They are trying to get concessions from the government in a moment when they have them by the balls,” Gaffney said. “Everybody else is making money on the World Cup, so the unions are saying, ‘Why shouldn’t we?’”
The problem, Gaffney added, lies with the World Cup’s “business model.”
“The mega event is sort of an industrial complex of its own right,” he said. “And that’s what needs to be analyzed. Why are we doing this? Who’s benefiting?”
“There are communities and neighborhoods that painted walls and streets protesting against the event, but there is also some of the new middle class that just wants to watch the games,” França said.
'The closer we get to the cup, the more Brazil is going to show its love for soccer.'
The authorities hope that football fever will eventually win and Brazil President Dilma Rousseff predicted World Cup euphoria would eclipse the protests.
“The closer we get to the cup, the more Brazil is going to show its love for soccer,” she told the New York Times.
On day one, at least, as Brazil’s national team took the first victory of the tournament while protests raged outside, love for the game and anger at the cup continued to compete.
“The protests will continue,” Pereira predicted. “And so will the parties.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi