Brazil eyes change from bottom up

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The most exciting climax the Brazilian Championship has seen in years was marred by two incidents of crowd trouble. One was in the line to buy tickets for Flamengo's crunch game against Grêmio earlier this month, where the police used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to maintain order. The other came after Coritiba had been relegated to the second division, and some of its fans staged a full-scale riot on the pitch.

Both cases were cited last weekend in an article written by Silvio Torres, the Brazilian politician most associated with a campaign to clean up soccer. According to Torres, "They were incidents which demonstrate that Brazil, in the process of organizing the 2014 World Cup, is totally unprepared in terms of stadium safety and the total absence of respect of the rights and comfort of the fans."

Powerful words. The example that Torres wants to follow is England which, some two decades ago, was going through its own problems of fan violence and sub-standard soccer infrastructure.

"The transformation in England has been outstanding," he continued. "Now what happens in English stadiums is what we dream about for Brazil: entire families watching games surrounded by total comfort and without danger from the hooligans."

As someone who lived through the transformation years in England as a fan, I find these comments especially interesting. The English experience in combating soccer violence is often cited in Brazil, and following the Coritiba riot one Rio de Janeiro TV station invited me on to shed some light on how England had conquered the problem.

My first point was that I disagree with the view that the problem is definitively over in England. I find it too complacent. Soccer, as the English football writer Rogan Taylor once put it, "is like strong beer. Some people just can't take it." The possibility of a violent flare up always exists, and it should never be forgotten that the gathering of so many people in itself represents a risk to their safety.

Torres and others in Brazil put great faith in some of the measures that proved so successful in England, and they are right to do so. More intelligent policing, stiffer punishments and the reform of stadiums to create a more humane environment -- all of these were important steps.

But there was another side of the English transformation that always seems to be overlooked: the reaction of the fans. The Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels in 1985 -- when a wall collapsed on Juventus fans running away from an invasion by Liverpool supporters -- which came soon after the Bradford fire, the result of a poorly maintained stadium and, most of all, the Hillsbrough tragedy of 1989, when inept crowd control turned an outdated stadium into a killer -- these dates are scars on the soul of the English fan of the time.

All over the country, fans wanted to strike back -- to differentiate themselves from the thugs, to push for supporter rights and seek justice. They organized themselves around fanzines -- magazines produced by the fans. It was a powerful, nationwide movement, and this, along with stiffer punishments, more intelligent policing and better stadiums, was an important factor in changing the way in which the game in watched.

Some would argue that the process went too far. In the perpetual tightrope which professional sports walks between business and culture, many in England today feel that the game lurched too far in the direction of business. It's a point which deserves to be debated. But whether or not the changes have been excessive, they would not have taken place on such a profound and widespread basis without the willingness of the fans to move in a new direction.

It was unthinkable, pre-Hillsbrough, that English soccer would have no place for its terraces, where generations of fans had stood to watch the game. Many grumbled about the end of standing room, and plenty still do. But enough went with it for the change to be workable, and from today's perspective, irreversible.

And this is the vital point about the English experience: It was not just a top-down transformation. It was bottom-up as well.

For the Brazilians, this point is no longer of merely academic interest. The giant country is on the move. Perhaps the biggest question Brazil now faces is how to include all of the population in the economic progress which is being made. And Brazilian soccer is showing signs of stirring as well. Club management is becoming more professional, marketing strategies are starting to pay off -- and the 21st century is about to arrive for the country's stadiums.

The 2014 World Cup is a golden opportunity to invest in soccer and transportation infrastructure. And it's encouraging to see that the modernizing movement is broad-based. Grêmio in Porto Alegre and Palmeiras in São Paulo are soon to begin the construction of new stadiums (on the existing site in the case of Palmeiras, and a brand new one for Grêmio).

As it stands, these aren't included in the World Cup project -- in other words, the progress isn't entirely dependent on a single event taking place over four weeks during June and July 2014. Both are utilizing Portuguese expertise acquired during the construction of stadiums for the Euro 2004 competition.

So a modern European standard of stadiums is in the process of finding its way to Brazil, and it's badly needed. I recently observed a fascinating lecture given by Carlos de la Corte, a Brazilian stadium architecture specialist who gave on overview of the challenges ahead. Brazil's stadiums, he said, are old and crumbling, without individual seats and, often, without a roof. They have problems of visibility, are cursed with athletic tracks round the outside of the pitch, are poorly maintained and have structural problems.

By 2014, he's hoping to see a different scenario, with stadiums as symbols of urban regeneration. There are obstacles to be overcome -- he mentioned the difficulty of making the stadiums profitable, bearing in mind the continued low acquisitive power of much of the population.

Another problem I foresee is the question of changing fan culture. De la Corte showed photos of inadequate fan behavior -- standing on seats, blocking exits and so on. Eradicating this -- making thousands of fans comply with a necessity to sit in a numbered seat -- is a huge challenge. It's the need for bottom-up change -- from the fans themselves -- that doesn't seem to be addressed in the current debate.

The seeds for this cultural shift in England were planted by tragedy. At Heysel, 39 people lost their lives; 56 did so at Bradford. At Hillsbrough, it was 96. This appalling and needless loss of life concentrated minds, and opened them up as well, and led to a rupture with the past.

Hopefully, Brazil won't have to go through anything as tragic in order to come out the other side with a safer soccer culture. And it would be nice to think that all this can happen without the need to exclude many of the game's traditional fans. For the story to have a happy ending, it's vital that fans are agents of change, that they help to shape a future which isn't simply imposed upon them.