The Noise From Brazil

The country's World Cup dry run has been dominated by mass demonstrations—the latest instance of sports providing a stage for protest
July 01, 2013

She had a long walk, that Girl from Ipanema, decade after decade, oblivious and lovely and summing up for an oblivious world all we wanted to think about Brazil. Now that's over. Somewhere in Rio de Janeiro or S√£o Paulo or the 80 other cities in which 1.5 million Brazilians turned out to protest last Thursday, amid tear gas and burning tires and rubber bullets, she waded into a rising wave of discontent and raised a fist. Someone handed her a Guy Fawkes mask. With just a year before the greatest party the nation has ever hosted, Brazil's easy rhythm is sputtering with rage.

Why? In the pinballing galaxy of Brazilian grievance, each day seemingly brings a new reason. What began on June 6 as a small yelp against a hike in public transport fees has metastasized into a daily scream against corruption, substandard education and health care, an abysmal record on public safety, legal loopholes for politicians—a diffuse litany crystallized by the mad amount of public money being spent on facilities for the World Cup, which will be held next summer in 12 cities, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio ($31 billion and counting).

"Everyone always knew that the government is corrupt, that they don't invest the money properly," says Francisco Castro, owner of a construction firm in Belo Horizonte. "But the World Cup made it really clear to the people. The Mineir√£o stadium, for example, in Belo Horizonte: I've been going there since I was four years old. I know it like my old house. They spent more than $300 million there and it's worse than it used to be. That doesn't make sense at all."

Last week fans attending the Confederations Cup—the World Cup's dry run—found themselves pinched between police and protesters outside stadiums, and at least one team elected to hole up in its hotel. The Confederations Cup final at Rio's legendary Maracan√£ Stadium on June 30 has reportedly been targeted for a massive demonstration. Still, even after dozens of arrests and injuries and two deaths as of Sunday night, no political or high-ranking FIFA official was publicly entertaining the idea of moving the final.

Government ministers insist that the World Cup and the Olympics will prove a boon to the economy; Brazil's sports minister, Aldo Rebelo, this month cited an Ernst & Young study when claiming that the two would combine to add 3.6 million jobs. Brazil president Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerilla who was imprisoned and reportedly tortured in the 1970s and remains popular, has personally endorsed the massive sports expenditures.

"Federal money spent on the stadiums is in the form of financing that will be duly repaid by the companies and governments that are [managing] these stadiums," Rousseff, after weeks of public silence, said in her first speech on the protests last Friday. "I would never allow these funds to come out of the federal public budget or to damage priority sectors such as health and education."

Still, Brazil's biggest names are scrambling to align themselves with the protesters, and the issue of skewed national priorities seems certain to resonate as next June's kickoff draws closer. Last week Pelé implored his countrymen to "forget about this mess that's happening in Brazil" and support the national team. A barrage of criticism, including a salvo from soccer-god-turned-politician Romàrio during a news conference ("Remember a phrase I told you: The silent Pelé is a poet," Romàrio said. "Pelé has no f-ing awareness of what's going on in this country, so he can't talk that nonsense"), forced Pelé to declare that he supports peaceful protests.

Neymar, Brazil's latest soccer luminary, posted on his Facebook page that the protests had inspired him in the team's victory over Mexico last week. Rivaldo, a member of the 2002 World Cup--winning squad, tweeted this: "It's shameful to spend so much money for this World Cup and leave the hospitals and schools in such a precarious state.... We aren't in shape to host the World Cup, we don't need it; we need education and health." When Juninho, a member of the '06 Cup team, urged the members of the national team to turn their backs during the national anthem in solidarity with the people before the game against Mexico, he was hardly condemned. Others picked up on the idea and suggested that fans do the same.

Who saw this coming? Certainly few from the outside. Brazil's peaceable fans and creative play long ago made the Sele√ß√£o everybody's second-favorite national team; the populace's joyous "Brazilian soul," as Rousseff puts it, allowed for the stereotype of an endless carnival. The nation's slums are notorious, of course, but a recent upswing—40 million Brazilians climbed out of poverty in the last decade—made optimism about the future easy to assume. Those in the country, too, were caught unawares. "There's some fear or concern that government and political parties maybe benefited from the whole World Cup project," Rebelo said two days before the protests began. "And there's a pessimistic attitude from some in civil society. But the vast majority think that the World Cup and the Olympics are something that's very good for the country."

There's some fear that with its democracy barely a generation old, Brazilians still learning the ropes of dissent will recede back to their homes when the novelty wears off. But perhaps something deeper, more enduring, is being put into play here. The leadership of Brazil is only the latest to use sports to legitimize itself: China did so to great effect in 2008 and Vladimir Putin's Russia will try to replay that script this winter in Sochi. In an ever more splintered culture, nothing has proved to unify—or distract—a populace better.

Yet the fact that the protests actually had an effect—those transit-fare hikes in Rio and S√£o Paulo were quickly rescinded—reveals a vulnerability in the sports gambit that won't soon be forgotten. No mayor or president likes to be humiliated before the world. Just as big-time sports is increasingly being used as a platform for power, it is increasingly becoming a platform for protest. This spring alone, the Boston Marathon and the French Open men's final were used by the murderous and foolish, respectively, to make some kind of statement.

What will happen at Brazil's World Cup is impossible to predict, but last week provided a hint. There will be complaint. There may be violence. But, if what happened in Fortaleza before the Mexico game is any indication, there will also be love: Despite Juninho's urging, despite the fact that police and protestors had collided outside the stadium hours before, the national team didn't turn their backs on the national anthem. Neither did the fans.

No, once the "Hino Nacional Brasileiro" began, 60,000 people stood, many with hands on heart. Few Brazilians could recall witnessing such a moment; their anthem has rarely been the mass ritual it is in America. Yet when the band stopped midway, the spectators kept on going, bellowing the words in support of country and team and maybe even themselves. Days later people were still pulling up the footage and crying. It wasn't that same old song anymore. It sounded better, actually.

Rivaldo tweeted: "We don't need [the World Cup]. We need education and health."

PHOTOFELIPE DANA/AP (PROTESTER WITH FLAG) PHOTOLUCIANA WHITAKER/REUTERS (SIGN)UP IN ARMS A protester in Rio demanded that funds be spent on hospitals, not just World Cup and Olympic facilities, while those demonstrating in Fortaleza were met by police armed with rubber bullets. PHOTOKAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS (SOLDIERS)

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