13-19 June 2014 #711

In goal we trust

When the biggest football show comes home, there is excitement.
Shobhan Saxena in SÃO PAULO

Last Thursday, when the Brazilian team landed in this city of 21 million people for another warm-up game, there were massive traffic jams across the city as the Metro workers went on a flash strike, sparking anger among the people.

Irrespective of what has been appearing in western media, ordinary Brazilians have kept away from anti-World Cup protests. In Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, three cities which have seen rallies in recent weeks, small and peaceful demonstrations have been organised by unions with affiliations to opposition parties.

“They are telling people that money for education and health has been spent on stadiums. It’s a total lie,” says Carina Vitral, president of UJS, a left-leaning student union. “We want health and education but we also want the World Cup.”

Brazil prides itself as the Home of Football. So, when the biggest football show comes home, there is excitement. Almost all of the 3.3 million tickets for the World Cup have been sold. On Wednesday, when FIFA opened some counters for a few available tickets, people queued up from 3am. In the neighbourhoods of Sao Paulo, people are painting their streets in green and yellow. The Brazilian flag is hanging everywhere: from windows to bakery shops to bars and gyms.

But a few people are still angry. Like any other country, Brazil is a divided society.  While football is a great social leveler and unifier, it is also a vehicle for social justice. So, some social movements are using the World Cup as an opportunity to put their issues on the national agenda.

This week, a powerful graffiti appeared on the entrance of a public school. Painted in strong colours, it depicts a small black boy, with an emaciated face and hungry eyes, holding a fork and knife and staring at a football placed on a plate in front of him.

“We need food, not football,” reads a slogan emblazoned across the wall. Seen and clicked by thousands, the image has gone viral on social media. “My intention is to expose the country’s problems. The government wants to hide some problems, but we want to highlight it,” says the graffiti artist Paulo Ito. “World Cup is good time to raise such issues.”

Even as Ito’s powerful imagery is being appreciated, few agree with the message. Mass hunger and poverty are now things of the past in Brazil, which is officially a middle-class country. Though 12 million people are still below the poverty line, the government plans to declare Brazil “free of poverty” by the end of 2014.

“Most people want to enjoy the World Cup. And people are getting angry with those who want to disrupt it,” says Sara Puerta, a journalist who writes on music and social issues. “We don’t want visitors to have a bad image of Brazil.”

Even as security officers prepare for games and protests, they are sure of one thing: support for the Brazilian team among ordinary people. “A lot of anger is against FIFA, and not against the team and Brazil,” said the police officer. “We are getting good support from the people.”

With the World Cup coming closer, the country is getting in party mood. Even those going out to protest are rooting for Brazil to win the title for the record sixth time. Last week, when the Brazilian team arrived at the mountain resort of Teresopolis, a group of 20-odd teachers walked along the team bus, chanting anti-World Cup slogans. After shouting for a few minutes and getting their photos, the leader of the group spoke to foreign journalists.

“No one here is rooting against Brazil,” said Alex Trintino, the coordinator of a local teachers' union. “It was just a symbolic act.”

In this football-mad country, those who would go out to shout against FIFA and World Cup would be quietly praying for Selecao Brasileira. Neymar and his mates can be sure of that.

Read also

When football comes home, Shobhan Saxena

Brazil’s own goals Matt Slaughter and Janna Remes

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist who has reported for Times of India and The Hindu from South America. He is also a visiting professor on international politics at University of Sao Paulo. Nepali Times will carry this exclusive column for the duration of the World Cup.