In Sao Paulo, origin of the ongoing riots, a poster reads ‘don’t come to Brazil please in 2014’ – an odd site in a country with five World Cup victories, where the love for football is so deeply imbedded in the culture that workers are given time off to watch games.
Brazil is football to many people, not least the Brazilians themselves. An endless production line of talent has provided some of the silkiest, most outrageously skilful players ever to grace a pitch. Unforgettable Seleção moments mark football history, from 17-year-old Pele hoisting up the famous Jules Rimet trophy to Ronaldo’s buck-toothed, fairy-tale comeback in 2002.
Recalling these famous events makes it all the more odd that – as tear gas and rubber bullets shower the streets and flags are burnt – Brazilian football, which so often stands for everything good about the sport, has been dragged into what is essentially a political issue.
Demonstrations started as a reaction to the government’s proposed increase in public transport prices. Sao Paulo residents were wondering exactly why, when their city has more than twice the population of London but an underground system less than half the size, they should put their hands in their pockets. The situation escalated rapidly, and what became the country’s largest protest movement in over 20 years reached a peak when, in just one night, an estimated 2 million people took to the streets in 80 cities nationwide.
Gathering steam, the people protesting have begun to express their dissatisfaction with issues far more deeply rooted than the price of bus tickets. Brazil, despite having one of the highest tax rates in the world, has one of the lowest levels of public spending. The rise to being the planet’s sixth largest economy has been soured by the relative lack of investment in infrastructure, health and education.
Because of this, citizens have directed their anger towards the two grandest of all sporting events – the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Just in preparation for next summer’s tournament, the government is spending £9 billion on stadiums and other redevelopments, to ensure they can cope with the inevitable floods of supporters going to the games and soaking up the famous carnival atmosphere.
Pointing out that they would prefer their money to be spent on things other than the famous old Maracana stadium, taxpayers pelted FIFA’s office with stones and tore down Confederations Cup placards.
In Brazil, though, the sign that something’s really wrong is when somebody is prepared to speak out against Pele, a man traditionally seen as a God-like figure to the country’s 190 million population. “Go to the hospitals, take a bus with no security, then I want to see if you keep saying stupid things”, was one response to Pele’s call to “forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let’s remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood.” Ronaldo, another ‘untouchable’ has also come under criticism since saying, “You don’t make a World Cup with hospitals”.
But, do the footballers have a point? Perhaps protestors have become blurred in their thinking. Whilst they have every right and reason to democratically protest against their government’s policies, maybe they’re forgetting how much football has added, and will continue to add, to their rich history and culture.
Although demonstration groups at first represented the young and affluent middle-classes, the protests in Rio de Janeiro included thousands of people who had descended from the desperately poor hillside favelas to make their voices heard. The irony here is that football is many children’s only chance of escaping the poverty and crime of such areas – as was the case for heroes Cafu and Romario.
It is in this way that football is most important to Brazil. Men such as Cafu and Romario are worshipped by fans and the media alike, held up as rags-to-riches examples of what the sport can do for kids who are born into severe social disadvantage.
Jardim Irene, birthplace of legendary full-back Cafu, is one of Sao Paolo’s poorest favelas. When the legendary captain won the World Cup in 2002 he scribbled the name of his unforgotten hometown on his shirt before lifting the trophy – a call and reminder for compatriots to recognise where football and hard work can take them, and what it can take them away from.
The power of football is something Cafu believes in so strongly that he setup the Cafu Foundation. It gives hundreds of disadvantaged three to 18-year-olds the opportunity not only to play football, but to stay away from the crime and prostitution that so many of them fall into. Organisations such as Cafu’s don’t just focus on football, but try to develop social skills and stress the importance of education.
Nanko Van Buuren, a Dutch psychiatrist, came to Brazil in 1987 to form the IBISS – The Brazilian Institute for Innovation and Social Health Care. He estimates that he has helped almost 4,000 people in 68 favelas since founding the organisation. 98 per cent of them, as per the rules of the IBISS, attend their school classes every day.
“We take ex-drug bosses” Van Buuren says, “and ex-drug soldiers and show them how to coach football to the kids. Here they are role models to show children that organised crime is not the solution.”
One of his many success stories is that of 27 year-old ex-drug runner ‘Max’. “Without football, I would probably be dead”, he says.
Aside from the humanitarian benefits that football and the World Cup bring, and despite what some reports may tell you, there are also some economic benefits. An estimated 120,000 jobs will be created throughout the build-up, and a study by Ernst & Young predicts the tournament will bring $70 billion (approximately £43bn) to the economy.
But, hosting a World Cup should be about more than just numbers for Brazil. It’s the coming out party, the chance to show the biggest audience in the world how far a fantastic country has already advanced, and how special their football is to them and us.
In some countries, you are killed for protesting against the government. Brazil, however, is a democracy, and the most crucial aspect of any democracy is that the people will be heard. President Dilma Rousseff has listened, and announced a series of reforms addressing the electorate’s main concerns.
Building on her earlier U-turn of the original public transport price rise, the President has announced a £17 billion public transport programme, and a referendum on how that is to be implemented. All oil royalties will be diverted towards education, and reforming policies and an intake of foreign doctors have been pledged to the health department.
The demonstrators have, surely, achieved what they set out to do – bring political change.
Football should not be about politics. The Brazilian version of football has what we all love about the beautiful game; passion, magical moments, trophies and skill – and having fun while doing it all. Their players are the perfect examples of what football can do for the disadvantaged, and how football should be played. Let’s not let politics cause us to forget that, or spoil it.
Next year’s World Cup should be a celebration – enjoy it.