Would you imagine that Brazilians, known worldwide for being raving mad about soccer, would hit the streets to demonstrate against a soccer event being held in their own backyard? It sounds like something that would only happen in a bizarre parallel universe, but it is actually real. It has happened very recently in the home of Pelé, Ronaldinho, and Neymar.
These protests, organized by radical activists through social media, have not been as massive as those staged last summer; indeed, press reports indicate that not more than 1,000 or so have been gathered at any one time. Nevertheless, some of those protests have ended with acts of vandalism and, after one such gathering, more than 100 arrests. Protestors warn that this is only the beginning; they threaten with larger demonstrations over the summer, coinciding with the World Cup. The slogan Sem direitos, sem Copa (No rights, no World Cup) has become the rallying cry of these protests, and #NaoVaiTerCopa (“we will not have a Cup”) competes for attention with #VaiTerCopa (“we will have a Cup”), sponsored by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
Anything and everything can and has been said about the radical activists who are behind these demonstrations; in fact, a Brazilian blogger has even connected them with extreme right-wing activists intent on giving Rousseff a hard time. An opinion piece in Spanish daily El País opined that these protests are primarily a reaction from true soccer fans – or a backlash, rather – against the crass commercialization of the sport, willingly sponsored by soccer’s international governing body, FIFA. But soccer insider Keir Radnedge said it best when he insisted that big-time sports events like the World Cup ignore the public at their peril:
[T]he newly-enlightened youth of Brazil rose up against a perceived imbalance between expenditure on the World Cup and expenditure on social welfare. […]
One of the repeated complaints this writer found among protesters last June was about the democratic deficit: simply, they had not been asked whether they wanted Brazil to host the World Cup.
Hence the protests were in part a reaction against an older governing caste […] who never felt a need to answer to anyone, let alone the population at large, over their sporting and financial power games. […]
When big events are up for grabs, sport needs to treat the people as partners rather than paving stones . . . walking with them rather than on them.
This goes beyond the idea (or stereotype) that every Brazilian was born wearing King Pelé’s shirt and the world has to see it. Although some of the tactics employed by the demonstrators are not universally approved, these individuals simply took on a big point dramatically brought by last year’s demonstrations: Brazil has much better things to do with the massive amount of money earmarked for the Cup. (In any case, six of the 12 venues were not completed by the FIFA-imposed deadline of December 31 of last year.) Brazil is about to play host to the world this coming summer, but visitors will not only see Messi, Donovan or Cristiano Ronaldo. They will also see a decrepit public transportation system and (God forbid) be victimized by criminals that may also be dealt with by law enforcement with the most extreme of prejudices. And if those visitors get sick or injured, they may have to be sent to one of Brazil’s problematic hospitals. (Fortunately, they won’t be able to send their children to its equally problematic schools.) That is what today’s demonstrators have on their minds, whether radicals or not.
On Rousseff’s side, Brazil cannot afford to host a Cup mired by large-scale protests or even street riots. Sure Brazil’s law enforcement establishment will make sure nothing happens, but the larger concern is that if the demonstrations are not kept under control, they will spoil Brazil’s coming-of-age party, which will culminate with the Rio Olympics in 2016. The South American giant may still have feet of clay, but it seems that nobody and nothing will (or should) get in the way of Brazil’s big moment — not on Rousseff’s watch. It’s not that she will utilize the abusive methods of the military dictatorship that sent her to jail back in the day, but Brazil’s hypermilitarized police forces give no comfort. In addition, the Brazilian government has announced that it will cover the travel and lodging expenses of any cabinet minister, military personnel, or public servant that wishes to see the Cup games, in what someone in the Brazilian Twittersphere has called Bolsa-Copa, after the famous cash transfer program known as Bolsa Família. The Twitterite in question believes João do Povo (Brazil’s John Q. Public) will foot that bill; needless to say, that decision will not sit well.
In the end, it might have been better for Brazil to prioritize the solution of its more pressing domestic issues and leave extravagancies like the World Cup and the Olympics for later. I am not against these sports spectacles, but other things are more important. Of course, now that the World Cup is all but a go, what I wish to see is for Brazil to make a return on its massive investment — not at a mere break-even point, but much more than that. In addition, whatever revenue will be gained from the Cup should be put to the best use possible: to satisfy the needs of a population that is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.