How the World Cup Made Brazil Hate Its Own National Team

The stadium scene.
June 12 2014 8:58 AM

How the World Cup Made Brazil Hate Its Own National Team

Blame FIFA.

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Brazilians unhappy with the cost of hosting the World Cup may do what was once unthinkable: root against their own national team.

Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

It was right after a missed Brazil free kick that Luiz Marinho, my Airbnb host in Rio de Janeiro, looked at me over the feijoada his housemate Francisco had prepared and said: “If Brazil loses, there will be a revolution.”

On the television in the kitchen of the Ipanema house that his father bought in the 1960s and that Marinho has been trying to sell for years, the Brazilian national team was slouching toward a 1–0 win against Serbia in a World Cup tune-up. Nobody in the kitchen gave a damn about the result. The TV was on out of habit, and they seemed annoyed to have to endure what had come to represent the great national bugbear. At one point, Ronaldo appeared on screen to do commentary. Everyone in the kitchen hissed. "He's fake," Marinho said. In the São Paulo stadium, Brazilian fans were booing Neymar. Brazilians, the most happy-go-lucky, most soccer-loving people in the world, were jeering their own team on the eve of the World Cup. How had it come to this?

FIFA is how.

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Oh, and another thing: FIFA doesn't care.

Every four years, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, a Swiss bank that occasionally stages soccer games, alights on a country for a month or so to plunder as much bullion as possible. In 2010, the target was South Africa, where FIFA wrung max dollars from government deals and compelled the construction of stadiums—several of which may never again be filled—in a country with some of the highest income inequality in the world. This business model has been replicated in Brazil, where $3.6 billion of taxpayer money has gone toward stadium construction in a country that can no better afford such expenditures. The event's overall price tag is somewhere north of $11 billion.

Soccer, as the cliché goes, is a religion in Brazil, and futebol has always channeled the national id. This World Cup, unfortunately, represents something ugly: a system rigged by crooked politicians and greedy corporations, which existed here before Sepp Blatter and his cronies arrived; they just made it worse. And sin of sins, they conscripted the Brazilian team for their mission. They took the Seleção away from the people.

FIFA is essentially its own nation-state, one untethered to any particular jurisdiction but powerful enough to impose its governing architecture on actual countries. In South Africa, FIFA demanded that the parliament pass legislation to ensure that nettlesome things like labor regulations didn't interfere with business. In Brazil, FIFA made the host country ignore its own law prohibiting alcohol sales in stadiums (to prevent rowdies from getting too sauced) so World Cup sponsor Budweiser can push its suds.

Stadium exclusion zones, another tactic from the South Africa playbook, surround the venues. Inside them, only FIFA-approved products can be sold. Dissent is smothered by Big Macs and Adidas apparel. Free speech, also restricted, could be met with something more menacing, especially given the way World Cup protestors in Brazil have been treated so far, which is with rubber bullets and tear gas. When I went down to the famous Maracanã stadium in Rio a week before the first game, I found dozens of body-armor-wearing, black-clad special police waiting to pound the dirt out of any favela punk who dared take a run at the outer perimeter.

Treating sporting spectacles like military exercises is nothing new. It happens at every Olympics and World Cup now. But this feels different. In the run-up to Thursday’s opening match, it appeared that Brazil's government might, in fact, be prepping for a revolution. Gun-toting men were all over Rio—apparently more than 150,000 members of the police and armed forces had been deployed for the World Cup—including what appeared to be a full platoon of soldiers in a convoy to protect the Netherlands team as it went to and from its beachfront hotel. One afternoon, a Brazilian Navy ship began patrolling Ipanema Beach directly in front of the hotel. It was an incongruous sight: women sipping caipirinhas in thongs and men playing soccer volleyball in Speedos while the military stood by to rain shells on the mass of humanity that might pour from the hills at any moment.

It was much harder to detect what revolutionary spirit remained among Brazilians after a year of protests, some of them violent. People seemed more apathetic than anything. Resigned. The unrest from the past year, even from a few months ago, was nowhere to be seen. Coopted by labor unions and political parties, the movement's grassroots energy had dissipated. I had to beg off an assignment to cover the protests because I couldn’t find any, just a counter-FIFA gathering that sounded more like a hipster art installation with popcorn and drinks.

The Globo TV network had initiated saturation World Cup coverage, sometimes just showing a team bus idling in a parking lot for several minutes: a long shot, no cuts—just a bus. Around town, shops had begun to string little Brazilian flags from the rafters, but this was a far cry from World Cups of the past, when the streets would be painted green and yellow. Not many people were wearing Brazil jerseys. It felt embarrassing now. Although the mood was far from celebratory, it had begun to brighten as fans from around the world arrived. At the Christ the Redeemer statue, a dozen groups from different countries were jubilant. This is what FIFA counts on.

But few teams in the history of the World Cup have been under as much pressure as Brazil faces in 2014. If they start winning, the party will crank up and the troubles will be forgotten, at least until FIFA can hightail it out of town. The question, of course, is what happens if Brazil loses? Better: What if Brazil loses to, say, Uruguay in the quarterfinals, a dire result that some Brazilians are rooting for?

The last time the World Cup was staged here, in 1950, Brazil lost in the final to the Uruguayans, an outcome that, I’m told, provoked a period of ritual cutting that has yet to end. That seems a little much considering Brazil's five World Cup wins since. But Brazilians were mourning more than a match in 1950. Winning that tournament was supposed to herald the arrival of the country as a dynamic force on the world stage. Instead, Brazil tilted toward totalitarianism and a bit more than a decade later was mired in a military dictatorship.

But Brazil is not going to lose this time, not according to the Brazilians I met. "Like France in ’98," they say, the home team will prevail. (In 1998, France prevailed over none other than Brazil.) It had all been arranged. That's how disenchanted they were. The fix was in. The Seleção would win, but why should anyone cheer? A trophy was nothing to hope for, since it meant victory for FIFA and a broken system. But FIFA would win, because that's what multinational corporations do everywhere, even the ones that claim to be nonprofits. There would be no revolution. People here had started to realize this. The only way for Brazil to win was for Brazil to lose. And how could that happen?

On Thursday morning, the day of the opening match, a group of protesters in São Paulo are supposed to march on the stadium. Three thousand people are predicted to show up but that is just a guess. Nobody knows if it will be a last gasp or a way of reigniting resistance. Perhaps it all depends on who wins that opening game between Brazil and Croatia. If the Brazilians were to lose, somehow, would millions take to the streets? And would that really be cause for despair, or might it represent the biggest victory Brazil could hope for over the next five weeks?

Luke O’Brien is a writer in Washington, D.C.