How the Brazilian Government Tried to Stamp Out the Country’s Soccer Protests

Slate's soccer blog.
June 10 2014 11:24 AM

How the Brazilian Government Tried to Stamp Out the Country’s Soccer Protests

Brazilian national flag during clashes in downtown Rio de Janeiro.
A demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask holds a Brazilian national flag during clashes in downtown Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013.

Photo by Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

This article is excerpted from Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer by David Goldblatt, out now from Nation Books.

The Confederations Cup began life as a PR exercise for the House of Saud. Having built one of the most opulent but underused stadiums in the world—the King Fahd—the Saudis created the tournament in 1992 to fill up the schedule and play soft-power football politics. The cup pitted their own national side against a selection of leading international teams invited on an all-expenses-paid jaunt. The King Fahd Cup was held again in 1995 and 1997, with the Saudis attempting to invite all the sides that had won their continental competitions (like the European Championships and the Asian Cup). In 2001, the tournament passed into the hands of FIFA, who have since staged it on a four-year basis as a warm-up and dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Korea-Japan 2001, Germany 2005, and South Africa 2009 all passed without comment or much incident. Brazil 2013 was meant to be the same.

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Through the autumn of 2012 and into early 2013 there were small but visible signs of discontent. The Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas, which had cut its teeth as the main opposition to the Pan American Games, maintained its regular protests in Rio and other cities over the wastefulness and corruption of the World Cup infrastructure program, attracting 3,000 to 4,000 people to their anti-privatization marches on the Maracanã. At the same time, increases in bus fares were attracting protests, led by the Movimento Passe Livre, most notably in Natal in late 2012 where buses were burned and police violently dispersed the crowds. In March 2013, the same pattern of events was seen in Porto Alegre when fare increases were announced, and in May much larger and fiercer confrontations took place in the inland city of Goiânia—a fact barely noted by the Brazilian media, let alone the rest of the world.

Protestors display banners during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil.
Protesters display banners during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 Group B match between Spain and Tahiti at the Maracana Stadium on June 20, 2013 in Rio de Janeiro.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Then, on June 6, just nine days before the Confederations Cup was due to begin, the Movimento Passe Livre began to demonstrate against bus-fare rises in São Paulo, blocking Avenida Paulista and other major thoroughfares. This could not be ignored. The police, as ever, reacted with the use of maximum force, and although the media were depicting the protest as an antisocial nuisance, the demonstrators’ bravery in the face of police brutality began to bring more supporters on to the streets. Organized through a complex mixture of social movements, personal connections, and massive use of social media, demonstrations took place every day in São Paulo and were supported by marches in Rio, Brasília, and Belo Horizonte of between 1,000 and 5,000 people. Almost immediately the protesters began to talk about more than just fare increases. Chants and placards soon made reference to the hopeless state of the nation’s public education and health care systems; the pervasiveness of political corruption; the unaccountability and brutality of the police. Yet for all this, the protests remained small and only partially connected acts of defiance. What turned these smoldering embers into a conflagration was the football.

On June 15, the Confederations Cup opened in Brasília with the host nation playing Japan. Riot police used pepper spray and rubber bullets on a small demonstration close to the stadium where protesters carried signs like “Health? Education? No! Here everything is for the World Cup.” FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood to give his speech and was roundly booed throughout. Blatter attempted to respond by asking the audience, “Where was the fair play in all of this?” but he was booed even more loudly. President Dilma Rousseff was next up, and she too was booed while protesters unfurled a variety of banners inside the stadium. The disparate demands of the street were suddenly given a theme around which its many concerns could crystallize; the protean spasm of activism acquired a focus and a rhythm. The commercial sporting spectacular had brought the world’s cameras to Brazil. Now a political and popular anti-spectacular would meet it head on. Hitherto the mainstream press had systematically tried to portray the protestors as extremists and marginal, and the football establishment had called for the futebol nation to go home and rally behind the Brazilian national team, the Seleção. Now they would have to eat their words. The scale and range of protest, the existence of alternative media sources, and the widespread public recognition that football, rather than just a source of unity and pride, now also exposed Brazil’s ugliest sides, rendered all of their arguments untenable.

A fan holds up a sign reading "Stop Corruption" during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil.
A fan holds up a sign reading "Stop Corruption" during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 Group A match between Japan and Mexico at Estadio Mineirao on June 22, 2013.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Two days later, major demonstrations were held in 20 cities, 65,000 strong in São Paulo and more than 100,000 in Rio. A very small number of protesters attacked the state legislature where evidence emerged that the police were resorting to agents provocateurs as a way of justifying the use of violence against the protesters. In Brasília, protestors climbed on to the roof of the Congress building. In Porto Alegre, demonstrators set fire to a bus, and in Curitiba they attempted to force their way into the office of the state governor, but these were overwhelmingly peaceful protests policed as if they were an armed uprising. On June 19, as Brazil faced Italy in Fortaleza, 25,000 people marched directly to the stadium, where they were met by the usual combination of armed brutality and incompetence.

the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup football tournament between Brazil and Spain.
Protesters march near the Maracanã stadium on June 30, 2013, a few hours before the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup football tournament between Brazil and Spain.

Photo by Tasso Marcelo/AFP/Getty Images

The following day was the occasion of the biggest demonstrations yet, as Brazilians took to the streets of 120 cities, including every state capital in the country from Rio Branco, deep in the Amazon on the Peruvian border, to Porto Alegre, 2,000 miles to the south. At least 300,000 people gathered in Rio alone and were once again met by chaotic and violent policing. The carnival-esque front of the march along Avenida Presidente Vargas was bombarded by tear gas and percussion bombs, destroying the bonhomie and internal order of the crowd. In the ensuing chaos, looting broke out on some side streets, and as one eyewitness noted, the military police “roamed the streets like rabid dogs, guns pointed in everyone’s faces. Worse, they threw tear gas into restaurants.” Everywhere the crowds carried thousands of handmade, hand-drawn placards and banners. Truly a thousand voices were set free, from the instructional “This is about more than just bus fares, it’s a scream by people who cannot take corruption any more” to the exasperated “Too many reasons to fit on here.” From the crude “Fuck off International Football Association” and “FIFA the bitch” to the entirely reasonable “Brazil, wake up! A teacher is worth more than Neymar.” And everywhere, sprayed on the bus shelters and in the underpasses, “The Cup kills the poor.”

On June 21, President Rousseff made her move, going on television, accepting the right of the nation to protest, and promising to address the people’s concerns by holding down bus fares, importing extra doctors from Cuba to fill the gaping holes in Brazil’s health service, and reserving oil revenues for education, but defending spending on the World Cup. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to take the sting out of the movement. With truly remarkable haste, Congress passed the necessary legislation, and contentious laws on corruption and homosexuality as a treatable disease were withdrawn.

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Protest, though still widespread, thinned. In a final flourish, 120,000 people marched from the center of Belo Horizonte to the Mineirão as Brazil beat Uruguay in their semifinal. Activists occupied the state legislature and in the Sete de Setembro Square, the traditional place in which the Seleção’s victories were celebrated, the night ended with a fusillade of tear gas so vast that the huge obelisk in the center, more than 30 meters high, was completely obscured. Five days later, on the night of the final in Rio, a crowd of 5,000 marched on the Maracanã and was met by an enormous deployment of the Rio police department’s riot squads. The military police and the army were on standby, though as ever there was no medical care available to anyone but for the six volunteer medical students and their plant sprays full of milk of magnesia. Half a dozen helicopters swooped and hovered above the narrow canyon-like streets through which the crowds moved. While those inside the stadium sang the Brazilian national anthem, those outside took in the harsh symphony of tear-gas grenades, batons beating on riot shields, and the relentless thudding and whirring of helicopter blades. Brazil won the match 3–0 as the crowd was charged, gassed, and dispersed.

This article is excerpted from Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer by David Goldblatt, out now from Nation Books.

David Goldblatt was born in London; lives in Bristol, England; and teaches in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer and Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer.

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