What’s more important to a Brazilian than allegations of U.S. spying on their president? Not the stuttering economy, rising inflation, preparations for next year’s World Cup and 2016 Olympics, or even the looming presidential election—all of which factored into recent nationwide demonstrations still reverberating in outbursts of violent protest.
Futebol. And with it comes one of the most important questions in Brazil, impacting every Brazilian day to day and how they interact with each other and the world.
Who’s your futebol club?
As a recent transplant to Rio de Janeiro, I expected deep conversations about democracy and rule of law. More often, I face existential questions about why one is loyal to a losing team, forcing me into a dilemma that Brazilians rarely confront. Most Brazilians are born into fandom, their allegiance to one of the nation’s futebol clubs received at birth from their parents and grandparents and seemingly all the way back to the founders of the Brazilian futebol league in the early 20th century.
But I would have to choose a club—which, in Brazil, is like choosing a religion itself. It means community, belonging, and—for a newcomer like me—arrival. For a gringo to speak Portuguese is good; to support a Brazilian futebol club is divine.
If you walk today through Complexo do Alemão—an enormous Rio de Janeiro shantytown, or favela, that was once the frequent scene of gun battles—you can see the changes. Last Christmas eve, the Brazilian Symphony performed a classical music concert in the community that, until recently, was so dangerous that police were afraid to enter it. People in the neighborhood, many of whom had never been to a concert before, were delighted.
To reach the neighborhood, you can now take the newly-installed cable car that resembles a gondola at an Alpine ski resort. Not only does it spare you the long climb in hot December weather—it offers a terrific view high above the 3.5 square kilometer neighborhood where 69,000 people live. The glass window reveals a giant and densely populated favela composed of poor houses unevenly distributed along narrow streets and small corridors. It is a unique and complex human map of haphazard paths and supply lines for water, electricity and gas.
The new cable car—which cost the Brazilian public $105 million—is part of the Brazilian federal government’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program—PAC), a huge urbanization project that has taken place in Rio’s poor communities. The cable car was constructed to make Complexo do Alemão more accessible. “The lift is a blessing for the ones who live at the top of the community. Now we feel free,” said Teresinha Maria de Oliveira, a washerwoman who has lived in the favela for decades.
The government has also focused on housing, public health and sanitation, and improvements in these areas are clearly seen by anyone who visits Complexo do Alemão. Recently constructed apartment buildings, schools and health centers have changed the image of a place that for 30 years had been a living hell. But violence and fear are still powerful memories for most residents.
“We never knew when the conflicts would start,” remembered Mrs. Oliveira about the era when armed drug dealers dominated the neighborhood. “My sons couldn’t study. It was too dangerous to take them to school during the shootings between police and gangs,” she said.
“The love ran out. It’s going to turn into Turkey here,” chanted thousands of protestors as they moved down Rio Branco Avenue in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday evening, closing the downtown’s main thoroughfare to traffic as three police helicopters swam overhead.
When Rio’s protestors returned home from Rio’s State Legislative Assembly after one arrest near Central Station, it was to televised images of violence between police and protestors in São Paulo, where tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into a larger crowd and over 230 people were arrested.
Protests occurred in seven capital cities across Brazil yesterday in response to a ten-cent increase in bus and subway fares. However, such protests have been occurring around the country for several months now. In Porto Alegre in April, protests over the fare increase eventually led to its cancellation. Protesters say that the fare hike, a routine item in Brazilian bus company contracts, has become a tipping point for citizens bearing the cost of Brazil’s public improvements before seeing the benefit.
“If the quality of bus service was improving in Rio, this would make sense, but the buses are overcrowded, they run infrequently and they are unsafe,” said Natane Santos, 25, a law student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Students made up a healthy portion of the Rio protestors, although there were also participants from different social movements in the city and the occasional political flag. “People are protesting the bigger vision of what’s going on,” Santos continued. “I’m glad to be hearing people chanting tonight, ‘We’re over the World Cup; we want more money for health and education.’”
Please find the original text below, submitted in Portuguese.
In the next few years, Brazil will host two major world sporting events, the World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016).
Beyond putting the country on the international stage and increasing the number of tourists and investors, the big question is what will be the real impact of these events in improving the living conditions of the majority of Brazilians. With this in mind, the Special Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality (SEPPIR), with support from the U.S. Consulate in Brazil, organized a series of events inviting representatives of social organizations and governments to look at how best to include Afro-Brazilians in the preparations for the games.
One of the concerns of SEPPIR, a ministry of the federal government, is the fact that the Afro-Brazilian population has historically not been a part of the process of economic inclusion—the result of more than 300 years of slavery and a lack of economic inclusion policies. Social movement activists point out that it is very likely that most Afro-Brazilians will not benefit from the opportunities of the games, even though Brazil is attracting significant public and private investments.
Thousands of fervent fans will converge in Charlotte, North Carolina today for two games of the much anticipated CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament, which gives national teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean an early chance to further their World Cup ambitions. Although Charlotte is not widely known as a Hispanic soccer hub and the city has never hosted such an important tournament, millions of viewers from across the hemisphere will tune in tonight as Costa Rica battles El Salvador, and Cuba takes on the Mexico’s national team.
Charlotte first attracted the attention of Gold Cup organizers in 2010 when nearly 65,000 fans packed Bank of America Stadium to watch an exhibition match between Mexico and Iceland. Although soccer has struggled to take hold in much of the United States, support for the sport in Charlotte has been buoyed by Latino immigrants. North Carolina is home to an estimated 410,000 Mexicans, and more than 50,000 Cubans, Costa Ricans and Salvadorans, according to the 2010 census.
Charlotte residents are optimistic that the Gold Cup will boost the local economy. According to the Charlotte Regional Visitor’s Authority, last year’s exhibition brought in $11.6 million, largely from tourists travelling from other states. For today’s games, local Spanish-language radio stations La Voz de Charlotte and La Raza have helped generate hype by giving away free tickets and jerseys and by taking countless calls from soccer enthusiasts.
Since the Gold Cup’s creation in 1991, Mexico has won the tournament five times and the United States, four. But history doesn’t temper the support of fans for underdogs like Costa Rica, El Salvador and Cuba, who have never won. This year’s champion will earn a place in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, a crucial stop on the long road to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2014.
Four chances, four victories. As predicted, all four original MERCOSUR nations have now gone through to the round of eight in the World Cup, joining three teams from Europe and one from Africa. Only one team from South America has been eliminated (Chile), and it was bounced by another team from the region (Brazil). Head to head against competition from outside the hemisphere, South America continues to impress. From the opening round, the region has been a dominating presence in this year’s tournament.
It wasn’t always easy or pretty, witness Paraguay’s shootout victory over a motivated Japanese team, but to this point, South America has gotten the job done. Moving forward to the final four, however, will be another thing altogether. There are no “gimme” games at this point; both the Brazil-Netherlands and the Argentina-Germany games could be legitimate championship games this year, were the teams not destined to meet in the round of eight. It’s possible that the winners of these two games could well meet up in the actual final.
The question of whether to institute in-game technology in the World Cup has been a consideration for FIFA year after year. Yet one of strongest voices against the idea is the federation’s president, Sepp Blatter. Given that this year’s World Cup has been riddled with disallowed goals and unflagged offsides, Blatter is starting to change his stance on the matter. Following two incorrect, game-changing calls in the round of 16, Blatter has publicly apologized on Tuesday to the fans and players of England and Mexico, who were both knocked out of the tournament on Sunday.
In addition to his apology, Blatter agreed to re-open talks on the one issue that he has actively opposed for decades: instituting in-game technology in all FIFA-sanctioned matches. Such technology could have prevented both of Sunday’s missed calls, which included a clear offside goal from Argentina’s Carlos Tevez against Mexico, and a disallowed goal for England’s Frank Lampard.
When the knock-out round of the World Cup begins Saturday morning, the Western Hemisphere will have almost half of the final 16 teams in contention, and at least two teams (the winners of Argentina vs. Mexico on Sunday and also Brazil vs. Chile) guaranteed in the final eight. Even more compelling: both 2006 finalists, Italy and France, will be watching the games from the sidelines, the first time that’s ever happened. Other European teams that were early on picked to outperform have struggled; so far Holland appears to be the strongest European team although Slovakia has certainly surprised and Spain has finally recovered from an early setback to Switzerland. Latin America and also the United States have acquitted themselves well so far.
In soccer terms the Western Hemisphere has appeared to equal its former colonials overseers. The United States tied England 1-1; Brazil tied its “second team,” Portugal, 0-0. For good measure, even Mexico defeated its one-time colonial aspirant, France, 2-0. Mexicans should consider adding June 17 to their holiday calendar, to compliment Cinco de Mayo which celebrates the defeat of the French at the Battle of Juarez. Only Spain was able to prevail against its former colonies, defeating hapless Honduras, 2-0, and Chile by 2-1. (Honduras did eke out a tie in its last game.)
Each World Cup brings a new storyline, and this one is no different. The rise of African football, the year that Spain finally met expectations, the return of England to World Cup prominence; all of these and others have been mooted as possibilities for 2010. But to this point, all have proven a bust. In fact, having just watched Chile defeat Switzerland, the real story of this year’s competition is the dominance of the Western Hemisphere.
Latin American nations, as well as the United States, have not lost one game yet in the preliminary rounds, except for Honduras’ 1-0 defeat by another Latin American nation, Chile, and 2-0 to Spain. With the final game left to play in the opening round, it’s likely that no fewer than six or even seven of the eight Western Hemisphere representatives will go through, almost half of the final 16 in the quarter finals. This contrasts with the underperforming Europeans, only one of which (Holland) is at the top of its group. England, Germany, and Italy have all underperformed, whereas the French have just been inept, poetic justice for the handball that brought them through qualifying against the Irish. Portugal looked languid until a wipeout of North Korea; Spain needed to play the weakest team in the tournament from the Western Hemisphere to notch its first points.
Head to head, Western Hemisphere against Europe, the results have so far been amazing. Chile has knocked off Switzerland, which earlier beat Spain. Paraguay defeated Slovakia and tied Italy; Mexico defeated France; the United States tied both England and Slovenia.
Honduras' soccer win in San Salvador on October 14, guaranteeing a World Cup berth for the Catrachos in South Africa in 2010, has potentially muddled negotiations to resolve the political crisis that erupted on June 28. As I noted in this space last week and also in Sports Illustrated, the prospect of a Honduran berth in the World Cup would provide the de facto government with the opportunity to use the result to rally the population around the flag, potentially providing an excuse to remain intransigent in the face of immense international pressure.
Indeed, with the declaration of yesterday as a national holiday, that is exactly what the Micheletti government did. But wait, it gets even more cynical, because just as the determining game was getting underway in San Salvador, a Micheletti spokesman was walking away from an apparent agreement in principal that had been struck by the opposing parties earlier in the day to resolve the crisis. The calculation now appears to be that the Honduran win will buy additional time for the de facto government in its efforts to keep the deposed president Zelaya holed up in the Brazilian Embassy.
Micheletti’s gambit is only the latest example of a well-worn path in Latin America of attempting to transfer good feelings resulting from international sporting victories to support the government in power. One need only think of the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, for example. More broadly, former Eastern Bloc nations routinely used sport to promote the legitimacy and superiority of their systems internationally, and Cuba continues to do so to this day, though with less overt success. It may be cynical and heavy-handed, but it apparently still works.