A whole new ball game
Brazil is being painted green and yellow as it waits for the biggest sporting spectacle on this planet to begin on Thursday. And while some people are seeing red, Shobhan Saxena reports from Sao Paulo that most Brazilians are rallying behind their country
CUP OF CONTENTION: The Sao Paulo graffiti which has gone viral on social media
It was a hot and muggy afternoon in the city of Goiania, the capital of the Goias state which is a long stretch of dry land. With the sun blazing and sweat oozing from their skins, when the Brazilian players stepped out of the state stadium's tunnel on to the green field for their friendly against Panama on Tuesday, they turned their heads towards the crowd. The stands looked like a sea of yellow as 30,000 people — all dressed in Brazilian colours — shouted "Neymar, Neymar". That was quite comforting for the national hero Neymar and his mates who won the game 4-0 by just jogging around the pitch.
Earlier in the day, when the team bus was moving towards the arena, some 30 people stood near the stadium with placards that denounced the "huge cost" of the Fifa World Cup, which kicks off in Brazil on June 12. "US$ 12 billion for stadiums, nothing for us," read one slogan. "We need Fifa-standard public services," said another. From behind the tinted glasses, Neymar and company looked at the protesting teachers as their bus rolled into the stadium. "We understand their problems. We empathise with them," Dani Alves, the Brazilian defender, said. "But we hope the whole country will rally behind us when the games begin."
The biggest sporting spectacle on this planet begins on Thursday when Brazil take on Croatia in the kick-off game at Sao Paulo's Itaquera stadium. When the Brazilian team landed in this city of 21 million people for another warm-up game on June 6, there were massive traffic jams across the city as Metro workers went on a flash strike, sparking anger among the people.
"This is blackmail. They are causing so much discomfort to the people for their little political games," said Natalia Mendes, a teacher who has to change two trains to reach her school. "The unions know it's a good time to pressure the government. That's why they are creating this mess."
In recent months, irrespective of what has been appearing in the Western media, ordinary Brazilians have kept away from anti-World Cup protests. In Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, three cities which have seen rallies in recent weeks, the demonstrations — small and peaceful — have all been organised by unionised groups, several of them affiliated to opposition parties.
Not all are against the games. "They (the unions) are telling people that money for education and health has been spent on stadiums. It's a total lie," says Carina Vitral, president of UJS, a Left-leaning students' union. "We want health and education but we also want the World Cup."
Brazil prides itself as the Home of Football. So, when the biggest football show comes home, there is excitement. Almost all of the 3.3 million tickets for the World Cup have been sold. On Wednesday, when Fifa opened some counters for a few available tickets, people queued up at 3am. In the neighbourhoods of Sao Paulo, people are painting their streets in greens and yellows. The Brazilian flag is hanging everywhere: from windows to bakery shops to bars and gyms.
A demonstration by UJS, the biggest students' union in Sao Paulo, which campaigns for issues like health and education but also supports the World Cup
But some are still angry. While football is a great social leveller and unifier in this country, it's also been a vehicle for social justice. So some social movements have been seeing the World Cup as an opportunity to put their issues on the national agenda.
This week, for instance, a powerful graffito appeared on the entrance of a public school. It depicts a small boy, with an emaciated face and hungry eyes, holding a fork and knife and staring at a football placed on a plate in front of him.
"We need food, not football," a slogan emblazoned across the wall said. Seen and clicked by thousands, the image has gone viral on social media.
"My intention is to expose the country's problems. The government wants to hide some problems, but we want to highlight them," the graffiti artist, Paulo Ito, said. "The World Cup is a good time to raise such issues."
Brazil's national hero Neymar
Though Ito's powerful imagery is being appreciated, few agree with the message. Mass hunger and poverty are now things of the past in Brazil, which is officially a middle-class country. Though 12 million people are still below the poverty line, the government plans to declare Brazil "free of poverty" by the end of 2014. "Most people want to enjoy the World Cup. And people are getting angry with those who want to disrupt it," said Sara Puerta, a journalist who writes on music and social issues. "We don't want foreign visitors to have bad image of Brazil."
But some groups like the Black Bloc, an anarchist organisation, and First Command of the Capital (PCC), the biggest crime gang in Brazil, have threatened to create "chaos on terror". This week the group sent out a message by vandalising a graffito of Neymar, putting a black hood on his face with spray paints. Regularly seen wearing masks or balaclavas, the group is notorious for smashing shops, damaging ATMs and starting fires on streets.
A few weeks ago, a post on a Facebook page called "Black Block Brasil" listed the hotels that various teams would stay in during the championship, making the authorities suspicious about the group's plan to target hotels and buses. "We are quite prepared to deal with them. In recent weeks, we have been able to neutralise them," a Sao Paulo police official who didn't want to be named said.
The other headache for the police is the PCC, the gang which has threatened to launch terror-style attacks during the tournament if its leaders are transferred and isolated in prisons.
Brazil has prepared a massive security plan to deal with such issues. Around 1,57,000 troops and police will be deployed across the 12 host venues for the Cup. Some 20,000 private security agents will also be on hand in the stadiums — 1,800 per venue in an $860 million operation. In addition, 120 police officers from 40 countries will work with the Brazilian authorities.
Even as security officers prepare for games and protests, they are sure of one thing: support for the Brazilian team among ordinary people. "A lot of anger is against Fifa, and not against the team and Brazil," the police officer said. "We are getting good support from the people."
The officer has a point. With the World Cup coming closer, the country is getting into a party mood. Even protestors are rooting for Brazil, predicting that it will win the title for a record sixth time. Last week, when the Brazilian team arrived at the mountain resort of Teresopolis, a group of some 20 teachers walked along the team bus, chanting anti-World Cup slogans. After shouting for a few minutes, the leader of the group, Alex Trintino, coordinator of a local teachers' union, told foreign journalists: "It was just a symbolic act. No one here is rooting against Brazil."
In this football-mad country, those who would go out to shout against Fifa and the World Cup would be quietly praying for Selecao Brasileira. Neymar and his mates can be sure of that.