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Kicking off in Brazil

Military police fire tear gas at protestors near Maracana stadium where Brazil and Spain are playing the final Confederations Cup soccer match in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, June 30, 2013. Anti-government protesters are marching Sunday near the Maracana football stadium during a major international match, venting their anger about the billions of dollars the Brazilian government is spending on major sporting events rather than public services. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

17th June, Belo Horizonte, Tahiti vs Nigeria

Moments before the full-time whistle an invisible cloud wafted into the Mineirão Stadium. It was the briefest of appearances: a sharp, sulphuric, constricting air which hinted at violence, even in such diluted quantities. Fifa would later claim that it was the scent of placards being burned, but I knew differently. It was tear gas.

Two days earlier I’d arrived in Belo Horizonte, a city of two-and-a-half million people in the southeast of Brazil, to write a story about football. The tiny Pacific island of Tahiti had unexpectedly qualified as Oceania’s representative for the Confederations Cup and the players, a mixed bag of teachers, policemen and fishermen used to playing in front of a few dozen fans in their domestic league, had one simple aim: to avoid humiliation.

Tahiti had lost its final warm-up match for the tournament 7-0 against Chile’s under-20s. If a group of teenagers could inflict such damage, what could world champions Spain do? Tahiti’s coach Eddy Etaeta had come up with a leftfield strategy to cope with the pressure: he repeatedly showed his players photos of the Spanish footballers so they were less likely to get starstruck on the pitch, and played them recordings of noisy crowds to help prepare them for the roar of the 96,000-capacity Maracana Stadium. But before they met Xavi and co, they had to face Africa’s strongest team, Nigeria.

There were only two bona fide Tahitian supporters in the crowd at the Mineirão – the parents of goalkeeper Mickaël Roche – but thousands of Brazilian fans were cheering for these ultimate underdogs. When Jonathan Tehau scored for Tahiti, his teammates responded as if they’d won the World Cup itself, even though they were 3-1 down at the time.

At the interval I chatted to Igor Resende, a young, mild-mannered São Paulo journalist. He wasn’t staying for the second half: he’d heard from contacts that the protest planned for today, billed as an anti-World Cup demonstration, was much larger than expected and he wanted to check it out.

It was as Elderson Uwa Echiéjilé hammered in a sixth goal for Nigeria that I caught the scent of tear gas on the wind. I left the game and took a bus to the town centre. I was wondering why it was taking such a suspiciously circuitous route when I received a call. It was Igor. He was in hospital.

I was dropped off at Praça Sete de Septembro, named after the date of Brazilian independence from Portugal in 1822. It was here that the protest had begun, and it was to this spot that the tired and injured had returned. It was close to midnight but around a thousand people, a fraction of the estimated 15,000 who had clashed with police near the Mineirão earlier in the evening, were still on their feet. A sign reading “Anti Copa” hung from a balcony; the words “Foda-se a Fifa” (“Fuck off Fifa”) were scrawled on the pavement. Surrounding roads had been blocked off by the military police. I was later told that it was the biggest organised mass protest to have taken place in Brazil since the last days of the military dictatorship in the 1980s.

“At least a million Brazilians would take to the streets – and the Confederations Cup meant that the world’s media was around to see them do it”

The Confederations Cup is a dress rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup, a celebration of the hosts’ long-envied footballing prowess and the icing on the cake of a boom that saw Brazil overtake the UK to become the world’s sixth largest economy in 2012. In 2016, Rio will welcome the Olympics. Hosting these major events in quick succession is supposed to mark Brazil’s arrival among the top tier of nations, and the official narrative has been that of a successful, confident country rejoicing at the accolades. But the protesters I would meet over the next two weeks, both the hardcore activists with ‘V for Vendetta’ masks and those who had never joined mass protests before, told a very different story.

A seemingly innocuous rise in bus fares in São Paulo had sparked huge street demonstrations – the 6th June protests on Paulista Avenue, which attracted more than 20,000 people. After riot police responded with a powerful show of force, protester numbers swelled and their demands broadened – they were against corruption and high taxes, and they wanted to see more funding for Brazil’s sub-par schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure. The World Cup and the Confederations Cup became lightning rods for the disenchanted; they symbolised bad governance, cronyism and waste. Stadiums had gone two or three times over budget and the lucrative construction contracts were tarnished by allegations of corruption. These  protests would spread from São Paulo to dozens of cities all over the country, from Fortaleza and Porto Alegre to Recife and Brasilia. At least a million Brazilians would take to the streets – and the Confederations Cup meant that the world’s media was around to see them do it.

Bus fare protesters in São Paulo

Protesters in Belo Horizonte

One of the estimated 15,000 people that clashed with the police in Belo Horizonte on the evening of the Tahiti game was Daniel Sanabria, a technician in his twenties. When I met him in Praça Sete de Septembro he peeled off a bloody bandage to reveal an ugly red bullet wound on his left hand. “Tonight is about all of Brazil moving against corruption,” said his friend Tainara Freitas. “This year we rise. We have woken up. We are on the streets like in Turkey and Greece. The World Cup will bring tourists and money but it isn’t good for poor people.”

Everybody I spoke to told a similar story about what had happened near the Mineirão. The marchers had approached some barricades and the police had let loose with tear gas and rubber bullets. Many protesters had been badly beaten. Speaking from his hospital room, Igor confirmed the scale of the confrontation. “The police came with a brutal force,” he said. “I didn’t see the protesters do anything. The police threw a tear gas cannister which exploded in the middle of the protest. Then they began to shoot.”

He was hit in the back by a rubber bullet as he tried to run away. “I didn’t look back because I thought I might get shot again,” he said. The bullet knocked him off his feet and left a huge bruise on his back. “I don’t think the police are entirely to blame,” he said. “They are badly paid. They have a bad life. They act like this because they are scared.”

Igor lays some of the blame for the heavy handed policing at Fifa’s door. According to its own estimates, the organisation is set to make around $4 billion profit from the World Cup, and anything which tarnishes the event or jeopardises this income needs to be dealt with swiftly and effectively.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff were booed at the Confederations Cup opening ceremony. Many protesters believe Blatter’s organisation is complicit in a financial stitch-up, one supported by the powerful Globo conglomerate, the largest media group in Latin America, which typically portrays dissenting voices as refuseniks and borderline communists. They point to the fact that for Brazil to host the World Cup, the country had to agree to levy no taxes on Fifa and to change the law to allow alcohol to be served at stadiums (it had previously been banned due to concerns about violence). Some MPs argued that Fifa was blatantly challenging the sovereignty of the Brazilian state.

On the day of the Tahiti-Nigeria match, Blatter said that “people [are] using the platform of football and the international media presence to make certain demonstrations” and that the violence would “calm down”. He was wrong. It was just beginning.

20th June, Rio de Janeiro, Tahiti vs Spain

The Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro occupies a somewhat traumatic place in the Brazilian psyche. In 1950, it hosted the World Cup finals, a tournament Brazil was so confident of winning that several newspapers went to print declaring the nation world champions before the final game against Uruguay had taken place. Brazil only needed a draw to win the tournament (back then the winner was determined by a final group phase rather than a knockout stage) but lost 2-1. The loss was so deeply felt that the game spawned its own word, maracanazo: an unexpected victory for the underdog.

In June 2013, Tahiti had walked on to the Maracana pitch hoping that they too could channel the spirit of Uruguay in 1950. It was arguably the biggest mismatch in the history of international football. Outside the stadium, Spanish fans took bets on whether it would be 8, 9, 10 or 11-0. Before the game coach Etaeta had told me he didn’t think Spain had any interest in destroying his team. “I spoke with Vicente del Bosque [Spain’s coach]. He is a good man, with good values that we share. He has no interest in humiliating us.”

“I was near the front of the crowd as armoured police, skilled in ‘favela pacification’,  moved forward and fired tear gas and rubber bullets in our direction”

Perhaps the Spanish players didn’t get the memo. What followed was a turkey shoot, with Spain scoring almost at will. The match finished 10-0, a record defeat in any major Fifa tournament. At the post-match press conference, Etaeta was crestfallen, mumbling his answers and staring at the ground. “It hurts, it is really tough to take,” he said. It wouldn’t get much better for Tahiti: their final group match against Uruguay ended in an 8-0 defeat. They had played three, lost three, scored one, conceded 24. Maracanazo was nowhere to be seen.

But the hammering inflicted on Tahiti by Spain was nothing compared to the punishment being inflicted on protesters outside. As soon as the game was over, I joined the 300,000 demonstrators who had flooded the centre of Rio on match day. As in Belo Horizonte they denounced Fifa, the government, Dilma Rousseff, big business and the city mayor. And once again the police used force to crush the protest. I was near the front of the crowd as armoured police, skilled in “favela pacification”, a somewhat Orwellian local term for imposing martial law, moved forward and fired tear gas and rubber bullets in our direction.

An anti-government protest in Rio de Janeiro is met with tear gas

Military police detain a protester

The police forced us back down Avenida Presidente Vargas, past smashed-up banks and shops and burning cars, firing at the slightest provocation and hurling stun grenades down side passages. One landed by my leg, temporarily blinding and deafening me. When I came round, I was breathing in tear gas. I vomited in the gutter. The streets around me resembled a war zone.

It was now clear that if the football continued, so too would the protests. The Brazilian team, while denouncing violence, appeared to back the protesters, and Romario, one of its greatest ever players and now a Brazilian Socialist Party politician, loudly criticised Fifa and the government. “Enough robbery [and] humiliation,” he said. “Let’s make the government understand that Brazil belongs to the Brazilians, and we will not tolerate in silence the absurd things that have been happening.”

Brazil’s military dictatorship used to believe that when the national team played football, everything else was forgotten. That age-old bread and circuses routine may once have worked, but now there are plenty of Brazilians who love football and hate the fact they are hosting the World Cup. There is no contradiction. One banner at the Rio march read: “You don’t learn soccer at school. That’s why Brazil is good at soccer.” It seemed to sum up the mood.

26th June, Belo Horizonte, Brazil vs Uruguay

Six days later, I returned to Belo Horizonte to discover a carnival atmosphere on the streets. In spite of the intense midday sun, thousands of people had arrived early for the six-kilometre march from Praça Sete de Septembro to the stadium. Beautiful young women chanted slogans and bands played protest songs you couldn’t help but dance to. Parents had brought their young children, leftist groups handed out leaflets calling for more education and less corruption, and the police dispensed flyers urging the protesters to denounce violence. A 63-year-old playwright with a wild grey beard who called himself Mao told me that Brazil has too many problems to host an expensive tournament. “Brazil doesn’t want you, World Cup,” he shouted to the crowd. “Go to the United States.”

The numbers swelled as the march slowly moved along the main highway out of the city. Hundreds of agitated young men with covered faces joined our ranks as we passed two favelas. As we reached the slip road to the Mineirão, where Brazil was playing Uruguay in the semi-final, we were stopped by a metal barricade which separated us from a line of military police determined to prevent us from reaching the stadium.

“Gunshots rang out, scattering the protesters. A military helicopter swooped so low that those beneath it were thrown to the ground”

Volunteers had formed a human chain to stop anyone from reaching the barricade and for a short period the situation seemed calm. But then a single stone flew over the barricade towards the police. A few others had been thrown before but this one went furthest. Within seconds, a trail of smoke came from the opposite direction, arching high above the barricade. The tear gas canister landed by the protesters’ feet, bouncing and spinning around, spewing thick white fumes in every direction. The choking fog brought confusion and panic, along with the coughing and wailing of those not wearing gas masks.

A small group of protesters had come prepared to retaliate, and launched fireworks and cherry bombs towards the police using slingshots. Activists in gas masks ran around picking up freshly fired, still-smoking tear gas canisters, placing them in water coolers and jamming on lids in order to neutralise them. Volunteer medics squirted a milky-blue alkaline solution into the eyes of people who had been gassed. Others scrabbled at the dirt, yanking up cobblestones to throw. “They are only poor people,” said a young protester calling himself Binho. “They’re doing what they have to do.”

Shirts and protest masks on sale

Despite the police’s show of force, within an hour they had lost control of the street. Aggressive young men demolished everything around them: a Kia showroom was set ablaze, its vehicles pushed through the windows and set on fire. A Volkswagen garage opposite was pelted with rocks and the terrified staff ran to the relative safety of a back room.

Gunshots rang out, scattering the protesters. A military helicopter swooped so low that those beneath it were thrown to the ground. The fierce downdraught whipped up tear gas and broken glass, forcing the protesters to disperse. The riot police were finally able to regain the junction. Among the burning barricades were the charred remains of two motorbikes and a car. The corners of plastic signs, covered in words of solidarity, poked out from the debris. It had taken only one stone to start the riot, but a thousand rubber bullets to put it down.

No one had thought to ask, but Brazil had won the game 2-1. They would play Spain in the final.

Protesters rip up cobblestones to throw

June 30th, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil vs Spain

The Maracana was surrounded by a ring of steel. Horses, dogs, armoured personnel carriers, guns, tear gas – the full arsenal of the military police was on show, facing down protesters. And this time it seemed to work. For once, football took precedence.

The stadium was full. When the band stopped playing the national anthem after the first verse, the spectators sang the second verse unprompted and unaccompanied. It wasn’t a show of nationalism or a snub to the protesters. It was a show of national pride because of the protests. There was a real sense of hope that people power could change Brazil. President Rousseff, a leftist who’d been tortured under the military dictatorship and who felt some kinship with the vast majority of protesters who had demonstrated peacefully, had been shocked by the events and swiftly unveiled a series of planned reforms. She promised to pour oil revenue into education and to recruit thousands of foreign doctors to boost healthcare standards. Pledges to increase transparency in politics and to fight corruption were made over the following days. The ultimate litmus test, a presidential election, takes place next year.

Also taking place next year will be a tournament many Brazilians don’t want, even though they have a great chance of winning it. The national team destroyed Spain 3-0 in the final and found a new hero in Neymar, perhaps the best young player in the world. Next year’s finals are a chance to lay the ghosts of 1950 to rest, to end the trauma of the maracanazo. But if the government’s planned reforms don’t take place quickly enough, Brazil’s World Cup may be remembered for very different reasons, regardless of what happens on the pitch.

Protesters face off against police blocking a road that leads to Maracana stadium

Riot police don their protective gear

James Montague’s book, ‘Thirty One Nil: The Amazing Story of World Cup Qualification’ will be published by Bloosmbury in May next year.

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