x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Confederations Cup: Brazil protesters using sport to bring social change

Football is inadvertently playing its part in awakening Brazil from apathetic slumber, writes Gary Meenaghan in Fortaleza.

Before Wednesday’s match against Mexico, Brazil’s Marcelo, left, David Luiz, and Fred sing their country’s national anthem in Fortaleza. Scott Heavey / Getty Images
Before Wednesday’s match against Mexico, Brazil’s Marcelo, left, David Luiz, and Fred sing their country’s national anthem in Fortaleza. Scott Heavey / Getty Images

It is 9.30am on a Wednesday and in a dirt field with little more than a set of goalposts, a group of teenagers are playing football under the already searing sun. Most are bare-chested, some are bare-footed. We are in the Nordeste of Brazil and, nearby, street vendors are capitalising on the gridlocked traffic, walking the road trying to sell their wares: flags, hats and posters all in the green, yellow and blue colours of the national flag.

It is game day, Brazil versus Mexico, and throngs of people stream along the pavement, all dressed in canary-yellow shirts. There are so many jerseys with the No 10 printed on the back that you could be forgiven for thinking they are headed to a binary convention rather than a Confederations Cup match.

Yet even for the zealous standards we have come to expect of Brazilian fans, starting out for Arena Castelao some six hours before kick-off seems excessive.

It is only when my taxi edges over the hill that I realise why the traffic has been stationary for the past half hour. It is only when I get a sight of what lies ahead that I realise these people are not going to the game. At least not any time soon.

They, like much of the rest of Brazil has been doing for the past week, are holding a demonstration and are blocking the road. Cars travelling in the opposite direction, honk their horns and the sea of yellow erupts excitedly each time.

Brazilians have discovered this week that it is not only football that can bring strangers from different social classes together, all united and pushing for the same goal. Protests can, too.

What started as minor unrest against a 20 centavos (34 fils) bus-fare hike in Sao Paulo has rapidly snowballed into the biggest protests the country has seen for close to 20 years, perhaps accelerated by the international spotlight the country finds itself under due to its hosting of this month's tournament. On Monday, a conservative estimate of 200,000 took to the streets across 12 different cities, unifying the nation under one cause: to be heard.

Yet there is no typical demonstrator demographic. The presence of the Fifa tournament has given those who thought they had no voice belief that they do. In the past seven days, an 82-year-old man walked down Sao Paulo's Avenida Paulista carrying a picket sign. Parents, complete with toddlers in buggies, protested outside the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia. Cheering students gathered in Fortaleza and bed sheets hung from windows in Recife.

Often the placards are in English to reach out to the international audience.

The decision to raise fares has been reversed in response to the protests but the demonstrations continue. "Brazil has awoken," read one banner visible from my creeping car window. Another, held aloft by a young man, quoted the country's national anthem in Portuguese: "Thou wilt see that a son of thine flees not from battle".

And the battle is on. The bus-fare hike was just the catalyst. Now, when the people are taking to the streets they are doing so to raise their grievances about wider issues, including the hypocrisy of a government spending billions of public money on lavish new sports stadiums while it neglects investment in health, education and public transport, all of which are shamefully substandard.

It is this juxtaposition that has led some protesters to create signs that appear to be anti-World Cup. From my experience, the majority of Brazilians want football's global showpiece to be here - they would just prefer it to not cost them so much and be at the seeming expense of public services.

A pair of students I spoke to in Brasilia ahead of their country's match with Japan told me they were going to protest outside the stadium for better hospitals, but would stop before the game started because they wanted to support their country.

Going by the number of flags that saturate every inch of Brazil, it is clear the country's residents are proud of their nation. It is for this reason why it hurts them so much to see it suffer.

Hernanes, Brazil's eloquent midfielder, told me he thought the protests had brought the country closer together and it certainly seemed that way on Wednesday.

Having negotiated the demonstration in the taxi, I later made the trip to Arena Castelao aboard a bus, which got stuck in a 10,000-strong protest closer to the stadium. By the time I arrived at my seat in the stands, it was clear passions were running high.

During the national anthem, such was the volume of those singing that the crowd drowned out the music. When the music stopped, the crowd kept on singing. Some of the Brazilian players could be seen with tears in their eyes.

Tears have been a common theme of these protests courtesy of the police's willingness to use pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets. Yet the most touching story I have heard this week came from a 28-year-old Brazilian from Sao Paulo, whose tears were genuine.

Standing amid her compatriots on Monday evening, calling for reform and an end to corruption, the woman found herself crying repeatedly. Not because of police force, but because of the force of her people. They were standing up for what they believed in; they were standing up against the system. And finally, after years of disillusionment, she was able to believe again: Change might be on its way.

Brazil has awoken.

Money stolen from Spain's hotel room

Players for World Cup champion Spain say money was stolen from their hotel rooms while they were in Recife for a Confederations Cup game against Uruguay. Soccer’s governing body said yesterday police are investigating.

"We know that there was a police report and this was being dealt with by the relevant authorities," FIFA spokesman Pekka Odriozola said.

Six Spanish players, including Gerard Pique, reported that items, including money, had been taken from their rooms. The players reportedly discovered what happened as they prepared to leave Recife on Monday after their 2-1 win over Uruguay the previous day.


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