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2014 World Cup: In Brazil, the beautiful game belongs to white middle class

As Brazil's stadiums are spruced up for next year's finals the traditional fans can no longer afford spiralling ticket prices

Wearing top hat and tails before July's Botafogo v Flamengo classico in Rio, Guilherme Figueira didn't look like the typical football fan. But this was no show of sartorial exuberance. Guilherme and his pals were so attired as a protest against spiralling ticket prices in Brazil. "The Maracana has changed," he said. "It's now a stadium for the aristocracy. So we decided to dress the part."

Against a backdrop of nationwide demonstrations over the rising cost of living, corruption and expenditure on next year's World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, the marketing agency Pluri Consultants reported that tickets in Brazil are the most expensive of the world's major leagues, when local wage levels are taken into account.

Since the country's new World Cup stadiums have opened, the already steep prices have leapt into the stratosphere. While higher tariffs are to be expected in plush new venues, the cheapest full-price ticket for the recent Vasco da Gama v Corinthians mid-table fixture in Brasilia's Mane Garrincha stadium was an eye-watering R$160 (£44.50) – only R$10 less than it will cost to watch a World Cup quarter-final next year.

Given that the average Brazilian worker earns approximately a fifth of what his UK counterpart might make, such a price is roughly equivalent to an English fan paying over £200 for the cheapest ticket for a run- of-the-mill Premier League game.

Nor are expensive prices the result of demand. The average attendance at a Brazilian Serie A game last year was a paltry 13,000 – comparable to Australia's A-League. While the image most foreign fans have of football in Brazil is of heaving crowds and cacophonies of noise and colour, the reality is swathes of empty seats and a small, hardy band of fans.

There are many reasons for this, including an overcrowded calendar that crams in months of often meaningless state championship matches before the national league begins. This week a group of 75 leading players launched an official protest against the marathon of games planned for 2014, when the World Cup break will add to the fixture squeeze. Inconvenient kick-off times set at the behest of the broadcasting monolith Globo, which requires midweek games to start at 10pm – after the prime-time soap has finished – are another problem.

A fear of violence wrought by the notorious torcidas organizadas (fan clubs or hooligan gangs, depending on your perspective) and the mentality of Brazilian fans, who turn their backs when their team are struggling, do not help either.

The elitizaçao, or gentrification, of Brazilian football has another troubling aspect. In recent years affluent fans steered clear of the stadiums, preferring the comfort of the armchair or bar stool. At the same time, Brazil's working classes kept clubs afloat, paying little to cheer on their teams in antiquated venues.

With the arrival of new stadiums and the accompanying astronomical prices, poorer fans are being pushed out, their places taken by wealthier, iPad brandishing supporters. "If I took my family to the Maracana I'd have to spend R$400," said Antonio Nascimento Filho, secretary for football at the Ministry of Sport. "The less well-off are being excluded. It's ridiculous that a sport of the people, built by the people, is shutting out poorer Brazilians."

The clubs themselves are unlikely to be concerned. Recent figures showed that gate receipts are up 78 per cent on last year, and if better-off Brazilians return to the stadiums, many directors will undoubtedly be pleased to be rid of the poorer fans, and with them, in theory at least, the troublesome torcidas organizadas.

Just two years ago, a local politician in the city of Goiania, defending high ticket prices for a Brazil v Holland friendly, announced that the organisers were "hoping to attract a better class of fan".

At a meeting with club directors and stadium administrators on Friday the sports minister Aldo Rebelo said: "We're aware that the new stadiums add value to our football and provide more comfort and safety for supporters, but there's also the risk of excluding fans on lower incomes from stadiums."

The soaring prices may also be changing the look of Brazilian crowds. While the country's fluid mix of races and skin tones makes racial classification complex, Brazil's upper classes tend to be decidedly lighter-skinned than the majority of their less-well-off countrymen. As a result, the effects of Brazilian football's brave new world are often clearly visible in the stands.

The supporters who paid high prices to watch the Seleçao (the national team) lift the Confederations Cup in June, for example, were largely unrecognisable from those who congregate on the drafty corner terrace of Corinthians' ageing Pacaembu stadium.

"They made football white," wrote respected Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper at the time. "The only black faces at the stadium now are of the people who work there." An exaggeration, to be sure, given Brazil's rich miscegenation of races. But, with the social exclusion that high ticket prices are threatening to bring, perhaps it will not be an exaggeration for much longer.

Hooligans still on the rampage

New stadiums and expensive tickets do not seem to have curbed the problem of violence in Brazilian football crowds.

Last month, at the Vasco da Gama versus Corinthians fixture at Brasilia's Mane Garrincha stadium, rival torcidas organizadas (who often receive free or subsidised tickets from the clubs) fought a pitched battle among the shiny new seats, sending ordinary supporters fleeing for safety.

Two of the Gavioes da Fiel (Corinthians' biggest organizada group) members involved in the mêlée spent five months in prison in Bolivia earlier this year, accused of launching a naval flare that killed a young San Jose fan.

Violence between organizadas resulted in 13 deaths in Brazil from January to July this year.

James Young