Rocky road to Brazil: World Cup of woe continues to overflow

Rioters back on the streets. Flash mobs in shopping malls. Another worker dies. Pele misjudges national mood. And the tournament is still months away

As the World Cup creeps closer, winds of change continue to blow across Brazil.

Ever since the mass street demonstrations of last June, when millions took to the streets during the Confederations Cup to protest against the myriad ills that trouble the country – political corruption, ramshackle and underfunded public services, creaking urban infrastructure and the upwards of £6.5 billion that will be spent on the World Cup – the feeling that Brazilians have grown weary of the failures of their society, and those responsible for them, has lingered.

Their frustration has manifested itself in a number of ways. Though far smaller than last year, protests against World Cup spending have continued, most notably in Sao Paulo, where there have been violent clashes with police. Then there are the rolezinhos, perhaps misleadingly translated as flash mobs, where thousands of young people from working-class suburbs congregate in shopping malls, Brazil's great temples of upper-middle class consumerism.

One of these gatherings, which are apolitical and organised via social media, brought almost 3,000 adolescents swarming into a mall in Sao Paulo. They were dispersed with police tear gas and rubber bullets. In the aftermath, some malls introduced a policy of turning away less affluent – which in Brazil usually means darker skinned – youths at the door. It stirred a debate about what some called "Brazilian apartheid".

Even Brazil's footballers are angry. Hundreds of domestic players recently joined forces to form Bom Senso FC ("Common Sense FC"), a protest group that seeks to improve their working conditions (players can play up to 80 games a year, and are often paid months late). Strike action is being mooted.

Then there is the World Cup itself. The blunders and delays that have scarred preparations have served as a mirror to Brazilian society. It is not a pretty reflection that stares back – six construction workers have died while helping construct stadiums, the latest on Friday in Manaus where England play their first game.

"We've missed a real opportunity to reassure people and show the world a different Brazil," said Carlos Alberto Parreira, technical director of the Brazil national team.

Although on the surface World Cup protesters, kids invading shopping malls and unhappy footballers appear to have little in common, all are symptomatic of the feelings of revolt and desire for change. "The level of dissatisfaction among various sectors of society is extremely high," Vladimir Safatle, a columnist at the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said recently. "It would be foolish to imagine that such frustration would just disappear overnight."

Yet there is a fine line between peaceful demonstration and civil unrest, and Brazil's volatile state is clearly a worry to both the country's government and Fifa, particularly given the thuggish military police force's habit of metaphorically pouring petrol, rather than water, on the flames of protest. Barely a day goes by without another tale of strong-arm police tactics spiralling out of control – whether it is a protester being shot three times at an anti-World Cup march, a female demonstrator being intentionally run over by a police motorbike, or a supporter at a match in the mid-western city of Goiania, alone and on his knees in a stadium bathroom, being beaten by four baton-wielding cops.

Last week it emerged that Brazilian security forces are using undercover agents, intercepting emails and monitoring social media in an attempt to crack down on the more violent elements of the protest movement, which includes the so-called Black Blocs (where demonstrators dress all in black for anonymity). And a national task force of 10,000 specially trained riot police has been created for the tournament.

The government also plans to launch a feel-good publicity campaign that will try to justify World Cup spending and convince locals of the benefits of hosting the event.

It is impossible to know if the scenes of last June, when thousands of Brazilians from all walks of life marched for a better country, will be repeated when the tournament takes place. It may be that the violent, marginalised nature of recent demos, such as the protest against bus-fare increases in Rio de Janeiro last Thursday, will scare the general population away.

A lot too may depend on the form of the Brazil team during the World Cup – a successful campaign could distract people from their grievances and draw them to the football. A premature exit by Neymar and Co, however, would leave them wondering just what all the fuss was about in the first place – and why so much money was spent on hosting the event. In that case, Brazilians would surely return to the streets in their thousands – and there might be little that the government, or Fifa, can do to stop them.

Many a pratfall for Pele the poet

Pele, often as inelegant without the ball as he was sublime with it, has begged Brazilians to save their protests until after the World Cup. "The country will be full of tourists, with all the benefits they bring, and Brazilians could end up ruining the party," he said recently. It is an extension of the gaffe he committed during the Confederations Cup, when his suggestion that Brazilians should "forget about protesting and concentrate on the football" completely misread the national mood and was met with widespread criticism, recalling Romario's comment that, "Pele is a poet… when he has his mouth shut."

Players held prisoner by fans

Violence continues to scar Brazilian football. Last Saturday a mob of around 100 hooligans invaded the training ground of struggling Sao Paulo giants Corinthians prompting the terrified players to lock themselves in the dressing room. Debate continues to rage over how to solve the problem of the torcidas organizadas — officially fan clubs but more often than not hooligan gangs. Many criticise the country's clubs for maintaining close links to the groups, often providing free tickets and travel to away games.

Brazil's view on gays sealed with a kiss

Sensitive over what they see as the international media's harsh treatment of their country's World Cup preparations, Brazilians are enjoying a little schadenfreude over criticism of Russia's staging of the Winter Olympics. "Who'd want to use one of these?" asked leading magazine Epoca, alongside a photo of Sochi's now infamous twin toilets. And as in Russia, gay rights are very much on the agenda in Brazil. Globo, the country's biggest TV channel, recently featured a kiss between two male characters in its prime-time soap opera, the first such scene broadcast by the company. While religious groups and the more unreconstructed elements of what is often a highly conservative society howled in protest, many Brazilians celebrated. Jean Wyllys, Brazil's first openly gay congressman, went further. "Watching the kiss was like seeing Brazil win the World Cup!" he crowed. Mr Putin, one suspects, would not be amused.

James Young will be writing a monthly column for 'The Independent on Sunday' on Brazil's World Cup preparations

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