World Cup 2014: Victory for the shrimp fritter sellers who took on and beat Fifa

Six women wearing long, African-style dresses and headscarves will rub shoulders with the corporate giants after winning the battle to sell their local speciality in Salvador

Salvador

Six women wearing long, African-style dresses and headscarves and selling a deep-fried street snack will today complete an unlikely World Cup underdog triumph before a ball has even been kicked inside Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova.

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“Baianas 1 Fifa 0” is how Rita Santos describes it as she tells The Independent just what it took for these women – a ubiquitous sight in the colonial Pelourinho quarter of Salvador – to earn the right to rub shoulders with the corporate giants on the food concourse outside the stadium.

Rita is president of the regional association of baianas – literally, women from the state of Bahia – who sell street food in the city. She was the driving force behind their fight to ensure the tradition of serving the much-loved local speciality of acaraje did not fall victim to Fifa’s meddling.

Acaraje is a fritter-like snack made from beans and dried shrimp, and fried in strong palm oil, which was brought over by the large slave population who made Salvador the most African of Brazilian cities. “It is a tradition that has existed for more than 300 years,” says Rita, whose son Felipe is a goalkeeper at the Rio club Flamengo. “It is impossible to have a World Cup and not have baianas selling acaraje at the stadium.”

Gregorio, who sold me one outside the Barra Shopping mall in the city yesterday, concurred, suggesting it would be “like going to Germany and not having sausage”.

 

The vendors’ battle began in late 2012 when Rita discovered that the bidding process was already under way for catering rights at the Arena Fonte Nova.

It was the start of a lengthy struggle featuring an online petition and a street protest on the day of the rebuilt stadium’s inauguration in April last year. “Eighty women set up their stalls and distributed free acaraje and football shirts,” explains Rita. With “more than 17,000 people” signing the petition and Romario, the former Brazil World Cup striker-turned-politician, speaking in support, their campaign gained momentum.

The worry for Rita was that a big out-of-town company would bring in mass-produced acaraje rather than the real thing. It sounds like the premise for a Hollywood film – perhaps with Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Dona Norma, a vendor of 65 years’ standing in the streets around the stadium, who, Rita says, was “terrified she would not be able to work there any more”. Happily, it got a Holly-wood ending with Rita given permission to set up stalls at the Confederations Cup.

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“On the first day of the Confederations Cup, a big blond man from Fifa – I don’t remember his name – came to me and said, ‘OK, we don’t want any struggle with the baianas – it is enough.”

Rita – one of six baianas on cooking duty at today’s Spain-Netherlands game – hopes she has set an important precedent. “The most important thing is that four years in the future, when Fifa goes to make the World Cup in another country, people from that country can be inspired by this and fight to maintain their own culture. Fifa might now think a little bit before making their own criteria and respect more the culture of other countries.”

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