James Lawton: Unrest in Brazil’s streets should force football to question its own values

On this occasion Pele’s status was no insulation against scorn on the streets

Of all the places to imperil a World Cup, who could have imagined it might be Brazil? Who could believe that the people who have come virtually to own it, emotionally, artistically and competitively, would ever resent a single centavo spent on the great festival?

It is, after all, the one that every four years has routinely carried even the most wretched favela beyond the stench of open sewers and the desperation of daily life.

Certainly, the possibility that the world’s leading football nation might just turn against its role as next year’s host is beyond the grasp of the ultimate hero Pele.

This week, as rioters spilt into the streets of the major cities in ever-increasing numbers, the great man produced a bromide remarkable even in the detachment he has enjoyed since he emerged as a phenomenal teenager in the Swedish World Cup of 1958.

As the flames rose in the night sky, as the tear gas drifted on the breeze, Pele said, “Let’s support the team – let’s forget all  the turmoil.”

Let’s forget, he urged, that a seven per cent rise in bus and subway prices represented an economic crisis for millions of breadline families. Let’s forget that as preparations for the tournament intensify, and costs escalate, a clean hospital bed or classroom remains a fantasy for a vast swathe of the population.

Pele may be the nonpareil of football, the man widely seen as the greatest player of all time, but on this occasion his vast status was no insulation against scorn on the streets of his native city, Sao Paulo, where, ironically enough, he spent an impoverished youth working as a servant in a tea shop.

There, a 28-year-old saleswoman named Gracieta Cacador put down the great hero in one withering phrase. She declared, “They spent billions of dollars building stadiums and nothing on education or health.”

The most optimistic assessment at the presidential palace in Brasilia and at Fifa headquarters is that soon enough the beautiful game of Brazil will reassert itself as the opium of a people still divided hopelessly by the boundaries of wealth and poverty.

President Dilma Rousseff accepts that a warning shot of some consequence has been fired, saying, “The direct message from the streets is for more citizenship, better schools, better hospitals, better health and direct participation.” Brazil’s ambassador in London, Roberto Jaguaribe, agrees that there are challenges to be faced, but points out that a recent survey found that Brazilians are among the world’s happiest people.

Yet if it is true, as the mounting evidence suggests, that the quality of this sanguinity – this carnival mood which was supposed to hit new levels with the joyous impact of next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics – has never been quite so strained, the world’s most popular and economically powerful game is facing quite a few questions of  its own.

How long, for example, can it tout its wares on the assumption that there will always be some grateful government ready to pick up the bill, however restive a large number of its citizens?

That was an issue in South Africa three years ago when Fifa was accused of profit-plundering in a society where only the smallest minority could afford a match ticket. With the 2018 World Cup going to Moscow, scarcely a financially level playing field for most of its citizens, and then moving on, absurdly, outrageously to the desert enclave of Qatar, the impression of a seamless cherry-picking of the best-heeled bidders seemed pretty much unchallenged.

However, Brazil – for the moment at least – is threatening a massive convulsion.

If the anarchy in the streets develops, if social unrest does indeed place a seriously threatening shadow over the old celebration of the nation’s recurring football brilliance, suddenly the World Cup looks less like a financial bonanza for Fifa and vested interests in the host nation than potentially an unpinned hand grenade slipped into a socio-economic game of pass the parcel.

That certainly is the current nightmare, one which has prompted Fifa president Sepp Blatter to plead that the Brazilian rioters lay off football. Suddenly the man who travels the world bearing gifts is looking a little less like football’s answer to Santa Claus.

That was the role his predecessor Joao Havelange chose for himself on the only occasion a World Cup had to be marked Return to Sender. The Brazilian handed the 1986 tournament to Mexico after Colombia defaulted.

Mexico, despite a powerful bid by a United States group headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, became the first nation to host the tournament for a second time. The prize was won by Guillermo Caneda, a big man in Mexican football and, more crucially, head of a Mexican television company that commanded elevated European fees by beaming matches at peak viewing times, which of course meant that the action unfolded in the burning sun of the Mexican midday.

When Kissinger was asked, early in his mission, about the prevalence of artificial pitches in the big American stadiums, he replied, “We sent a man to the moon – I think we can manage to put a little grass down.”

Colombian president Misael Pastrana Borrero believed he had made the great coup of his career when he landed the tournament but his economy faltered, unlike that of the drug cartels, and the game was tragically over when 100 people, including 11 judges, died when the army wrested back control of the Palace of Justice from the guerrilla group M-19.

As yet there are no guerrillas on the streets of Rio or Sao Paulo or Brasilia. However, nor is there a breath of enthusiasm for the 2014 World Cup. This, at least for some of the old assumptions about football’s enduring value, is almost as terrifying.

Sexton has what it takes to be a leading Lion

It is an impressive cast of potential heroes who run out for the Lions in Brisbane this morning. So deep, indeed, that it is a bold man who nominates the prime candidate.

The chances are that he will have a Welsh accent when you consider the law of averages and the presence of such men as Sam Warburton, George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies. However, the instinct here is that the difference between victory and defeat could well be a Dublin man.

Jonathan Sexton has already produced in Australia a degree of subtlety and nerve to draw on to the punch the most ferocious defence. Then you consider the back division it is his duty to release and the edge of anticipation can only be redoubled.

Some have questioned the relevance of the Lions as rugby employers make ever increasing demands on their workers. Here, though, is something that should never be endangered by the march of professionalism. It is the still unique challenge, facing a group of players who are required, in a few short weeks, to produce nothing less than the very best that they have. The suspicion must be that they have pulled it off.

Anderson v Dhawan will be a duel to savour

There need be no shortfall in patriotism while identifying the main point of compulsion in tomorrow’s climax of the Champions Trophy at Edgbaston.

It is surely the opening duel between James Anderson, now widely rated as the best swing bowler in the world, and the remarkable Shikhar Dhawan.

Anderson has bowled beautifully in this excellent tournament. Dhawan has batted like a man who has arrived from another planet. There is so much edge this might well be a most significant prize fight.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick