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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
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

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker