In Brazil, it's more than a game

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

RIO DE JANEIRO -- What struck you was their normality. Their sheer quotidian, banal, commuter normality.

A 30-something woman in a business suit with a bob haircut. A college-age couple holding hands: he in a knockoff Brazil jersey, she in a purple shirt with a picture of a cat on it, both wearing identical Converse sneakers. A wide-eyed older man, grey-white hair poking out of his partly unbuttoned shirt. A man with a buzz cut and a tank top, heavily muscled, continually flexing, perhaps inadvertently.

Two details offered clues that it wasn't an ordinary day on the Rio subway. They were all carrying handmade signs with slogans. And they all had Brazil's green-and-gold colors painted just below their cheekbones. The signs were their voices: the slogans give the crowd something to chant; they are easily captured on video and in photos; they are less menacing than waving a fist in the air, and this was a nonviolent protest.

The colors, their shield. (My high school history teacher explained that one years ago when he said: "In the '60s I wrapped myself in an American flag, because no cop in the United States is going to risk being photographed beating up a guy in the Stars and Stripes.")

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These folks were among the reported million-plus who took to the streets of Brazil on Thursday. They were among those returning home just before nightfall.

Above ground, at around the same time, police were reportedly using flash grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas on those who stuck around even as day turned to night. Indeed, emerging from the station at Gloria -- down the street from Lapa, with its restaurants and bars -- a short while later you could still smell the tear gas carried by the Rio breeze. A mile or so away, near the police station, the more serious disturbances had begun. The peaceful protesters began to disperse, leaving in their wake the folks with bandannas and motorbike helmets shielding their faces. The ones who loot and vandalize. The ones who see cops as enemies in an urban war.

For most of us, it was time to go home. For those guys, the entertainment had just begun.

There are plenty of reasons so many Brazilians have elected to join the demonstrations, which began as a dispute over bus prices in Sao Paulo and Rio. They range from concerns over health care and security to rising inflation and World Cup and Olympic overspending, but the overarching theme seems to be a profound dissatisfaction with their elected leaders, starting with Dilma Rousseff, the country's president.

masked protestor Brazil flag Rio de Janeiro
APAfter dark, the demonstration in Rio de Janeiro takes a different turn

On the surface, she makes an unlikely target. As a university student, she was imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time. Until recently, the country's economy was booming and her approval ratings were almost in the Kim Jong Un range.

So what changed, other than an economic slowdown?

Caio, one of the protesters on the Rio subway, said: "Not much. It's not that things got worse all of a sudden. It's just that many realize how screwed up they are. We come from centuries of social and economic inequality. And the fact that it was worse years ago is no consolation. Maybe before people didn't have the tools to do this. Or they were too busy working to make ends meet. Or they didn't think it would make a difference. Or they were scared. Now they think things can change."

Caio is an architect who thought long and hard about whether to take his 15-year-old son with him. He chose not to and, instead, he's with his little brother and his brother's partner. It's the latter who wants to know everything about the Spain versus Tahiti game which ended a few hours ago. He needs a detailed report on Juan Mata, his favorite non-Brazilian player. He says he's been told he looks like Mata (he doesn't) and that he plays like him (impossible to tell).

The fact that the conversation shifts from social revolution to Spain's 10-0 win and how lovable the Tahitians were may seem unusual but, somehow, it makes sense.

"I think the Olympics are a giant con, but if they build something useful, sure, whatever," Caio says. "But the World Cup ... nobody is against it. We're just against the waste and the overspending and the corruption that goes with it. We could have done it better, more sustainably, more meaningfully."

You can see where he's coming from. Major events like the World Cup and the Olympics require making enormous promises to the folks who award them. New stadiums, new highways, new train lines ... all to impress and convince a bunch of aging suits to pick your city or country over another. And once you're selected you have to deliver, because it becomes about national pride. Which means that the government picks up the tab. And when that happens, you know where it's often headed: overspending, incompetence and patronage.

Maybe the government thought folks would see it as a necessary evil and they'd forget about it once the World Cup rolled around and the Selecao delivered their sixth title. And perhaps they thought that, despite the waste and corruption, folks would figure that at least stuff would get built. Like the new stadiums. Or the highways and public transportation systems.

A guy named Jairo Domingos was quoted in The New York Times saying about Rio: "They keep putting make-up on the city to show they can host the World Cup and Olympics."

protester gas canister Rio de Janeiro
APA protester kicks a gas canister during a demonstration a in Rio de Janeiro

I sort of know what he means. Before coming here, I downloaded a subway map which, to my delight, showed that the "Rio Metro" ran directly from the apartment I'm renting in the neighborhood of Gavea to the Maracana. But after arriving here I realized that the subway only runs from the Maracana to Botafogo. After that, it becomes "Metro na superficie" - "surface metro."

Surface metro? Yep. That would be "city bus" to you and me. Except the Rio transport people figure that it sounds better than "city bus." And this way they can put it on the map and pretend it's part of the subway. Which, in theory, one day it will be (when the work is finally finished, most likely once the Olympics are long gone).

In fact, all this griping really doesn't have much to do with the World Cup. Yes, it can be a colossal money pit generating a herd of white elephants. Yet, to be fair, Brazil was never going to be as bad as South Africa in that regard.

(Case in point. The 2010 World Cup saw the city of Durban build the gorgeous 54,000-seat Moses Mabhida stadium. It now is used by the local club whose average attendance is less than 10,000, while the local rugby team, Natal Sharks -- who could probably sell out -- play in a 52,000-seat stadium of their own, Kings Park, which happens to be across the street. Clever, no?)

At least most of Brazil's stadiums will be used regularly. And given the size and growth of the country, you'd imagine that even the ones whose viability is dubious -- like the one in Manaus -- might one day make sense.

This doesn't mean that football is blameless here. The way some politicians have used it as some kind of "opiate of the masses" has been insulting and shameful. Sepp Blatter, the FIFA supremo, showed his usual ability for empathy with the masses when he said that "football was about uniting people" and then rattled off the various economic benefits that a World Cup can bring. (Usually these are accompanied by the -- always glowing -- results of a study by some kind of consulting or marketing firm, often commissioned by the very people who want to host such an event.)

But it does mean that this isn't really about the game. The love affair between Brazil and football continues, it's just that the country is confident and self-aware enough to know that there are other things that matter. And those things are important enough that the average Brazilian is ready to take to the streets with his signs and his face paint.

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