The Selecao no longer enough to mask Brazil's issues

Posted by Fernando Duarte

BRASILIA, Brazil -- As far as symbolism goes, the recent protests would only look stronger if people barricaded the path of the floaters to reach the Sambodromo, the ground where Rio's world famous Carnival Parade takes place every year. Footage of people marching and fighting on the streets of at least eight capital cities in the past few days have gone viral around the world via a plethora of media outlets. Many people were eager to point out how close these incidents were to the FIFA Confederations Cup, the test event in which many of the do's and don'ts for next year's big show are being scrutinized.

Ultimately, bus fare hikes, police brutality, rising costs of living and even the amounts of money spent by state and federal governments on building new stadiums were some of the causes that sent people to the streets.

One could easily think about embarrassment for Brazil amid an already not very favorable media coverage concerning the country's woes ahead an enormous PR opportunity in the form of hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

But I ask you to think again. As a Brazilian journalist who spent most of my professional career abroad, having to explain my country's idiosyncrasies to international audiences has been an eternal part of my job description.

This is the first time that I'm actually pretty happy to be addressing these issues. What I think might not read well, but just like the fellas who are hitting the streets and risking some severe backlash by the thugs disguised as security forces, I'm giving two fingers to football. In truth, the timing of these protests could not be better. Thanks to the World Cup, all eyes are on Brazil, providing a precious chance to reach wider audiences.

In terms of PR, it is certainly quite bad when foreign media and fans arrive at the stadiums in the middle of pitched battles between riot police and protesters. Just as Brazil is busy trying to ease fears surrounding their readiness for the event and after safety issues closed down the Joao Havelange stadium, a showpiece arena for the Rio Olympics, those "pesky kids" decide to ruin everything. Just like in a Scooby-Doo episode, they have ruined a plan that had worked brilliantly for decades: the one where football saved everything.

Alexandro Auler/Getty ImagesWith the world's attention finally focused on Brazil, it's become clear that soccer and the Selecao can no longer distract from important social issues.

Instead of a Christmas Truce (you know, the one where Germans and English played football and ended up in a Paul McCartney music video), Brazil's second shot at hosting the World Cup is actually posing as a platform for several flags to be waved. Yes, not every protest in the last few days was cool and scenes of vandalism marred the very worthy causes that made people converge in the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo and several other cities, including the Selecao's team hotels. That they saw football and the Selecao's rare presence in the country as an opportunity is commendable, whether you like what the crowds are protesting about or not. While Brazilians are still nuts about their national team, they don't see it as sacred anymore.

Just last week my eyes welled up when I heard the Brazilian national anthem played in Brasilia at the Confederations Cup opener against Japan. The football fan in me was emotional in seeing a packed stadium welcoming the Selecao for a dress rehearsal before a home World Cup. The tears, though, were also for the people who had to inhale tear gas and run from police outside the Mane Garrincha stadium after they dared trying to spoil the party by questioning why the billions of dollars from the public purse that funded both tournaments cannot find their way into the health and welfare budgets.

This is not a matter of being for or against the World Cup. It can surely work not only as a catalyst for several changes in Brazilian football, but as a showcase for aspects of the country beyond its beaches and bikini-clad babes. But the show now includes the unrest of a population that seems disappointed at the organizers' failure thus far to deliver a legacy that goes beyond brand-new arenas -- most of of the infrastructure projects haven't left the drawing board.

Above all, it has become clear that the Brazilian national team has joined other symbols of power and nationalism that are no longer immune to public wrath. If marching toward the Congress in Brasilia is nothing new, trying to stop traffic on the highway where the Selecao bus was supposed to drive by -- thereby forcing the Brazilian Football Federation to fly the team from its Goiania training base to Brasilia for the Confed Cup opener -- is a significant step.

For decades, Brazilians seemed to switch off whenever the yellow shirt was on the pitch -– this, after all, is a country where national holidays are created when the Selecao play in World Cups and where the World Cup itself is the synonym of patriotic tones and nationalistic propaganda. The 1970 World Cup team thrilled the people while a vicious dictatorship busily tortured and killed dissenters. A politician who was quite friendly to that military government, Jose Maria Marin, is now the FA president.

Meanwhile, the nationalist discourse is still around. Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari constantly addresses supporters via the press as if he's rallying troops, having even classified the singing of the national anthem as a weapon of intimidation against opponents. FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke, who accused protesters of opportunism, dared to say that everything will be forgotten if Brazil makes it to the Confederations Cup final. People just don't swallow it that easily anymore.

Just ask the crowds who greeted President Dilma Rousseff with thunderous boos at the Mane Garrincha in Brasilia when she tried to declare the Confederations Cup open -- Sepp Blatter was just collateral damage, folks. It's possible that many people there didn't even know who he was.

Talking about this rage is about more than merely identifying what's eating the Brazilians. In fact, so many movements jumped on the bandwagon that some marches might sound like a spin-off from that profusion of anti-Roman movements in "Monty Python's Life of Brian." The World Cup's obese budget is not even the main cause that sparked the biggest rallies seen in Rio and Sao Paulo, for example. But it will provide a great backdrop for people to march with some assurances that the authorities will have to the toe the line, especially after the outcry caused by last week's clashes in Sao Paulo.

The big news here is that the mere presence of Neymar, Oscar & Co. wasn't enough to cool people down. Instead of "White Elephants," we are now dealing with a huge elephant in the room. And it likely won't be lured out even to watch Brazil vs. Spain.

Fernando Duarte is a UK-based Brazilian football expert who has followed the Selecao for 10 years and regularly features as a pundit for media outlets in Europe, South America and Asia. He's a Flamengo fan and can be found on Twitter @Fernando_Duarte.

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