FORTALEZA, Brazil -- Even by David Luiz' outspoken standards, it still came as a shock Tuesday when the Chelsea defender broke ranks to publicly endorse the street protests that have swarmed Brazil in the past few days.
"Of course we are worried about what is going on. We are Brazilian, and we feel for people who are on the streets wishing to be heard and protesting," the floppy-haired player said. Earlier in the week, Luiz didn't play along in an FA-organized media event -- just a couple of days prior, Luiz had given a mean look to a media officer who wanted to rush him through a mixed zone while he was trying to address the subject of domestic unrest.
Compare that to the Selecao's commander-in-chief, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had dodged the subject with enough dexterity to put Muhammad Ali to shame. Refusing to acknowledge the turmoil, Big Phil has barely mentioned the protests or passed any judgment, often saying in news conferences that his business lies in minding tactics and formations.
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Brazilian footballers have been notoriously hesitant to stick their boots into serious subjects. Pele once said he didn't play in the 1974 World Cup because of the dictatorship in Brazil, but he took his prodigious talents to Mexico '70 regardless of the fact that his home nation was mired in the dominant years of the military's rule. Also, then-president Emilio Medici blatantly meddled with team affairs and even forced the sacking of manager Joao Saldanha, who had overseen the qualification campaign, and replaced him with friendlier Mario Zagallo. Engagement in campaigns such as the march for free elections in 1984 did attract Socrates' support, although not one of his world-famous peers joined him.
Cut to Wednesday's game against Mexico in Fortaleza. Following FIFA's protocol, a 90-second version of the Brazilian national anthem was played through the PA system. But when the recorded music ended, the 50,000-strong crowd kept on singing. The players kept the "French group hug" and when the crowd finally decided to stop, Brazil had the kind of blistering start to the game that only the Northeastern heat could dampen. Crowd and performers connected in a way that, for a change, wasn't directly related to crosses, goals and assists.
Although Big Phil called up 11 Brazil-based players for his 23-man squad, nine of his current first-choice XI are citizens who spent most of their careers abroad and whose contact with the homeland is limited to holidays and a diet of satellite TV. Luiz, for example, had played only twice for the Selecao in Brazil since joining the squad for the first time back in August 2010. For these expats, the Confederations Cup is also a reintroduction to their peers, especially the ones who still can't afford to travel abroad to see the national team play most of their games.
At the same time that the protests mark the end of the "untouchable" status of the Selecao, the Arena Castelao was the place where the crowd and the players smelled something different in the air. Daniel Alves, Neymar and Marcelo "worked" the crowd at several occasions, urging the fans to create more noise. Luiz got whacked in a friendly-fire incident with Thiago Silva and played through with a broken nose. "The pain was worth just to hear this crowd do what they did today," Luiz said after the game.
It was far from an isolated incident, too. This past Tuesday, Hulk surprised a media scrum by saying that hitting the streets "was the only weapon left for the people to be heard." Protesters and police still clashed outside, with the riot squad using more tear gas and rubber bullets to avoid the marches anywhere near the Castelao. Inside the ground, placards with the same slogans from the street were smuggled in, clearly disobeying FIFA's ban on political statements -- some protesters wrote their messages in English to fool the local security.
The paradox is that the thunderous boos for president Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia and the "defiant anthem" episode in Fortaleza are quite similar. The massive difference is that some folks usually associated to detachment from the common cause chose to join the choir.
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.