Selecao taking backseat to public tension in Brazil

Posted by Fernando Duarte

On Saturday, the Brazilian national team has their first home game since the cathartic Confederations Cup win in June, but the planned friendly against Australia in Brasilia could be marred by the ire of the crowds.

Security measures have shot to the top of the agenda since the wave of protests earlier this year infringed upon the Selecao's activities. Moreover, the date of the game -- Sept. 7, the date on which Brazil announced its independence from Portugal in 1822 -- has become more charged than usual, with reports of no less than 135 marches planned across the country.

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Obviously, Brasilia -- as the capital city -- will be a target, but the behavior of those inside the arenas has suddenly become a source of concern, as well. In Brasilia not too long ago, hooliganism first showed its ugly face -- in one of the new World Cup arenas, no less. On Aug. 25, the game between Corinthians and Vasco for the Campeonato Brasileiro endured ugly scenes when ultra supporters from both teams clashed at the Mane Garrincha. While crowd trouble isn't unheard of in Brazilian football, when and where it happens matters a lot.

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Already under scrutiny thanks to the trouble caused by protesters who managed to intimidate even the mighty Coca-Cola during the Confederations Cup, Brazil had avoided the question of security inside the arenas thus far. Yet the incidents in Brasilia exposed two problems: the lack of preparation to deal with incidents -- amazingly, the game was treated as an international match, with no segregation between supporters from different sides -- and the need to emphatically address the too-often dirty relationship between clubs and what in Brazil is called "organized support."

Unlike in Europe and the U.S., South American clubs are known for subsidizing groups of supporters. Tickets and money exchange hands, and groups like Corinthians' The Faithfull Hawks are also important political players in club elections (like in Spain, Brazilian clubs vote for their boards). That these groups often have unsavory elements among them is grossly overlooked by club directors, even when they engage in hooliganism.

Corinthians in particular should have known better. Earlier this year the club saw itself in the middle of a public outcry after Kevin Espada, a 14-year-old Bolivian boy, was killed by a flare thrown by Brazilian supporters during a goal celebration at their Copa Libertadores match against San Jose in Oruro. In fact, one of the fans arrested after the incident was reportedly involved in the fight in Brasilia last week.

The club was punished for the flare problem with a decision to play all its games behind closed doors -- yet the harsh ban was later revoked. Brazilian authorities took a similar line by determining that both Vasco and Corinthians will each have to play two games with no fans at all and two with only away supporters. At the time of writing, both clubs are planning to appeal -- but one sincerely hopes the authorities show no tolerance this time.

Much less can and should be done about people on the streets, though. While many Brazilian players have endorsed the June protests, they are worried about the repercussion of further battles. On Monday, captain Thiago Silva made a plea for rallies to refrain from more aggressive demonstrations. "The moment it descends into looting or depredation, we all lose the argument, and that nonsense about Brazil being dangerous starts again," he said.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that authorities in Brasilia will be caught unprepared a second time. In June, the police presence was bizarrely small and protesters were basically at the gates of the stadium, with some abusing supporters even attending the game. Reports in Brazil indicate that 4,000 extra police officers will be on the ground over the weekend, which also includes a traditional military parade attended by president Dilma Rousseff. Authorities are expecting at least 50,000 people on the streets. The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) is chipping in with 800 private security personnel inside the stadium.

Despite the highly charged significance of the date of Saturday's game, the tense scene offers a preview of what the World Cup could be. More importantly, it will show if the host nation has learned anything since June.

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