Brazil’s World Cup Protests Intensify as Country’s Politicians and FIFA Squirm

Nearly 1 million Brazilians took to the streets on June 20 as anger over social inequity and corruption has sparked the biggest scenes of dissent in the country in more than two decades

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Nelson Antoine / AP

Demonstrators burn flags of the Workers' Party on Paulista Avenue, where crowds gathered to celebrate the reversal of a fare hike on public transportation in São Paulo on June 20, 2013

When FIFA rolled into Brazil with the Confederations Cup earlier this month it thought the two-week tournament might be chaotic, but it can’t have imagined the chaos would verge on revolution.

The anger that erupted across Brazil this week did not start because of the multibillion-dollar state investment in new football stadiums. But with hospitals, schools and public transport all woefully underfunded, the glitzy monoliths that were built so quickly at FIFA’s behest have become a convenient focal point for a new generation of protest. The sustained public demonstration of anger is the largest display of dissent in the country for more than 20 years.

“Those responsible for the 2014 World Cup thought they could do what they wanted and that no one would do anything,” says Amir Somoggi, a finance and marketing consultant who works with some of Brazil’s biggest football clubs. “But this popular uprising shows that we are changing. Could it have come earlier? Yes. But it’s never too late to highlight the joke that is ridiculous public investment in stadium with little concern for public opinion.”

(MORE: Scenes From Brazil’s Angry Nationwide Protests)

The unrest hit this week’s World Cup warm-up competition hard enough for organizers to officially deny that they were considering calling a halt to proceedings. “At no stage has FIFA, the local organizing committee, or the federal government discussed or considered canceling the FIFA Confederations Cup,” said spokesman Pekka Odriozola. “We have not received any request to leave from any team.”

Nevertheless, FIFA and its partners in the Brazilian government must be concerned that if the anger persists it could create a hostile environment for next year’s tournament, which is FIFA’s cash cow. Thousands of people in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday night chanted, “There’s not going to be a World Cup!”

FIFA raked in more than $4 billion in the four years leading up to the last World Cup. It is banking on a bumper turnout in Brazil, which is the home of the world’s most celebrated national team — the only one to win the World Cup five times. Some 600,000 people are expected to travel to South America for the monthlong competition next year.

Some protesters are now asking foreigners to boycott the event. They don’t object to the World Cup per se, and being Brazilian they’re certainly not against football. But the existence of such a blatant double standard as beautiful, if unfinished, stadiums set against a country rife with slums and underfunded schools and hospitals has lit a spark.

“Some politicians argue that the World Cup and Olympics are the incentive our country needed to get better,” a woman called Carla Dauden said in a monologue widely circulated on YouTube. “So we’ve been paying taxes all these years for what? The truth is that most of the money that comes from the games and the stadiums goes straight to FIFA, and we don’t even see it.”

(MORE: Brazil’s Protests: Social Inequality and World Cup Spending Fuel Mass Unrest)

FIFA boss Sepp Blatter felt that anger up close on Saturday when he and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff were booed by fans at the Brazil-Japan match in Brasília. His blue-blazered colleagues also felt the heat at games across the country as riot police used tear gas, dogs and rubber bullets to keep protesters away from stadiums. Tens of thousands of fans have protested outside games in Salvador, Brasília, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte as nationwide protests have grown. On Thursday night, close to 1 million people were estimated to have demonstrated in 100 cities across the country.

Blatter fled the frying pan and headed for the fire on Wednesday when he traveled to Turkey for the opening match of the Under-20 World Cup. Before disappearing, he gave an interview claiming all Brazilians would see the benefits of the World Cup through improved airports, hotels, highways and telecoms.

“I can understand that people are unhappy,” Blatter told Rio’s O Globo newspaper. “But football is here to unite people. Football is here to build bridges, to generate excitement, to bring hope. Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We didn’t force it on them. It’s obvious that stadiums need to be built but that isn’t the only thing in a World Cup: there are highways, hotels, airports and a lot of other items that remain as a legacy.”

The problem is that the legacy isn’t happening, or at least not as Blatter imagines. Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup in 2007 but it wasted almost two whole years before choosing which cities would host the games. Now, with time running out, at least five of those cities admit they won’t have their promised bus lanes, underground and tram lines ready for next June, if at all.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the stadiums have ballooned over budget as FIFA demands elevators, executive boxes and other luxuries — leading many to point the finger at Brazil’s construction companies, greedily reaping in the benefits. For Brazilians used to the third-rate construction that is the norm in the country, the gleaming first-world stadiums came as a shock. By Thursday, just a week after protests began in earnest, FIFA and its allies in Brazil’s Congress and the construction industry had become some of the prime targets.

“The protests are important because the money being spent on stadiums could have been spent on health, hunger, housing,” said Eduardo Martins, a fan attending the Italy-Japan game at the brand new Arena Pernambuco in Recife on Wednesday night. “These stadiums were meant to cost millions and now we’re paying billions. They could have been built for less. But they are overbudget because the politicians want their cut.”

What the politicians most want now is to understand what’s going on. They have admitted to being perplexed at the outrage, and that makes it hard for them to dampen the demos. Rousseff said she was “proud” of the “voices calling for change,” which was not surprising given that she herself is a former revolutionary jailed for her activism. She canceled a planned trip to Japan and ordered an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday. It’s unclear where the protests will go from there, but the fires that have been lit will be difficult to put out.

MORE: What Brazil’s Protests Say About Latin America’s Fumbling Elites