Political turmoil and cultural distance cools World Cup fever in Brazil

Words by Robbie Blakeley Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 14, 2018
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The streets are not painted yellow and green, not decked out with bunting, there is little indication of optimism and an upcoming celebration. Instead, a brisk cold has swept down over Rio de Janeiro, the temperature dipping below 20 degrees enough for the cariocas – as residents of this slice of natural paradise are known – to bring out scarves, gloves, and the kind of thick overcoat you may be more accustomed to seeing in Newcastle on a February evening.

Except this isn’t just another winter in Brazil. This week, the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Russia, the biggest sporting competition on the planet, bar the Olympic Games perhaps.

You can arguably offer some mitigation as to why that might be. Brazil hosted the World Cup four years ago and, with old favourite Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man who led the country to their last global triumph in 2002, back in the hot seat, there was a general feeling of positivity. Matters were helped significantly by an excellent showing at the Confederations Cup in 2013, where Brazil sauntered to the title, hitting four past Italy before dismantling then-world champions Spain in the final at the Maracanã.

Cold reality came crashing down around them 12 months later. A Neymar-less Brazil were humbled 7-1 by eventual world champions Germany, the game effectively over before half an hour of football had been played, the Germans 5-0 up and slicing through an almost non-existent yellow midfield like a hot knife through soft butter.

That disastrous campaign ended with Brazil finishing in fourth place, losing their final two games against Germany and Holland by an average score of 10-1. The two following years continued to produce disappointing tournament football, with the seleção eliminated at the quarter-final stage of the 2015 Copa América by Paraguay, while at the centenary edition a year later Dunga’s side failed to even make it out of their group.

But the landscape has changed drastically since Tite took over what is, in all likelihood, the most difficult and challenging managerial job there is. The former Corinthians boss is handling the pressure with aplomb, and his record is nothing short of phenomenal.

A total of 21 matches have seen Brazil win 17, draw three and lose a single friendly to Argentina in June 2017. Those 21 games have seen the South American giants find the back of the net 44 times while conceding just five, and they come into this World Cup as one of the firm favourites to win the thing.

Yet World Cup fever appears to have bypassed this corner of the globe, for the time being at least, and reasons are as much to do with the current political malaise in the country. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached prior to the Olympic Games in 2016 following mass protests across the country.

Protesters – the vast, vast majority from the middle and upper middle classes, some of whom sipped ice cold champagne as they demonstrated their political alliances – adopted the famous yellow shirt as their uniform of choice. Asking around, it’s clear that those who are not supporters of chucking out a democratically elected president do not want to be associated with such a coup.

Instead of the yellow shirt, football fanatics are planning on donning a red T-shirt with the inscription “SBF” – Seleção Brasileira de Futebol. The shirt carries the number 16, the year of Dilma’s impeachment.

“I can’t wear the Brazil shirt at this World Cup. It stands for political oppression,” said Alessandra Carmo, an accommodations manager who has worked with several football clubs across Brazil. “The players don’t look like they care about the political turmoil we are going through. They are detached from those that should be giving them support.”

Walking around trying to soak up some pre-World Cup atmosphere, the blue shirts of Brazil’s second kit greatly outnumber the yellow. The blue was only released on 26 March, but has already proved popular owing as much to its political neutrality as to its admittedly beautiful shade.

However, those wanting to voice their displeasure at the political road the country are on can also do so with several variations of the red shirt. Red is the colour most commonly worn by supporters of the imprisoned Lula, Brazil’s popular former president who many still believe is being persecuted by a nervous right who do not want to see Lula return to the office he held between 2002 and 2010 when the country’s elections are held in October.

On the Mercado Livre site, for example, there are several models available, with most costing around R$50 Brazilian reais – around 12 pounds. The official Brazil shirt can cost as much as R$449.90, complete with name and number of your player. That is well above the 100-pound mark, something that is simply out of reach in a country where the dividing line between wealth and poverty continues to be gargantuan.

And that in effect is the crux of this issue. Whereas the yellow shirt has often united a fractured nation for a few weeks during the World Cup, this year it is almost weaponised as the dividing line between right and left. Rather than soothing, tensions are mounting during what should be a time of optimism as the squad heads to Russia on the back of two impressive friendly wins against Croatia and Austria.

It is not the first time that political tension has been rife during World Cup season. The Brazil 1970 side is widely considered the greatest in the history of international football, but domestically the military dictatorship had seen several politicians who opposed the brutality of the regime either exiled or imprisoned.

Yet while football has always been the national pastime and there seems to be a natural affinity between this country and o jogo bonito, there are indications that the Brazilian public are falling out with the game they have been more successful at than any other country. A survey conducted by the Instituto Datafolha revealed that a whopping 41 per cent of Brazilians claimed they had no interest in the upcoming World Cup.
Politics aside, could that be down to the way Brazil are playing? Given the stats since Tite took over that hardly seems likely, and while the former Corinthians boss is renowned for a more conservative, pragmatic style, his Brazil side has not exactly been goal-shy either, and are still averaging over two goals per game.

The seleção have now played five successive games in Europe without conceding a goal. After a goalless draw against England, victories have since followed over World Cup hosts Russia, World Cup reigning champions Germany, as well as the most recent triumphs over Croatia and an in-form Austria side, 2-0 and 3-0 respectively.

Having failed to reach a final since last winning the competition 16 years ago, the five-time champions have arguably never had as good a chance to add a sixth star to the now divisive shirt. Its national team is the proudest offering Brazil can give to the world, yet just days away from the biggest stage of them all, the lack of enthusiasm and disinterest is close to contagious.

Television channels and radio stations continue to do their utmost to stir debate and passion, but at this moment the climate is lukewarm at best. But ironically, it is also the 11 players that Tite sends out onto the field who have the greatest chance of righting the discontent which has gripped a nation plunged into economical and political crises since hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games back to back.

Alzirão, in the northern Rio neighbourhood of Tijuca and far away from the sanitised FIFA Fan Fest events held on the Copacabana sands, is a melting pot of intense passion, of celebration, spilled beer and desperate hopes. It is where tens of thousands gather to watch Brazil perform at World Cup tournaments and the vibrancy of such an event can be intoxicating, a potent ambience to be drank in rather than simply experienced.

This Sunday (17 June) Brazil play their World Cup opener against Switzerland. Once the action starts and a ball is kicked in anger, then we may see a different side to the nation that has attracted visitors at once for its natural beauty and its joie de vivre, something often brought alive every four years at gatherings which have become known as a “second carnival.”

Right now, the bunting is not yet out. If you see a Brazil flag hanging out of a window, you could well be forgiven for thinking it was part of a protest rather than an act of support. Brazil 2018 is a different place and World Cup fever looks to be a long way from gripping a nation who, alongside Germany, Spain and France is being tipped as one of the strongest in Russia.

It’s almost disconcerting, watching a brightly lit and inanely positive television advertisement, when on the streets people go about their daily business. Finding the balance between voicing political angst and expressing hopes that the seleção perform well at the World Cup is still lacking.

Some of that can certainly be put down to the squad picked by Tite. Of the 23 athletes, only three – Fágner, Geromel and Cássio – ply their trade in their homeland. None of them are expected to be in the starting line-up against Switzerland.

In addition, the likes of Alisson, Marcelo, Willian and Philippe Coutinho, mainstays of Tite’s new look Brazil outfit, departed for European shores without ever forging a relationship or bond with the fans of their respective clubs. More than ever, there is a disconnect between the Brazilian public and the players they are expected to lend unwavering support to over the next 30 days.

When Brazil won their first three World Cup titles, in 1958, 1962 and 1970, two clubs provided the majority of the players – Santos and Botafogo. Pele, Garrincha, Didi, Quarentinha, Zagallo and Jairzinho felt like representatives of a people that are simply impossible in the modern game.

The globalisation of football is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has brought what you might describe as a denationalisation of footballing identity. Do Brazil really play like Brazil anymore, or have Spain taken that model and advanced it? Should Tite try and adhere to the romanticised memories of that 1970 juggernaut XI, or should he focus on building a side in his own image?

From a purely sporting perspective, it can feel like a 2014 hangover. A time when Brazil was supposed to right the wrong of 1950, the year Brazil hosted the tournament for the first time and when the country fully expected to be lifting their first crown.

But while perhaps the 1950 final is looked upon as borderline tragedy, the 2014 semi-final defeat is viewed as farcical. Brazil weren’t undone by a fortuitous strike, they were outplayed, outclassed and humiliated on their very own turf.

For now, we sit and wait, if not with bated breath then at least with an aloof curiosity as to just what the next generation to pull on those yellow shirts can bring home. What is now seen as a symbol of an uneasy political climate could in an instant be the beacon of unity if Brazil do indeed go deep in this tournament.

Winning the World Cup will not eradicate the multitude of problems currently facing Brazilians and the daily challenges of tens of millions struggling through a worryingly prolonged recession. The hurdles to life in this bonkers, wonderful and at times downright sinister country will be thrown under the spotlight in the weeks and months preceding October’s elections.

Right now, there is an opportunity for respite. Grab it with both hands. For God’s sake, don’t let go.

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