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Members of Brazil's Homeless Workers’ Movement block a road during a protest in front of Sao Paulo’s World Cup stadium on June 4, 2014. The group opposes spending public funds stadium construction.Nacho Doce/Reuters

Flavio Vilela has been a regular at anti-World Cup protests over the past year. He has marched in the streets of Rio in crowds of thousands – and been left gasping in clouds of police tear gas – chanting "Nao vai ter Copa," or "there won't be a Cup." He and other demonstrators are angry at what he calls wasteful government spending on sports stadiums when public education and health care in Brazil are in terrible shape. And as the event grew closer, Mr. Vilela was sure he wouldn't go near it.

But with just three days to go until kickoff, it has hit home for Mr. Vilela, a 29-year-old psychologist, that there really will be a Cup. And now love of football is creating a fierce moral dilemma for Mr. Vilela and many of his friends. During the last World Cup he wore Brazil's green and yellow, and cheered hard for his team. But his resolve to boycott soccer is weakening and he is trying to find a way to square watching the games with his political principles. "I want to watch the games, like I always have," he said.

Across Rio people express conflicting emotions. Compared to previous World Cups, relatively few streets are decorated in green and yellow bunting, and only a few cars are flying Brazilian flags. Fifty-five per cent of people in Rio said they were either against or indifferent to the World Cup, according to a recent survey published by the city newspaper O Globo.

President Dilma Rousseff has been insisting that support for the national team transcends politics, telling reporters recently that while she was jailed by the military dictatorship during the 1970 World Cup, she cheered for Brazil just the same.

Ms. Rousseff is running for re-election in October. This cup was intended to showcase what she calls progress in Brazil; some critics equate support for the event with support for her government. Severino Goncalves, a doorman in the left-wing Rio neighbourhood of Laranjeiras is one of the few there who decided to follow tradition and decorate in Brazil's colours, hanging bunting between the electrical wires and painting the road. "When I was putting up the flags, someone stopped me and asked 'So you're voting for Dilma?'" Mr. Goncalves said. "People are mixing politics and football too much."

"There is a real conflict," anthropologist Arlei Damo, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, said in an interview. He wrote recently that the level of alienation means this Cup feels like it's being played on Pluto: the usual love affair with the national team has been undermined by many things, he said, including the protests and the realization that few Brazilians will be able to afford to watch them in the stadiums as they expected to do. "So the emotions aren't flowing as they typically would."

A group of left-wing political activists who have been part of anti-Cup protests tried to enlist new support last week with an event they called Manifest – a play on manifestacao, the Portuguese word for demonstration, and a reference to the giant "Fan Fest" events that FIFA is organizing around the country for supporters who can't be in the stadiums to watch broadcasts of the games in crowds. The Manifest organizers hoped to combine a live broadcast of a pre-Cup friendly match between Brazil and Serbia with the dissemination of research on negative social impact of new developments in the city.

A crowd of about 50 people including Mr. Vilela, the psychologist, gathered in front of a 50-inch TV screen propped on beer crates in a downtown square, where a large banner hung between trees proclaimed it "FIFA-free territory."

As the game progressed, organizers muted the volume so they wouldn't have to hear commentators rave about Brazil's prospects in the impending Cup. Instead, they talked about the 17,000 people who have been forcibly removed from their homes for building projects related to the Cup and the Summer Olympics that Rio will host in 2016, and about street vendors who have been barred from making a living because of FIFA's rules about sales near stadiums.

But they had to keep chiding those who appeared to be getting too engrossed in the game. "We're not just going to sit on our butts here and watch the game, people," one organizer scolded through the microphone. "Let's have a debate!"

Activist Felipe Machado acknowledged that broadcasting a football match at an anti-Cup protest was a bit contradictory, but he called it a necessary strategy. "We simply can't reach out to people if we deny them the chance to watch it," he said ruefully.

As the game was about to finish, organizers led a sex worker onto the stage and she told the crowd how she had been violently harassed by police a day earlier. No one seemed sure whether to look at her or the TV, where Brazil was trying to score a last-minute goal.

Christian Fischgold, a teacher in a Rio favela and a regular at protests, said he thinks decrying the Cup but cheering for Brazil is morally incoherent. He remembers the demonstrations during the final match of the Confederations Cup, when Brazil beat Spain a year ago. After being blasted with tear gas over and over again, he stopped in a bar but his eyes were so swollen he could barely see the game on TV.

"I love football, I'm crazy about it. This is the first time I'm not going to watch it," Mr. Fischgold said. "Yesterday, I was with friends with whom I've been watching World Cups since 1994, and we agreed that we wouldn't watch it this time. There's no way. On [opening day] the 12th, I'm going to be out on the streets."