The World Cup, the globe’s greatest single sports extravaganza, is about to start. But massive demonstrations could dampen the festivities.
Nearly half of humanity will watch the World Cup which kicks off in Brazil on Thursday 12 June. On the field it should be a fantastic tournament, the world’s biggest single sports spectacle.
But on the streets of Brazil there could be as much action as on the pitch. The games will be played against the backdrop of huge civil unrest by Brazilians venting their anger at what they see as excessive spending on the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It happened last year during the Confederations Cup when more than a million people took to the streets of major Brazilian cities shouting that basic services and infrastructure, schools, hospitals, public transport — all have been completely ignored in favour of trying to present a face of Brazil to the world which the demonstrators claimed belied the truth. Certainly, the authorities got a massive shock last year. This year’s shocker has polls showing between half and three-quarters of the population disapproving of Brazil hosting the World Cup at all, a position once unthinkable for the nation that embodies soccer like no other.
A court in Brazil declared the strike illegal, complicating preparations for the World Cup opening match (photo: Reuters)
The question is whether the World Cup will be hit by protests and riots like last year’s Confederations Cup. The short answer is that no one really knows what will come from a people who say hosting the competition has cost the country more than it should, and in return is giving back less than it should. There could be protests and strikes and some disruption seems inevitable. We have already seen striking subway workers who went back to work on Tuesday, but warned they could walk off the job again on Thursday — the day Sao Paulo hosts the opening match between Brazil and Croatia — if workers fired over the strike are not returned to their posts. The five-day stoppage had caused traffic chaos in one of the world’s most congested cities and another strike would make it hard for fans to reach the stadium.
But it is unlikely we will see the same huge protests as last year. Once the tournament begins, social tensions are expected to ease and a nation that is so obsessed with its team will largely rally round. Even the most committed opponent of the World Cup will find it hard not to get into the spirit of the occasion.
Of course, the flip side is a nightmare scenario of an early exit for the home team, a setback of immense proportions that would surely further fuel discontent.
Demonstrators run from tear gas fired by police outside Ana Rosa subway station during the fifth day of metro workers’ strike in Sao Paulo, 9 June (photo: 9 June)
But a premature departure is extremely unlikely. Brazil is the team to beat, the only team to take part in every World Cup and the only nation to lift the trophy five times. The hosts have the history, the pedigree, the players, the coach and a determination to exorcise the ghost of 1950 when they were beaten by Uruguay in the final game. They boast an 11-year unbeaten record on home soil. All Brazilian teams have forever had the skills but this side is also well drilled, shaped by 2002 World Cup winning-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. Scolari has the required big tournament experience, the players are talented, and a passionate home crowd will surely inspire the team of the iconic yellow jerseys. Home boy wonder Neymar was the stand-out player of last year’s Confederations Cup and the fans will expect nothing less from him than another sterling performance.
Brazil’s first opposition, Croatia, while they were semi-finalists at the 1998 World Cup in France, have struggled ever since and only just qualified for Brazil by beating minnows Iceland in a play-off. With Mexico and Cameroon rounding off Group A, Brazil should advance blindfolded.
Street vendors protest as police expel them from the area around the FIFA Fan Fest during the inauguration in Fortaleza, June 8, 2014. Fortaleza will host six soccer matches of the 2014 World Cup, 8 June (photo: Reuters)
Just behind Brazil is Argentina as second favourites, partly because they have such a favourable draw. Germany looks like third place followed by world champions Spain.
Sadly, some marquee names will be missing. Prolific French striker and third best player in the world Franck Ribery, and Marco Reus, Germany’s 2012 Footballer of the Year, head a long list of injured players knocked out. The outrageous Zlatan Ibrahimović will also be missing because his country Sweden missed out altogether.
However, the world’s No 1 and No 2, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are in Brazil, trying once again to prove they can shine on football’s biggest stage. What separates Portugal’s Ronaldo and Argentina’s Messi from football immortality is not goals or club honours or individual accolades – they have loads of each – but a World Cup that they must dominate and define.
From 32 teams and many of the world’s finest players, there is much anticipation in this World Cup. The hope is that attention will focus on the soccer and not on the street.