On the cobbled streets of Salvador, in the shadow of faded pastel buildings that date from Brazil’s colonial era, an army of ladies in flowing white cotton dresses sell the local delicacy acarajé.
The dish, which, like much of the city’s culture, was first brought here by African slaves, consists of a deep-fried patty of black-eyed peas served with shrimp, cashew paste and pepper sauce.
But as FIFA has found out in the run-up to this month’s World Cup matches at Arena Fonte Nova, the ladies — known for centuries as baianas — are not to be taken lightly.
Having served up acarajé in the old Estádio Fonte Nova for six decades, the sellers were aghast to be excluded from the vendors selected for the new stadium. So they started a high-profile campaign to force FIFA to allow the custom to continue and won a significant victory.
During the six matches at the stadium, which include champions Spain against the Netherlands and Germany against Portugal, there will be six acarajé sellers on the stadium grounds.
The victory is not the only one of its kind. A year after widespread popular protests in Brazil, local customs are now being accommodated in and around World Cup stadiums with a willingness that has surprised many. Brazil, as FIFA has found, is a country that is determined to do things its own way.
Rita Maria Ventura dos Santos does not look like a warrior. The ebullient 57-year-old moved from her native Rio de Janeiro to Salvador in 1986 and began selling acarajé on the city’s beaches. In time she became the coordinator of the Association of Bahian Acarajé Sellers.
In November 2012 she learned that FIFA had excluded the traditional street sellers from the process to choose food vendors for the World Cup warm-up tournament, the 2013 Confederations Cup. Under a World Cup law demanded by FIFA, not only would sellers be banned in the stadium, but they also could be stopped from setting up within a mile of the grounds.
“It would have meant that baianas who had earned their livelihoods there for 60 years would have been forced out,” she said. Santos began badgering local officials and sought publicity for the cause with the slogan “Libere as baianas” — aiming to liberate the acarajé sellers.
As with previous World Cups, the local press has been full of stories about the special rules and exceptions that FIFA has demanded — from the huge tax breaks given to the organization to the regal treatment afforded its president, Sepp Blatter, when he is in the country.
More remarkably, under the country’s World Cup law, FIFA can — and has — trademarked nearly 200 words and phrases for its exclusive commercial use. They include the obvious, such as “Brasil 2014,” and the less obvious, such as “pagode,” a type of samba music popular in Rio’s club scene, because it is also the name of the font used in the World Cup logo.
Any business that breaks the rules can face legal action. Which might pose a particular problem for — in addition to samba clubs — any shops looking to advertise products with the phrase “Natal 2014” (“Christmas 2014”), since Natal is a host city and that has been trademarked.
But the most controversy emerged over FIFA’s aggressive stance toward Alzirão, a massive street party in which some 25,000 people gather for matches in a suburb near Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium.
Having started on a street corner in 1978 with a single 20-inch television, it is now a well-organized event with big screens, decorations, a sound system, bars and sponsors. The event is very similar to FIFA’s Fan Fest events in each city, including on Copacabana beach in Rio.
The main difference is that at Alzirão, you are allowed to bring your own beer.
“FIFA was not happy with how close we are to the Maracanã,” said Ricardo Ferreira, president of the association that organizes the event. “Then they asked us for 28,000 reals [$12,500] for the broadcast rights, from which we are normally exempt. It felt like they were trying to shut us down.
“Alzirão is a tradition that has not been broken in 36 years, not even in 2002, when the matches were at dawn. And with the World Cup in Brazil this year, we were never going to break it now."
“We have to have sponsors to fund the event, but this year we can only have the same sponsors as FIFA. So in 2010, we had Brahma, NET [a telecom company] and Guaraná Antárctica [a soft drink]. This year we can only have Brahma, as they are also a FIFA sponsor.”
But as has been the case on several occasions after the protests of last summer, a local politician rode to the rescue. Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, intervened to ensure the fee was waived and Alzirão could go ahead. “The more Alzirões that arise around the city, the better,” he told a press conference in late April. “The joy of Rio’s people will not be restricted because of the World Cup.”
“It was not so hard to negotiate once the mayor got involved,” Ferreira said with a smile. “And if Brazil wins the World Cup, the Maracanã is just next door. Where will the fans celebrate? Here.”
As with the ways of the baianas in Salvador, it’s a reality that FIFA may just have to come to accept.