Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

Whatever happened to Brazil's World Cup protests?

Demonstrations shook the country last year but even after the host nation's exit the streets have been largely quiet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – While thousands of brightly dressed middle-class fans spilled out of the glamorous Jockey Club in Rio de Janeiro after Brazil beat Chile, a small crowd of activists gathered under the cover of the winter darkness just seven and a half miles away.

It summed up the division caused by the World Cup in Brazil; on the one hand, this was the ultimate football carnival, and yet protesters were trying to maintain the momentum created last year during the biggest demonstrations in a generation.

But in the end, the World Cup was dominated by neither joy on the pitch nor rage on the streets.

The scenes of thousands on the streets from June 2013, which had so concerned FIFA and the authorities in the year before, were not repeated.

And when Brazil was ignominiously knocked out by Germany in the semi-finals, the overwhelming feeling appeared to be apathy.

The general absence of protests and any kind of festival of grief after Brazil’s defeat troubled some observers, who had expected the country to be ready to rise up either for or against the World Cup.

But for many, the atmosphere in Brazil – with its historic love of football – was indicative of the way the country is changing.

In the hour after Brazil made it through to the quarter-finals by beating Chile on penalties, dozens gathered in a square near the Maracanã stadium, where Colombia were playing Uruguay.

By 5.30pm, it was already dark and assembled were young people, Black Bloc activists, a couple of indigenous protesters, lawyers and dozens of riot police in full body armor.

A huge bang rang out when someone threw a homemade bomb in the direction of a shop, stunning everyone given the paucity of conflict.

The protest moved quickly, from the square down towards the stadium before swiftly retreating and heading down another street in the same direction. Police were forced to run to overtake the group.

“I’m Brazilian, I watched the World Cup, I’m not against the World Cup,” Oswaldo Barros, 42, a teacher from Jacarepaguá in the west of Rio de Janeiro, said. “I’m against the manipulation of public money.

“We need to separate football and passion for football from social problems.”

Eventually, the group of protesters was surrounded by police on a street corner, outnumbered by officers and photographers, until one by one, they slipped away. The whole event had lasted less than two hours.

A month before the start of the World Cup, it had appeared that a series of strikes and union actions had rejuvenated the protest movement.

Police managed to lever a pay rise with threats of a walkout during the competition, and in Rio, teachers and street cleaners known as “garis” were among those to turn out.

“They don’t recognize our rights,” said Pable Rodrigues, 47, a street cleaner from Grajaú in the north of Rio. “They put our money into the World Cup. It’s wrong.”

He carried with him his labor card with a start date of 1991 but says he has no date for his retirement and fears for his pension.

Biologist Iuri Souza, 33, from Recreio, was convinced the protests would continue throughout the World Cup: “We don’t have health or education, we have corrupt police. It’s always been like this: people were always treated like rubbish while the rich had everything.

“People are dying in favelas. People are living in sewage. It’s a chaotic state. It’s going to continue after the World Cup. We can’t put up with this life.”

And yet, the protest slogan “Não vai ter Copa” (“There won’t be a World Cup”) felt long outdated.

“The protests in June 2013 showed that the Brazilian is changing a bit,” said Marcos Marques dos Santos Júnior, 29, a futebol arte aficionado and blogger originally from Campina Grande in Paraíba. “He’s tired of being so disadvantaged: crowded trains, crowded buses, full hospitals, poor education.

“Brazilians in general are enjoying football less, this has been happening in recent years. My understanding is that Brazilians are paying a little more attention to other things.”

He said last year’s success of the Free Fare Movement (MPL) in rescinding bus fare rises had left Brazilians with a sense of power but not necessarily a goal.

“We were lost, not knowing what to protest,” he added. “Although this demonstrates that we want to protest, it only remains to be organized.

“People from 18 to 35, who did not live during the dictatorship, these young people want a different Brazil.”

Vinicius Duarte, a student in São Paulo, who was beaten by police during an anti-World Cup protest in January, said he had been hopeful during the strikes that another wave of demonstrations would take place.

“My feeling is that I gave my best to stop this madness,” he said. “It is a pity that we did not make large demonstrations, but the fight is just beginning.

“I'm very ashamed of robbery and killing done in the name of this event, I think there is nothing to justify embezzlement or removals of families from their homes.”

In the wake of the crushing defeat against Germany, some fans suggested that a loss would help change Brazil, or at least Brazil’s dependence on its image as a country of football.

The subdued reaction indicated the complexity of today’s Brazil and its relationship with sporting success.

After the loss, the tearful captain, David Luiz apologized to the Brazilian public, saying he had hoped to bring some joy to his people and see them smile after months of turmoil on the streets.

But for Professor Flávio de Campos, coordinator of the University of São Paulo’s Ludens interdisciplinary research center for football and recreational activities, this exposed part of Brazil’s problem on and off the pitch.

He said: “This boy committed a mistake in the first German goal and then he voluntarily tried to resolve the problems of society, going forward out of position like a madman, to bring joy to his people.

“These are boys. The pressure is great.”

Professor Campos said it was a “pathological” part of Brazilian culture to want to find leaders and heroes in footballers.

“At 5pm, we were looking for heroes. By 7pm, we were looking for villains,” he said.

“In Brazil, we don’t believe in witches but we believe in saviors of the homeland.

“Brazilian football overestimates the value of the individual to the detriment of the collective.

“It’s a form of self-mutilation. The number of jokes made by Brazilians about ourselves afterwards shows this. It shows our self-esteem is low.

“The discourse is significant. It’s wrong.

“The team is playing with this weight on its shoulders; it doesn’t have to resolve or compensate for the problems of Brazilian society.”

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