Before the 1970 World Cup, many Brazilians were skeptical about the team representing the dictatorship, and others actively opposed it. Before London 2012, many were disgusted by the way the Olympics were prepared. In both cases, fans came together when the action started. Might things turn around the same way this time?
Anna Jean Kaiser
Rio de Janeiro
Everyone is asking the same question. Will this be the World Cup where Brazilians put their foot down – where the dissatisfaction with the event will overtake the country’s love for soccer?
This is not the first politicized World Cup in Brazil, nor is it the first major world sporting event that’s been surrounded by criticism of the planning process. Despite the obvious reality of ongoing protests, history may lead us to believe that the population could come around once the games get started.
Brazil won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. That championship has gone down in history as a great victory, and the team is considered one of the best the world has ever seen. But the event was also marked by political conflict and lackluster fans, though on a smaller scale.
In the book “Football Explains Brazil” – author Marcos Guterman explains that general population was less than confident before the games. The team had lost several friendlies leading up to the Cup and there were fights among the higher-ups as to who would play during the tournament. The coach who qualified the team, João Saldanha, doubted if the ‘King of Football,’ Pelé, was in his best form and questioned whether to continue playing him. Saldanha, popular among the people, was fired before the World Cup. The drama and dismissal of the beloved coach darkened the mood on the eve of the 1970 World Cup.
Under right-wing military rule at the time, Brazil’s radical leftists rejected the nationalist sentiment being promoted by the government, responsible for numerous human rights abuses. The small groups of Leninists and Maoists were little recognized at the time, due to the dictatorship’s censorship of the media.
They weren’t proud of what Brazil represented, so they opted to cheer against the team. Brazil’s first game in the tournament was against communist Czechoslovakia.
“The left decide to cheer against Brazil, but they couldn’t resist the first Brazilian goal, by Rivellino, to make it a tie game against Czechoslovakia,” explained sports journalist Juca Kfouri.
The left’s protest and the country’s doubt lasted just up until that first goal in the first game. Brazil remained undefeated the entire tournament and beat Italy, 4 to 1, in the final.
“My friends were among those who urged others to root against Brazil in 1970,” Ugo Giorgetti, a filmmaker and soccer commentator told Reuters last week, “No one made it past the first 15 minutes.”
The regime used this to their advantage in order to gain political support from the people and created a Special Agency of Public Relations in 1969. “This was a meticulously developed plan to associate the image of the national team with President Médici, and consequently, the military regime,” explained Dr. Euclides de Freitas Couto, a historian specializing in sports and politics.
Guterman also points out that keeping up this image was not difficult, as Médici was truly a football fan. Folha reported the day after the victory that the President ordered all the fans who has gathered in the plaza to enter the palace and Médici “entered the middle of the crowd, wrapped in a Brazilian flag. The fans lifted him up and when they put him back on the ground, he grabbed a soccer ball from his grandchildren and started showing his abilities in the sport that Brazil was World Champion of.”
The joy, excitement and national pride generated by the World Cup championship contributed to the dictator’s image as a man of the people.
A more recent historical lesson may come from London 2012. Before the games started, Londoners spoke of pessimism and disgust at the corporate games, and some even left on purpose. But as Great Britain’s athletes shone, the country united, and many spoke of uncommon fraternity on the streets of England. Editor Vincent Bevins, there at the time, told me he had friends than rushed home to the UK to take part in the festivities.
We’re less than a week away from the World Cup, and the 2014 tournament may be the most politicized soccer competition in Brazilian history. This President’s fate (Rousseff faces re-election in October) may rest on the outcome. Right now, the country feels jaded – many say they won’t watch at all, others say they’ll protest, or cheer against the Brazilian team.
“Unfortunately, I’m rooting for Brazil to lose in the first round,” said Julio, who asked for his last name not to be used, a 31-year-old resident of São Paulo. “If Brazil wins the Cup, the current party will stay in power,” he explained, referring the the ruling Worker’s Party (PT), which has held power in the executive branch for 11 years.
The current president, Dilma Rousseff, is up for reelection in October. While most polls indicate that she will continue to a second term, her popularity has dropped over the last year amidst criticism of her administration, especially in relation to World Cup preparations.
“This Cup is about politics – and in order for us to win the political battle, Brazil has to lose in the Cup,” he said.
Brazilians insist that the mood in the streets is decidedly different than other World Cups. The traditional street decorations have turned into artistic forms of protests, as seen in the Méier neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro and the graffiti image gone viral in São Paulo, of a starving child with a soccer ball on his dinner plate.
It’s a complicated moment in Brazilian history – on the one hand, it’s the World Cup, and Brazil is arguably the greatest and most enthusiastic soccer nation in the world. But a year of mass protests against high government expenditures and human rights abuses have called attention to the preparations for this event. But if the past serves as an example, we won’t know until the games start.