Football Versus Freedom

NEW YORK – Last year, Brazilian authorities were taken by surprise when a wave of protests erupted during the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, a sort of warm-up to this year’s main event, the World Cup, which will be staged in 12 cities across the country beginning in June. The protesters, complaining that the $11 billion spent on new stadiums and other World Cup-related infrastructure would be better invested in improving Brazil’s poor public services, were met with official violence. And yet the protests have continued throughout the year.

Not surprisingly, soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, and the World Cup’s corporate sponsors are worried – so worried that they and Brazilian government officials are planning carefully for protests during the month-long tournament. Worse, a raft of proposed security legislation would almost certainly restrict freedom of assembly.

The trouble with this backlash is that the World Cup is merely a focal point for a diffuse set of popular grievances concerning issues ranging from education to police corruption and abuse of power. Last June, a million people took to the streets across the country. In Brasilia, 45,000 protesters simply walked into the capital’s legislative district and stood quietly.

Recent demonstrations have followed on the heels of the government’s forced relocation of low-income Brazilians from their favelas overlooking Rio de Janeiro into newly built housing far away – an effort aimed at preventing the World Cup from being marred by scenes of poverty and unrest. Last week, protests erupted in the city’s Copacabana district after a dancer died. Locals say he was shot by the police, who have now been joined by the military to maintain order.