It’s been a very strange World Cup so far. After all the talk of chaos and violence, of unfinished stadiums and public anger, of Fifa’s corruption allegations and incompetence, most people here seem to be talking about the football. It turns out that all you need to keep people happy is a string of entertaining games. This might not be surprising – the bread-and-circuses trick is hardly new and perhaps reached its apogee in Colombia in 1948, when the government helped fund an enormously wealthy rebel league to stave off openly declared civil war following the murder of the opposition leader Jorge Gaitán – but it is a little disappointing.
Last month’s audit into the tournament found, for instance, that transportation of prefabricated grandstands in Brasilia was supposed to cost $4,700 but the construction consortium billed the government for $1.5m. It’s estimated that as much as 30 per cent of the $900m total budget for the city’s stadium has disappeared in kickbacks. Surely that is a scandal worth protesting against, whether or not this tournament is, at this early stage, threatening to be the best from a footballing point of view since 1986?
There were demonstrations near Carrão Metro station in São Paulo on the day of the opening game but those taking an active part numbered only a few dozen. Perhaps 20 of them clashed with police, who deployed stun grenades and tear gas in what seemed a disproportionate response.
There were reports of other small-scale protests across the city and a couple of Molotov cocktails thrown near the municipal chamber but the claims that there would be as many as 10,000 people protesting on the streets seemed wildly inflated.
It was a similar story in Rio de Janeiro when it hosted its first game: lots of talk of demonstrations that amounted to nothing more than a few dozen people standing desultorily behind a banner reading “Fuck Fifa”, while at least as many journalists wandered about wondering whether anything was going to happen. There is anger but so far it has been nowhere near as concentrated as it was during the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Stadiums might not have been given the final lick of paint – and there was obvious embarrassment that 1,376 people had to change their tickets for the opening match in São Paulo because their original seats didn’t exist – but apart from gripes about the exorbitant cost and limited availability of drinking water in stadiums (with all food and drink confiscated on the way in), match days seem to have gone relatively smoothly.
The biggest threat to the tournament seems to be less street demonstrations than the threatened strike action. The São Paulo Metro was shut down for five days over a pay dispute but reopened two days before the first game. A 24-hour strike by 20 per cent of staff at Rio airport had little discernible impact.
For the love of the game
The clearest sign of discontent came at the opening game, a 3-1 win for Brazil against Croatia, when fans inside the stadium abused President Dilma Rousseff.
What happened requires a little unpacking. Most of the fans at that game were from the wealthy, white middle and upper middle class. This is a group naturally opposed to Rousseff, who draws her support largely from the working class and the impoverished north and centre of Brazil. So she is criticised both by her core supporters, who find themselves priced out of the World Cup, and by those who can afford to go to games, because they were predisposed to oppose her anyway.
Rousseff’s enthusiastic celebrations as Brazil came from behind to beat Croatia suggested she is aware that the propaganda battle for this tournament is not lost yet. When Brazil went behind, there was booing and chanting against her; when they equalised, there was mass rejoicing and fireworks in the sky over São Paulo.
At full-time, after an extremely dubious penalty to Brazil and a smart finish from Oscar had made it 3-1, there was a mood of general contentment that might yet carry Rousseff to an election victory later this year.
The most troubling aspect of the tournament so far was that penalty, awarded by the Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura for a nothing challenge by the Croatia centre-back Dejan Lovren on the Brazil forward Fred. Taken alone, it might be seen as an understandable error but that call was one of a number that went the way of the host nation – most significantly Nishimura’s decision to show the Brazil forward Neymar only a yellow card for planting a forearm into the windpipe of Luka Modric. The Croatia coach, Niko Kovac, whose demeanour is usually one of wry detachment, was understandably seething afterwards, describing the penalty as “ridiculous” and Nishimura as “completely out of his depth”.
Kovac felt that, at the very least, the pressure of the situation had got to the referee: “If we continue in this way we will have a circus,” he said. “I am not the sort of person to blame referees but we are the first to play Brazil so I have to say it: things have to improve.”
The subtext was clear: given the number of interests for which a Brazilian victory would be desirable, from Rousseff to Nike, and the potential threat to public order if they fail, it’s just about possible to believe in a conspiracy to favour them. Then again, after such a high-profile decision going their way in the opening game and with Kovac making his case so eloquently, there will be tremendous psychological pressure on referees and administrators not to be seen as soft on Brazil. l
Jonathan Wilson is the author of “Inverting the Pyramid: a History of Football Tactics” (Orion, £8.99) and the editor of the Blizzard, a quarterly journal of football writing. He will be writing weekly from Brazil during the World Cup