OVER eight million Panini sticker albums are reported to have been sold in Brazil ahead of the World Cup finals.
The only problem is that some of them have been bought to be burned. The brand item was torched at recent protests in Sao Paulo over the staging of the extravaganza for one reason: it is so closely associated with what objectors consider to be a colossal betrayal of the Brazilian people.
It is obligatory for the build-up to World Cups to be dominated by tales of delays, overspend and security concerns, as well as issues over the general suitability and viability of the host nation. And then for the tournament to pass off relatively problem free. Yet there is something more pronounced and profound about the resistance of mass swathes of the Brazilian populace to the charms of a competition in which their nation, as record five-times winners, are emblematic.
A week ago, in Rio de Janeiro, members of a leftist group Black Bloc carried placards proclaiming, “We want schools, subways, trams, buses and standard hospitals FIFA” and “The Cup will have protests”. Similar scenes have been witnessed in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo. In other demonstrations, indigenous leaders in traditional headdress fired arrows at police.
The police themselves, in common with other public sectors workers such as teachers and nurses, have vented their fury at the $13 billion lavished on the tournament while they have been forced to accept continued low pay and poor conditions. Indeed, a 24-hour strike by police in one of the host cities, Salvador, recently resulted in more than 20 murders. A total of 157,0000 police and army personnel will be deployed for security purposes during the tournament, but even that eye-watering number may be insufficient.
The World Cup has become a fierce focus of discontent for ordinary workers over the government’s attitude to improving infrastructure, and with that their daily lives. Social media has undoubtedly fuelled a grassroots movement, one so capable of becoming mobilised that, at its peak during the Confederations Cup – a World Cup-taster tournament – last June, unrest spread to 120 cities and involved more than a million of the country’s 200 million population. The protests were the largest ever witnessed.
Never mind Qatar and Russia, FIFA could be condemned for ever granting Brazil the World Cup in the first place. It is a decision they have reason to regret. Their relationship with the local organising committee has been downright hostile. Even now, four days before the tournament begins, three of the 12 stadiums remain incomplete. The Corinthian Arena in Sao Paulo, which will host Thursday’s opener between Brazil and Croatia, is awaiting fire service approval for the 20,000 temporary seats that time constraints forced to be installed. There were also hold-ups when a worker was killed in their construction, one of eight men who have lost their lives in the building programme.
Brazil is a bizarrely romanticised country, especially by football followers. Never mind that average attendances at top-flight league games in the country are only marginally higher than those in Scotland’s highest tier – despite housing 40 times as many people.
The truth is that, in too many respects, Brazil is a Frankenstein’s monster of a nation. Sao Paulo has the highest concentration of helipads in the world – which allows the super rich easy transportation – but also has one of the globe’s highest murder rates. The sprawling South American country is a place where 16 million people live in the middle of cities without proper sanitation. These “subnormal agglomerations”, to supply them with their official name – or favelas, as they have become known – have not given rise to the anti-World Cup protests. People are so disenfranchised from the political process in these desperate areas, that they would not think it worthwhile to take to the streets and complain that left-wing president Dilma Rousseff, in the face of endemic corruption, will fail in her election pledge to transform the country for all.
Meanwhile, Rio mayor Eduardo Paes hasn’t attempted to soft-soap the society, deeply racist as well as unequal, that visiting supporters will be confronted in his capital. “People who arrive in Brazil imagining they’re in England or who arrive in Rio imagining they’re in London will have a frustrating experience in terms of development,” he said. “Rio is a city that doesn’t hide its poorest people like other places.”
Only 30 per cent of the infrastructure projects supposed to provide that increasingly naff notion of a “legacy” has been completed. Even football legend Ronaldo, a member of the organising committee and a man denounced as a “traitor” by some placard-waving protesters, has been moved to rail against that fact.
“I have followed everything very closely,” Ronaldo said. “I had hoped everything would work out – even at the last minute. It’s a shame. I feel appalled. There is a disregard for the population. I think, primarily, serious planning was lacking for everything to have been delivered. We had time – seven years.”
With the largest outbreak of dengue fever in the history of south-eastern city Campinas – where the Portuguese and Nigerian squads will be based – further complicating matters, nothing has gone smoothly in Brazil’s preparations for the finals.
Now, an awful lot has to go right in the playing sphere to remove the focus from the seemingly poor fit of the country and a competition of this scale – not least because the Olympics will come to Brazil in two years’ time. And perhaps this is where the 20th edition of the World Cup will come good.
The home nation are obvious favourites to land a trophy many consider rightfully theirs. The 3-0 final victory over Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup, wherein Neymar excelled before an indifferent first season at Barcelona, has heightened on-field expectations. Possibly over-heightened them for the team of Luiz Felipe Scolari, a coach who only appears to have hubristically fuelled the demand for success.
When Brazil last staged a World Cup, the victors did indeed hail from South America. It just so happened they were Uruguay. Third in the 2010 finals, the tiny nation cannot be discounted with a strikeforce of Luis Suarez – fitness permitting – Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan, but it is the credentials of Argentina that seem to stand up to greatest scrutiny. They do not have to cope with the enormous weight of expectation that will be placed upon their Brazilian rivals, and at the same time will be performing in conditions not alien to them, unlike European hopefuls. And in Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain they have fearsome attacking options.
In defence, they are not so adept, which explains coach Alejandro Sabella’s decision to recall erratic Manchester City centre-back Martin Demichelis to the fold after a two-year exile. Current holders Spain cannot be discounted for an incredible fourth consecutive major finals success precisely because of their backline solidity. With a squad rated better than the one with which Vincente Del Bosque captured Euro 2012, they conceded fewer goals than any other European qualifier.
The squad’s average age of 28 does not suggest they can be considered over the hill. It may be the third-highest of the 32 teams in Brazil, but it is just below the figure for Argentina. However, no team’s performers have more playing miles on the clock than the Spanish, and there were signs in Barcelona’s ill-starred season that pivotal figures such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta are becoming more battle-weary than battle-hardened.
The Italians, the ultimate tournament team, seem always to be the latter – irrespective of what kind of shape they appear to be in leading into a tournament. And Germany, with a more talented squad, are also adept at peaking at the right time.
With both Cesare Prandelli’s side and Uruguay in England’s group, Roy Hodgson’s team will have no easy passage to the knock-out stages. Encouragingly – and unusually – for them, though, they would appear to possess a dynamism and freshness in such as Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (if he recovers in time) that could make them a something of a surprise package. The same might be said of France and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The real surprise over the next month, however, would be the Brazilian people allowing the football to be played out without continuing to vent their feelings over the social progress halted to let that happen.