Things have turned ugly in the land of the beautiful game. Last week polls showed that record low numbers (more than 50 per cent) of Brazilians claim to have no interest in this year’s World Cup. Despite being tournament favourites and the competition’s most successful nation, build-up to Russia 2018 was surprisingly cool in the land of footballing legends. Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Switzerland will have done little to pique interests of the disinterested.
“Normally neighbourhoods and public places are decorated in the Brazilian colours,” says Brazilian sports journalist Pedro Costa. “Every car flies a small flag, and everybody wears the yellow shirt, but this year it’s different.” Some have suggested that the lack of enthusiasm is rooted in the devastating 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014; a game which left a scar on the nation’s football psyche: “After that match I felt ashamed, I was angry, it was a tragedy” – Leonardo Siebra a bar owner from Recife says. However, since then the Seleção’s line-up has changed entirely; in fact, none of the starting XI from the 7-1 loss played in the opening game against Switzerland. Clearly, the source of apathy is more complicated.
The last few years in Brazil have been extremely turbulent. Corruption scandals have engulfed the entire political order; ex-President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was imprisoned for 12 years (many regard his incarceration as politically motivated), while confidence in the current president Michel Temer stands at three per cent (with a three per cent margin for error). Violence is rising, unemployment is at its highest in 20 years (over 13 per cent), and food and fuel prices are soaring. A recent petrol strike brought the country to a week-long standstill. Costa believes that political and economic struggles are playing a significant role in the lack of World Cup interest. “It’s difficult to enjoy football when you don’t have any money for beer and churrasco (Brazilian BBQ),” he says.
Public frustration doesn’t stop at the country’s political class; Brazil’s football association Confederação Brasileira de Futebol is itself perennially mired in corruption scandals. In April this year, the CBF’s most recent president Marco Polo Del Nero received a lifetime ban from football and was fined £750,000 for his dodgy activities. Also, with the majority of Brazil’s friendly matches now being played overseas (at great profit to the CBF), many feel their national side has become an entertainment product to be bought and sold. The team of Neymar and Co might be the most popular for neutrals, but playing their friendlies abroad has only deepened divisons between the Seleção and the people.
With presidential elections approaching in early October and one of the front runners Jair Bolsanaro a far-right candidate using nationalistic rhetoric, some now associate the Brazilian flag and acts of national pride with Conservatism. Polarisation has even seeped into people’s football jersey of choice. “I refuse to wear the yellow shirt. It is the jersey of the Coxinhas,” Maria Barros, a teacher and avid football fan from Olinda, says, referring to a popular fried snack that’s shape is wide at the bottom and thin at the top. The term is used by the political left to mock the so-called small-minded protesters who called for the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2015. To the aversion of many Brazilians, these demonstrators wore the iconic yellow and green national jersey on their marches.
As a result, this year has seen an increased demand for Brazil’s 2nd (blue) and 3rd (green) shirts. A street vendor selling World Cup merchandise in downtown Recife said “blue, not yellow, is the most popular”. A market for subversive jerseys has even emerged; on Mercado Livre (Brazil’s version of eBay) you can buy a red shirt complete with hammer and sickle in place of the Nike logo. Another popular jersey plays on the Portuguese word for coup “Golpe” (which is how many saw Dilma’s Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment) and the famous elongated “Goal!” of Latin American commentators.
In 1970, at the height of Brazil’s brutally repressive military regime, the national side comfortably beat Italy 4-1 to lift the World Cup in Mexico. The dictatorship plastered its slogan “No one will hold back Brazil now” on photos of Pelé and made a big fanfare upon the team’s return. The 1980s saw the emergence of one of the most politically engaged and outspoken footballers in the game’s history, Sócrates, who captained the Seleção at the ’82 World Cup. This year’s affair is the latest chapter in the fascinating narrative of a national team inseparable from its country’s politics.