Protesters march on Maracana

Protesters march on Maracana
A demonstrator jumps over a mock World Cup trophy that was set on fire during a protest near the Brasilia national stadium in Brasilia.

While James Rodriguez lit up the Maracana with his stunning volley for Colombia, anti-World Cup protesters clashed with police in the shadow of the stadium.

The media continues to emphasise the tournament's aesthetic qualities, rather than the anarchic behaviour of those on the fringes of the Fifa circus but the reality is unavoidable.

The protesters are not withdrawing. They are rising.

Brazil's shaky success in the knockout stages may not be enough to pacify the dissenters. The mood around the Maracana is changing. Yesterday morning, tear gas was fired at around 350 anti-World Cup protesters as around 250 police battled to retain order with Rio's proudest sporting behemoth as a backdrop.

Clad head to toe in black, with ski masks and bandanas concealing their identity, members of the Black Bloc movement were spotted in the grainy footage captured by eyewitnesses. But so were regular folks; parents and teenage girls who chose not to wear masks to face down the authorities.

They stood before police armed with guns and tear gas. They were armed with only loud hailers. Some were reportedly pepper sprayed.

A few days earlier, protesters clashed with police in the business district of Sao Paulo. A luxury car showroom was targeted.

Rather like the protest here outside the Maracana, a march of around 1,300 began peacefully. But TV images captured masked men spray painting graffiti on cars and smashing public property. Police responded with tear gas.

The Sao Paulo protests largely focused on bread-and-butter issues, such as public transport fare hikes and low-income housing. Outside the Maracana, they appeared to be targeting the World Cup itself.

On a night when Brazilians were celebrating their penalty shoot-out triumph against Chile, these protesters marched towards the Beautiful Game's spiritual home.

 

PREVENTIVE ACTION

But the police intervened. They had been intervening all day and patience was wearing thin.

At the Maracana metro station, supporters and residents had to navigate a wall of armed police not once, but at least three times along the concrete concourse.

The Uruguayan and Colombian supporters mostly accepted the mild inconvenience with good grace.

But Rio residents are understandably growing tired of the city shutting down every few days, along with the intimidating, incessant whirring of police helicopters, the random street searches, the constant bag checks and the enforced closing of local businesses.

Despite the Selecao's progress into the quarter-finals, the increasing unpleasantness on the streets is only agitating more Brazilians, encouraging more locals to ask the pertinent question: "We spent a record US$11 billion (S$13.75 billion) for this?"

First-world stadiums sit uneasily alongside third world education, healthcare and public transport services. It needs more than a Neymar penalty to bridge that uncomfortable gap.

 

NO END

"This isn't going to end with the World Cup. Even if Brazil win the Cup it's not going to improve anything for poor people, for those living in the Favelas, for the dispossessed," protester Pablo Rodriguez told AFP.

The scale of the protest outside the Maracana was less concerning than its timing.

Brazilians champion the galvanising impact of their Beautiful Game.

The Melbourne Cup boasts that its race stopped a nation. Brazil comes to a standstill whenever the Selecao pull their shirts on. When I was in Belo Horizonte, there was a half-day holiday for the Cameroon-Brazil game. The only businesses that remained open were bars and restaurants, all doing a roaring trade.

But Black Bloc protesters donned their masks, joined arms with local residents and marched along no-go streets towards armed police just hours after Brazil booked their place in the quarter-finals.

Police dispersed the crowd reasonably quickly, before the masked marchers could reach the Maracana and look down the lenses of the waiting press packs.

But footage emerged nonetheless of protesters being manhandled by authorities. Less than a kilometre away, Fifa displayed its rather trite mission statement about tolerance, equality and other Michael Jackson-like lyrics on the Maracana big screens.

Such conflicting messages serve only to fuel public frustration.

In five days, Brazil take on Colombia in the quarter-finals. For those living within the vicinity of World Cup arenas, that's another five days of random searches, police stop-checks and those omnipresent helicopters.

Around Rio, there is a foreboding sense of inevitability. More street clashes are likely.

Even if Brazil stop Colombia, they won't stop the protesters.


This article was first published on JUNE 30, 2014.
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