If it’s drama you’re after, the global spectacle of football that is the World Cup rarely disappoints. So far in Brazil we’ve seen the dethroning of the Spanish champions, the rise of the Chilean underdog and back-to-back wins for Colombia for the first time in the country’s history at the tournament.
Then there are the incredible stories of the players themselves – like the Bosnia and Herzegovina team, made up of young men who fled the Bosnian war as children in the mid-90s, and the French midfielder Rio Mavuba, born on a boat in international waters as his parents fled the Angolan Civil War – which offer a better lesson in history and international relations than you’d find in most classrooms.
But stories off the pitch have been making almost as many headlines.
Peace was in short supply
As Brazilian children released doves representing FIFA’s commitment to peace from the center circle at the Arena de Sao Paulo just before the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, that very peace was in short supply just a few miles down the road.
As the doves flapped their wings and the crowds roared, hundreds of people who had taken part in a peaceful anti-World Cup protest earlier were recovering from the effects of tear gas and stun grenades, fired at them by military police. Among those injured was the local producer from international broadcaster CNN.
That protest was just the latest in a year of demonstrations which started during the Confederations Cup in 2013. They began as a stand against increased public transport fares and expanded to highlight the lack of investment in schools and hospitals compared with the cost of the World Cup, which has soared to over £6.5 billion. And it was just the latest violent police response.
In a report published just before the World Cup, Amnesty International analyzed the catalog of abuses committed by the Brazilian security forces in the past year.
It found that hundreds of people have been injured across the country after military police both fired rubber bullets at protesters who posed no threat and beat individuals with hand-held batons. Military police units also used tear gas on peaceful protesters – in one case even firing a gas canister inside a hospital in Rio. Arbitrary arrests and the misuse of laws to stop and punish those who have taken to the streets have also been rife.
The Brazilian authorities, for their part, have admitted that the police are not accustomed to protests – these are the biggest in the nearly 30 years since democracy was restored – and need further training.
Such training is to be welcomed, but it will come too late for those who have been on the receiving end of police violence in the last year, and it must comply with international standards on safe policing.
For Brazil, the World Cup is a showcase, an opportunity to launch itself into global consciousness as a modern and progressive country (the same goes for others – why else, really, would Qatar want the 2022 World Cup, or Azerbaijan the inaugural European Games next year?). For too many governments of host countries with questionable human rights records, these events are often less about sport than an attempt at image-laundering in front of the world’s media.
There have been other protests since the opening game, although they appear to have died down…for now. But the damage is already done. Brazil has missed an opportunity. If it wanted to show the world how modern and progressive it is, it should have allowed its citizens take to the streets and protest without fear of violence. Then we’d have been able to concentrate on the drama on the pitch from the start.
Read more in this debate: João Feres Júnior .