SAO PAULO – Thursday was declared a national holiday here because, well, if the Brazil national team playing in the opener of a Brazilian-hosted World Cup in this soccer-mad country’s largest city isn’t cause to just shut everything down … then what exactly is?
This was sporting perfection, or should have been. Sixty-eight thousand packed Arena Corinthians. Almost all wore Brazilian yellow, except for JLo who wore next to nothing (no one complained). Flags were unfurled. Songs were sung. The weather was perfect. The play between Brazil and Croatia was fast-paced, creative and competitive.
Yet there in the second half, even after Brazil took the lead en route to a 3-1 victory, an orchestrated and audible chant arose that marks a mood that can apparently cut through any jubilation and may cast a pall over this entire tournament.
“[Expletive] you, Mrs. President,” some Brazilian fans chanted at Dilma Rousseff, who was in attendance. “[Expletive] you, Mrs. President.”
Perhaps only the combination of a corrupt FIFA and desperate politicians who do business with soccer's global governing body are capable of ruining a night that should otherwise have been so ideal.
Brazil won a World Cup game in Brazil for the first time since 1950 and in the midst of the madness fans couldn’t help but voice their disdain that it was even happening.
Oh, Brazilians still love the World Cup. It’s the FIFA World Cup in Brazil they despise, an impossible-to-ignore boondoggle that’s seen a precious $11 billion spent on unnecessarily opulent (or just unnecessary) construction. It'd be despicable in a wealthy nation, let alone a developing country rife with poverty and crime, especially when basic social services such as hospitals and schools are so desperately needed.
Just miles away near the city center of this sprawling metropolis, rubber bullets flew and clouds of tear gas floated as police tried to contain protesters raging at the spending and graft. Similar outbursts occurred in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday and organizers promise there will be no let up as the tournament fans out across 12 venues. One reported chant from the streets: "There will be no Cup."
The idea that Brazilians would curse and march against the playing of a soccer game is both unfathomable and the starkest sign yet at the public’s growing disdain for FIFA and its way of doing business.
World Cup spending isn’t the only reason some Brazilians dislike their president here in an election year. Every elected official has detractors, including extreme ones. Rousseff is no exception.
However, the government writing huge checks to stage international sporting events – Brazil will host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio as well – has become the touchstone for varying political factions. In short, doing business with the FIFA and IOC, both of which command lopsided contracts, makes little sense to most everyday people.
FIFA awards the Cup to nations that can meet their regal tastes with elaborate bids long on flashy construction projects that seem preposterous. (Did Arena Corinthians really need white marble/granite staircases when poured concrete would have done?) Brazil has built state-of-the-art stadiums across its country, spreading the graft to even smaller, out of the way cities with no logical reason to host. That includes a $270 million monstrosity in the Amazon city of Manaus that even defenders can’t claim there is a good use for after it holds four Cup games (and the wet season may ruin the playing surface anyway).
Meanwhile, FIFA takes all of the global television and local ticket revenue, leaving host countries awash in debt and trying to justify the expense on the benefits of increased global publicity and some tourism. Economic study after economic study has shown this is an illusion.
FIFA demands host nations pass laws to protect itself from all taxes, even local levies. It has a famously corrupt bidding process. It sits on over $1 billion in reserves despite claiming to be “non-profit.” Yet Brazil went along with it.
The awarding of the Cup to its next two host nations – Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 – is already under investigation for bribery accusations. The Qatar event has already descended into unforgivable evil as over 1,000 migrant workers have died constructing facilities and infrastructure, and they aren't close to done.
As soccer grows in popularity around the world and technology brings fans closer together and the action to everyone, FIFA has managed to find a way to squeeze a measure of joy out of the game even among its most passionate fans.
Not even the 64-years-in-waiting thrill of seeing the Brazilians dazzle in World Cup play in Brazil could stop fans inside and outside the stadium of forgetting the cost, of ignoring the endless troubles that watching sports are supposed to allow to temporarily fade away.
The Brazilians and Croatians played a brilliant game that had a bit of everything, including referee conspiracies. It will be the start of a month of greatness that will entertain the globe.
But when a night that should have been without blemish finds fans so obsessed with fiscal policy and national politics that they figure late in a 2-1 game was a necessary time to tell their president to “[expletive] off,” the problem is real and not abating.
The game remains beautiful. FIFA and their complicit politicians have just made the rest of it so damn ugly.