Divided by a yellow shirt: the 2014 World Cup and its political and sporting legacies in South America
Photo: Lulu Di Mello
On the brink of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, the mixed feelings of Brazilian people towards the tournament were clear: on the one hand, they were emphatic in demonstrating their love to their National team, the Seleção; on the other hand, Brazilians were angry with FIFA and the corruption suspicious that surrounded the tournament’s works.
These contradictory attitudes towards the National team were rooted in their undemocratic past, where authoritarian governments used the Seleção’s victories to reinforce their tyranny. In that period, guerrilla groups that fought the ruling military tried to show their political opposition by barracking against the Seleção – but without too much success, as I show in my recent book.
Since 2014, Brazilians have been living in a political turmoil. Just after the football tournament, a presidential election divided the country: then president Dilma Roussef was re-elected by the narrowest voting difference in the country’s history, beating her rival by merely 3% of the valid votes. This political divide reflected on the whole society: families were split up due to their candidate choice; long-term friendships were disrupted; angriness overflowed from social media channels to the streets, where heated arguments between different partisans were common.
A few months after her re-election, though, Roussef faced an unprecedented political campaign against her presidency: inflated by the parties that lost the presidential election, a numerous urban middle-class, unhappy with the country’s shaking economy, started to demonstrate their hate against Roussef. Initially, the protesters, from within their units, went to their windows in the evening, and started to hit their pans every time the president appeared on the TV news: the noise could be heard everywhere. After a while, they took to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval towards Roussef’s policies. Very fast, the Parliamentary speaker accepted and lodged an impeachment request against the President.
Right-wing movements, with the help of major national TV broadcasters and state governments, kept the momentum going. Many more protesters hit the streets voicing their anger against the federal government led by Roussef. In May 2016, Roussef was temporarily removed from her position by the lower house. Just after the 2016 Rio Olympics, she was impeached. The allegations against her were flawed, but the majority of the Senators voted for the impeachment anyway. Her deputy, Michel Temer, who was actively supporting the impeachment campaign, took over the presidency.
But what is the role of football and the Seleção in all this political turbulence?
The Seleção’s yellow jersey. The chosen symbol of the whole movement demanding Roussef’s impeachment, led by conservative parties and right-wing political forces, was the National team yellow jersey. To prove their alleged patriotism and loyalty to the country, millions of people used the Brazilian football team jersey during the demonstrations against Roussef.
In a society that was already split by the 2014 presidential elections, the use of the Seleção’s yellow jersey by the conservative political powers proved to be a determinant of this social division. On the one side there were the middle and high classes that disliked Roussef’s and the Workers Party’s social policies, all-dressed in yellow; on the other side, the more left-leaning who called the impeachment a ‘coup-d’état’ and claimed for justice, wearing red.
This symbolic division did not stop in 2016. Even after the president’s impeachment, the political turmoil persisted. The ‘Operation Car-Wash’, a controversial but well-supported national investigation against corruption landed in jail major business men and political leaders, including the former parliamentary speaker (the same one who allowed Roussef’s impeachment process to go through the legal channels) and Rio’s governor, among other high-profile politicians. Finally, a few months ago, Operation Car Wash jailed Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former Brazilian president (2002-2010) and frontrunner in every poll for the 2018 presidential election.
During all these moments, the yellow-jersey demonstrators were on the streets, showing their commitment to the nation and their disgust towards alleged corrupted practices.
However, the real intentions behind Roussef’s impeachment quickly became clear: the new president, Michel Temer, started to cancel all social policies that characterised the Workers Party’s period in government, sending millions towards deep poverty that had mostly disappeared in the past decade. He also passed bills in parliament to abolish worker’s rights that had been in place for the past 80 years, leading millions to insecure working conditions. The political turmoil did not ease, and the yellow jersey that was once the symbol of a winning nation became a sign of conservative and ‘anti-people’ policies.
All this political mayhem, combined with the FIFA scandals, where three former presidents of the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) were expelled from their positions, banned from football by FIFA and even incarcerated in the US, resulted in one major legacy: the Seleção started to be heavily questioned and is slowing ceasing to be the centre of people’s everyday lives.
Recent polls show that 41% of Brazilians do not care about football anymore. Moreover, there is an increasing tendency from some to barrack against the national team. The traditional party atmosphere that used to take over the country’s streets during Brazilian matches in the World Cup is slowly subsiding. This year, a small but symbolic incident that happened in a poor and tiny neighbourhood in Teresina city, in the Brazilian north, reveals this state of mind: this community, instead of painting their streets and their houses with Brazil’s national colours (yellow and green) and instead of decorating their houses with the Brazilian flag, they painted and decorated everything with… the colours of Argentina, the fiercest of Brazil’s rivals!
The political divide, the use of the yellow jersey for one side, the persistent corrupt practices within the higher echelon of Brazilian politics including football authorities, has finally taken its toll. After four years of the ‘best World Cup ever’, its legacy has taken shape – and it doesn’t look pretty for the lovers of the once iconic ‘jogo bonito'.
Jorge Knijnik is the author of the book The World Cup Chronicles - 31 Days that Rocked Brazil in which he looks at the 2014 World Cup and its social, cultural, political and sporting impact on the people of Brazil.