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'The only rational thing that you can have with it is a love/hate relationship, and that's what I have'

South American football expert Tim Vickery is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Tim Vickery, speaking on Behind the Lines.
Tim Vickery, speaking on Behind the Lines.

BBC SOUTH AMERICAN football correspondent Tim Vickery is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines, and he answers quickly when asked for the biggest story he has covered since moving to Brazil in 1994. 

“The big one was the 2014 World Cup.” 

Albeit not for the football.

  • Behind the Lines is our sportswriting podcast exclusive to members of The42, in which a sportswriter discusses sport, their career and their favourite pieces of writing. For an archive of more than 75 episodes – featuring David Walsh, Wright Thompson, Paul Howard, Diane K. Shah and many more – subscribe at members.the42.ie. 

 The 2013 Confederations Cup staged in Brazil as a warm-up for the World Cup irrigated a spring of sudden mass protest, first on the streets of Sao Paulo and then elsewhere. 

They were sparked by an increase in transport fares, and with the scale of World Cup construction accentuating the meagre investment elsewhere, the protests grew to encompass a whole range of grievances around public services and corruption. If the country could afford Fifa-standard stadia, then why not Fifa-standard transport and health services? 

By mid-June, the protests were the largest the country had seen in 20 years, and they continued around the World Cup a year later. 

“It was an utterly, utterly spontaneous thing”, says Tim on Behind the Lines. “It started off with a dispute about bus fares in Sao Paolo, which wasn’t even staging games in the Confederations Cup. No one could possibly have imagined that would explode.

“That was that was a huge moment. It was a moment where you’re thinking, ‘Well, the country’s changed. It’s not the same now as it was before. So where is this going to go? Where is this energy going to go?’”

The energy did not go anywhere good.

“There were grounds for thinking that, yeah, this might be good. But it turns out to have been an absolute disaster. Just a disaster. It’s the moment where the monstrous inhumanity and attitude of Bolsonaro becomes a viable political process.” 

With a record of saying democracy in Brazil did not work and entrenched homophobic views, right-wing strongman and former army captain Jair Bolsonaro swept to power in 2018, and has since presided over a disastrous mishandling of the pandemic. He dismissed it as “a little flu”, and now Brazil’s death toll from Covid is nearing 450,000 people. On 8 April, the country recorded 4,250 deaths in a single day. 

“This is one of the great ironies of of those 2013 demonstrations: they start off with people angry at the level of the standard of public services, and that whole movement gets hijacked by people who don’t want any public services at all. And that’s the tragedy of 2013 and 2014 in Brazil. It’s a tragedy that is costing hundreds of thousands of people their lives in the country at the moment.” 

According to a 2018 profile in the New York Times, Bolsonaro floated the idea of running for president when he saw the streets packed with protestors back in 2014. He was then re-elected to the Senate with almost four times as many votes as he garnered in the previous election, and rose to power from there, following the playbook used by Donald Trump as being on the people’s side against a supposedly decadent, corrupt governing elite. 

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trump-meets-with-president-jair-bolsonaro-of-brazil Jair Bolsonaro with Donald Trump in Washington in 2019. Source: ABACA/PA Images

Would it all have ever been possible without the amplifying power of the football tournaments? 

“They [the 2013 and 2014 tournaments] became the focal points for protest”, says Tim. “You take that away, and I don’t think it would have caught on particularly outside of Sao Paolo. There was popular dissatisfaction in Brazil, but it needed the tournament and the spending on the tournament to turn that into a mass political force.”

Bolsonaro’s evangelical base also leaned on the support of several high-profile footballers in Brazil, including Kaka, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. 

“Brazilian football is a very, very socially conservative millieu”, explains Tim. “And a lot of this is demented religious dogma coming from the players. One of the tragedies, I think, of the modern age is the decimation of the trade union movement. And it means that it’s hacked out of society a narrative of solidarity. And it makes it easier for the narratives of domination. In England you say clearly the language of imperialistic domination. And in Brazil, it’s the language of religious dogma. 

A lot of these players have grown up in Evangelical environments which is a huge bulwark of Bolsonaro’s support. I wonder what Ronaldinho is feeling now, because he lost his father in tragic circumstances when he was young, and a few months ago his mum died of Covid. these Covid deaths could have been avoided with a better government, a government that cares. I wonder if he is re-evaluating his political position.” 

Amid it all, does Tim love Brazil?

“The only rational thing that you can have with it is a love/hate relationship. And that’s what I have.” 

Listen to the full interview with Tim Vickery by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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