Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – FIFA President Sepp Blatter has praised the Brazilian people for the organisation of the World Cup, saying that fears of major protests during the tournament have – so far – not materialised.
Speaking at a football conference in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, the chief of the world’s football body said that with eight more matches to be played, the tournament is already a success.
“Where is all this social unrest?” Blatter rhetorically asked the audience, referring to the massive streets protests in the run-up to the tournament in several of Brazil’s major cities.
It’s exceptional what has been done, really, in all the host cities.
Up until the start of World Cup, thousands of Brazilians went on strike or took to the streets in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other major cities to demand better public services or higher salaries. The Brazilian passion for football, however, appears to have kept the protest movements entranced as turn-out at anti-World Cup gatherings has not exceeded 300 people since the start of the tournament.
Anti-World Cup protesters had announced that they would disrupt the heavily secured FIFA conference in Rio de Janeiro, but only six activists showed up.
“I have to complement the people of Brazil,” Blatter said, as the audience applauded his speech. “They have accepted this World Cup and it is a must in this country, where football is more than a religion, that it is a success. And it is a success. And I’m very happy that FIFA is part of it.”
‘Nothing is wrong’
Blatter also lauded the Brazilian local governments for the organisation of the event and said that, in the end, all stadiums were ready in time, mainly due to frantic last-minute construction.
“What has been said by the international media about all that would be wrong here (in Brazil)… Nothing is wrong! Everything is good. I wouldn’t say perfect, because perfection doesn’t exist in this world.
“The media has said; the stadiums will not be ready – but they were all ready. … It’s exceptional what has been done, really, in all the host cities,” Blatter said. “We still have eight matches to be played, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that also these last matches will occur in the same pattern, with the same atmosphere.“
Speaking to Al Jazeera at the FIFA conference, Brazil’s Deputy Minister of Sports Luis Fernandes said that the fears of large protests during the World Cup were based on a “misconception” caused by the demonstrations during last year’s Confederations Cup.
The demonstrations, by some referred to as the Brazilian Spring, were initially organised to protest against increased bus fares, but later morphed into a wider movement that also took on police brutality, government corruption and overspending.
“There have been protests every day since the start of the World Cup but they have been very small. So that doesn’t concern us,” Fernandes said. “I think there was a misconception during the Confederations Cup because there was an explosion of protests then. People used the Confederations Cup to highlight what they saw as deficiencies in public services. That scaled down because it was an explosion. And now during the World Cup, the passion for football has taken over.”
Outside the conference building where Blatter spoke, one of the few anti-World Cup activists on hand told Al Jazeera that most protesters were avoiding the streets out of fear of the police.
“Some of us are in jail, others are just being cautious,” Larissa, a 31-year-old activist from Sao Paulo, said. “During our latest protests at Rio’s Maracana stadium, fifteen of us were arrested and are now in jail. The police beat many of us.”
Even before the World Cup started, the police carried out preventive raids to arrest prominent activist in their homes and they have continued their crack down on dissent throughout the first weeks of the tournament. Hundreds of people have been arrested and some of them have been charged under a law that was orginally meant to target organised crime and streets gangs.
Prior to the tournament Amnesty International denounced the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, who were shot at by police with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas.
“I love football. I actually play football myself,” Larissa said. “I just hate the whole industry around it, which – in the name of FIFA – has been eating up whole neighbourhoods here in Brazil. They think they can do anything in the name of football.”
Responding to Blatter’s comments about the relative absence of social unrest, Larissa said: “The World Cup might look nice from the outside, but we don’t live in a theatre. We live in the real world, which has to work for all Brazilians.”
Additional reporting by Paula Daibert in Rio de Janeiro.
Follow David Poort on Twitter: @davidpoort