RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Protests. Police. Firing on peaceful demonstrators. Anarchy. Political chaos.
A strange legacy for a strange tournament, the 2013 Confederations Cup. The event was supposed to be a minor diversion, a dry run for next year's big show. Instead, it turned into tinder, igniting the Brazilian Spring, an incredible popular uprising that has not only local politicians in its sights but FIFA as well. It may end up toppling a government.
And, by the way, the teams played some pretty good soccer as well.
The Confederation Cup usually serves as the trophy no one wants to play for, an off-year competition that big nations would rather skip. In years past, certain teams have played so half-heartedly that jokes emerged that the Cup's real prize was being eliminated first, the faster to get your players onto the beach. Then, in 2009, that backfired on two nations: Italy and Spain. The former never recovered and ended up making a mess of their 2010 World Cup run, the latter were simply humiliated at being shown up by a group of pikers known as the USA .
Lesson learned: the eight teams that showed up here played an expansive, open and exciting brand of soccer. Even tiny Tahiti, wildly outgunned, tried to play the right way. This was a victory for fans of the game, and it led to some classic moments: the Italy-Japan game was one of the highlights of the year; Paulinho's late winner for Brazil over Uruguay in the semifinals was as magical a moment as you could ask for; and the penalty shootout between Spain and Italy was simultaneously tense and precise. Neymar and Mario Balotelli thrilled, Gigi Buffon and Iker Casillas proved to be the epitome of class.
Video: Protest in Brazil ends in tragedy
But off the field, both FIFA and Brazil fell apart. They went awry in so many ways that it is difficult to pinpoint the moment when annoyance boiled over into incandescent rage. Was it in Brasilia at the opening match, when the police fired on a group of peaceful demonstrators? Was it when the mob brazenly danced atop the Congressional building, calling for their politicians' heads? Was it in the stands, where Sepp Blatter unbelievably asked the protestors to stop "using football" to air their grievances?
Was world soccer the proper stage for the annoyance to turn to rage? Yes, when the bills came due, and the people found out that their stadiums cost billions, yet they still lacked clean water and safe streets. Yes, when tickets went on sale for the game at prices no average Brazilian could possibly afford? Yes, when FIFA, in a baffling move, announced a partnership mid-tournament with a high-priced champagne. And yes, when people here simply got sick and tired of paying the freight for mega-events for the mega-rich, who seem like nothing more than wolves eating off a public carcass.
This Cup raised questions which deserve answers. The people of Brazil are stuck with a bill for nearly $15 billion for the Confederations and World Cups in a country where the median wage is $2.50 a day. Tickets for a game? Forget it - for most of the nation, that's well over a month's wages. Let them eat soccer, as a Brazilian essayist recently asked? Fat chance.
Protesters clashed with police since the start of the Confederations Cup (Photo: Davi Pinheiro/Reuters).
Brazil's frustration is compounded by the fact that they cannot walk on their own streets: Rio and Recife have such high crime rates that most people will take a taxi just to travel two city blocks. Yet, during this tournament, the police were out doing their jobs, making the sidewalks safe for the tourists accompanying the Cup. The locals rightly ask where these same resources are when the foreigners are not around.
And then there's the actual streets themselves. They are a wreck. The sidewalks in many cities are shattered or non-existent. While Brazil was happy to spend $500m on the Mane Garrincha in Brasilia, how do you get there? You walk on dusty clay paths. Recife's sidewalks, apparently maintained by the businesses, can most forgivingly be referred to as "creative." Clean water? Forget about it. And the public transportation works that were promised along with this Cup? Many of them were never started. Some of them sit half-finished and rusting before they first train has run on the tracks. Yet the money is gone. Everyone in Brazil knows where it went.
FIFA came out of this mess looking worse than ever. Blatter has made a series of gaffes that signal he is completely out of touch and unable to process what has happened here. He seems to believe that FIFA's "image has been enhanced," despite the banners and withering chants aimed at his organization by the throngs. He also seems to think that soccer shouldn't be used for political purposes, despite the fact that this is exactly what his organization does. (How, after all, do places get "awarded" the World Cup other than through a political process?) And most damaging of all is the notion, gaining currency here, that FIFA is simply a vicious leech, an entity dedicated to finding a host and sucking the money out of it before discarding it for the next rich suitor.
At the final, a number of politicians decided discretion was the better part of valor. President Dilma Rousseff skipped the game. So did Pele. FIFA are left with egg on their faces, as all the folks who had looked to the Cups for personal glory ran in the opposite direction.
What that means for the world's biggest sporting event in the future remains to be seen. But we may look back and remember that the first shots on sporting mega-events were fired here, on the streets of Rio.