Brazil 2014: Greener Grass Inside the Stadiums

Society Lifestyle

As I write this on June 23, we are well into the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which began on June 12, and the competition has got off to something of a tumultuous start. While host nation Brazil started well with a win over Croatia in the tournament opener, and Germany, Argentina, and other potential title challengers have also been piling up the points, defending champion Spain has been condemned to an early exit after losing its first two games. Japan, too, is in something of a precarious position with only one point to show after a loss and a draw in its two opening fixtures.

So, with the relative fortunes of the 32 competing nations beginning to take shape, I turned my own attention to the state of affairs away from the pitch.

Japanese Supporters Win Global Praise for Cleanliness

Japan fans help clean up the stands after Japan vs. Greece. (© Jiji Press)

This World Cup has been notable for the amount of support for Japan. Around 7,000 fans are reported to have travelled to Brazil for Japan’s opener against Côte d’Ivoire, but there seemed to be many more supporters rooting for the Asian team in the stadium that day.

Although Brazil-based ethnic Japanese had obviously turned out in some numbers to support the country of their roots, that alone did not seem like sufficient explanation for the way the stadium seemed to be turning Japanese. Samurai Blue fans who had made the trip from Japan handed out headbands bearing the Japanese Flag, which thousands of Brazilians without any obvious ties to Japan were seen to be sporting as they roared on Alberto Zaccheroni’s men.

In Brazil—thanks in large part to the contributions that Japanese Brazilians have made to Brazilian society—the people of Japan were already considered to possess a diligent and conscientious nature, but something has happened at this World Cup to raise that stock even further. After Japan’s opening game loss to Cote d’Ivoire, the travelling fans began to pick up the litter from the stands. This courteous and considerate behavior attracted a lot of praise from all over the world, especially Europe and South America, where such conduct on the part of soccer fans is far from the norm, especially after a loss.

This phenomenon was repeated after Japan’s second match against Greece and what is more, there were signs that such good manners had even rubbed off on local fans, some of whom were also spotted joining in the cleanup. It’s nice to think that this pleasant aspect of Japanese football culture, which can also often been seen at J. League grounds, might have been exported to Brazil.

Sharp Increase in Crime

But not all the news coming from reporters at the World Cup is quite so positive. In the days following the tournament’s opening match, tourists flooded into Brazil from all over the world, and São Paulo, the gateway to the country for many visitors, suddenly became something of a street crime hotspot. Victim after victim of theft began to come forward all over the city, having fallen foul of such crimes everywhere from Guarulhos International Airport to the Arena de São Paulo, which hosted the opening match, and the city’s central Paulista Avenue.

Staff from the Japanese Embassy set up a temporary booth at Recife Airport to warn travelers of increased street crime. (© Yanai Yumiko)

The Consulate-General of Japan in São Paulo has been contacting registered Japanese travelers by email with the latest local information, but unfortunately the reports from crime victims before and after the opening match make for very unpleasant reading.

There have been many stories of thieves simply walking away with unguarded baggage. While some incidents, like these, are clear examples of carelessness on the part of the victims, cases of criminals preying on the renowned naïvety of Japanese tourists seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Fans from all over the world have been targeted, including media representatives accustomed to overseas travel. Overall, such incidents are being reported at a significantly higher frequency than is usual for the area. The Japanese diplomatic corps is handing out leaflets advising caution to those arriving at airports in Brazil.

Among the information printed on these leaflets is this chilling warning: “Brazil is currently undergoing a major surge in street crime. In many recent incidents handguns have been used, meaning that even slight resistance could prove fatal.” And alarmingly, many of the most dangerous cases seem to involve child culprits. One Japanese-Brazilian observer offered the following explanation: “The police specifically requested that mafia-like organized crime gangs tone down their activities for the duration of the World Cup. But not even the police can control kids.” Indeed, the leaflets handed out in Recife also bore the advice: “If you should find yourself the victim of a crime, please do not resist—even if the perpetrator is a child. Slowly hand over your valuables as demanded, without making any sudden movements.”

Strikes Cause Travel Chaos

Widespread demonstrations—both to protest against the coming World Cup and to demand free public transport—were a major feature of the Confederations Cup, which was held in Brazil in June 2013. The civil unrest showed little sign of abating in the run up to the current tournament. While citizens’ groups or radical organizations have been at the heart of most of these demonstrations, some have also involved LGBT groups or those protesting for the rights of indigenous peoples; there have also been numerous student rallies. Local police authorities have been making efforts to gather information about anticipated protests and communicate this to various embassies and consulates.

When I was in Brazil for last year’s Confederations Cup, I myself encountered action by radical groups, including burning tires and blockades to one of Brazil’s main train lines. In each case, though, police simply surrounded the scene and observed from a distance without any direct intervention. I wondered whether this was an appropriate strategy, but soon enough the tires burned themselves out and the crowds dispersed. Naturally, such obstructions to transport lines cause delays in the short term, but once the individual demos blow over, the ramifications are not particularly long-lasting.

What can be more problematic than demonstrations, though, are strikes. Prior to the start of this year’s tournament, industrial action by drivers on the public transport network caused widespread travel chaos, and many fans from overseas who had made the trip to Brazil to attend matches expressed frustration at not being able to reach their planned destinations.

In Recife, strikes in May by the local police force threw the area into a state of lawlessness, with rampant looting going completely unchecked. Thankfully, there have been no such incidents since the tournament began. One can only hope that this state of affairs will continue until the end of the World Cup.

Public Services Worth More than Trophies

During the World Cup, many street vendors can be seen selling replica shirts. Most of the Brazil jerseys on sale bear the name and number of home team superstar Neymar. (© Yanai Yumiko)

My own base for the duration of the World Cup has been the town of Itu in São Paulo state, which has also been playing host to the training camp of the Japan team. It is considered to be one of the region’s most comfortable and desirable living locations, and several Japanese companies, including Toyota Motor and Kirin Brewery, have facilities here.

The Sunday after the tournament started, I went to have a look at the town’s large shopping center and found it bustling with crowds of shoppers. The attire of the customers and the quality of the goods on sale made it clear that this was indeed rather a prosperous locale.

Suddenly, I was accosted in English by a smartly dressed local woman. As opportunities to speak English are few and far between in Brazil, we stood and chatted for some time. My conversation partner spoke passionately about her opposition to the World Cup. “Brazil won the opening game, but no one around here is celebrating, and nobody wants Brazil to win the tournament,” she said. When I asked why not, she continued: “Because if Brazil does win, then at the presidential election in October Dilma Rousseff will win another term in office. What does the World Cup mean anyway? What’s more important than any of that is our quality of life. They should put more money into the economy or education instead.”

The chance to hear such strong opinions from a local resident meant the conversation was time well-spent, but there is no doubt that there are also a great many Brazilians who will rejoice at each victory and are hoping their national team can claim the coveted World Cup trophy. The way all work stops and people crowd around their TV sets to passionately urge their team on whenever Brazil plays bears testament enough to that.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 23, 2014. Banner photo: Japanese Brazilians cheering Japan on at a public screening of the Côte d’Ivoire match. © Jiji Press.)

Japan World Cup Brazil travel Samurai Blue Strikes Protests