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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Brazil divided by World Cup despite Neymar and Co

Brazil divided by World Cup despite Neymar and Co

Fernando's voice was loud and clear over the throng of a humid Sao Paulo bus at rush hour.

“I can't stand the north, man,” he shouted, loud enough for people to turn around and look at us. “They have all these stadiums, all this money spent on them – and for what? We have hospitals where you have to wait eight hours to be seen by a doctor. We need the money, not them.”

Considering our bus was stuck in a queue caused by congestion at the local hospital, it was hard to argue with my local guide's interpretation of events.
He is not alone in his opinions. Spend just a few days in the teeming metropolis of Sao Paulo and you will find plenty of people who feel the same way as Fernando.

To them, northern Brazil – which includes the cities of Recife, Natal, Fortaleza and the Amazonian outpost of Manaus – is alien territory. And now Fernando and his Southern compatriots are financing their enjoyment of the World Cup.

The north - south divide is in part historical. The economic powerhouses of Brazil have always been Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro, in large part due to the number of European settlers who made their homes there.

The Dutch briefly controlled the north-east coastline between 1630 and 1654 but in general the foreign influence has always been stronger in the more temperate south of the country.

The divide is reflected by the GDP of each state. Sao Paulo and Rio are the most prosperous (bar Brasilia, the capital) with figures from 2011 (the latest available) showing the average income is between 11,000-14,700 euros; in Recife, Natal and Fortaleza, it is between 3,700-7,400 euros.

This disparity doesn't bother those in the south – why should it? But they are up in arms over the massive investment in northern stadiums, many of which will never be fully utilised after the World Cup.

The Arena da Amazonia, where England faced Italy last Saturday, was built at a cost of around 250m euros. After the tournament the local team Nacional will call it home.

Nacional have not been in the top flight of Brazilian football since 1985 and the chances of them selling out a game at the 46,000-seat arena has been described as 'laughable'.

The worst example of all is Brasilia. The stadium there cost 663m euros to build, making it the second most expensive in the world after Wembley. In this case there isn’t any local side at all to take it over after the tournament.

On Thursday, Brazil, led by poster-boy Neymar, will continue their Group A campaign against Mexico at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza.

The Selecao's progress would normally have the country gripped but the resentment of Fernando is shared by many. And the one question Brazilians are asking time and again is ‘why there are 12 host cities?’ In 2010 only 10 stadia were used; and while Germany also had a dozen in 2006 the majority of those were already in place.

One theory is that it is political. President Dilma Rousseff faces an election in October, and many see the massive expenditure on stadiums as an attempt to target the north of the country. By ensuring the north plays a full part in the World Cup, the theory goes, she is more likely to win their votes.

She rejects all such arguments, stating: “We did this, above all, for Brazilians.”

Her deep unpopularity, however, implies that not many people believe her claim that that the 8.1bn euros that has been spent on the tournament will benefit the entire country.

Her support is at 34% according to the latest opinion polls, but her rivals are hardly doing any better with 30% of Brazilians currently having no preferred candidate in the upcoming elections.

The most astonishing statistic in a newly-released poll is that 72% of the population are upset with the way the government runs the country.

Against this backdrop the World Cup rumbles on.

Brazil is a country divided, economically, socially and politically. The World Cup may just exacerbate those problems rather than solve any of them.

Maybe one day, Fernando's bus can reach its destination and the anger won't be quite so raw.


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