By Jimmy Chalk, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As Rio’s Marina da Glória played host Saturday to the extravagant 2014 FIFA World Cup Preliminary Draw, behind-the-scenes tension threatened to tarnish its reputation as a budding destination for the world’s premier mega-events. The draw, which marks the beginning of the regional contests in which 175 countries will fight for just 31 playoff berths, comes amid growing concern about Brazil’s readiness for the inevitable influx of tourists and investment that come largely as a consequence of the games.
President Dilma Rousseff addressed these concerns head-on in the draw’s opening ceremony and attempted to reassure officials that Brazil would meet its goals for infrastructure expansion: “We’re doing our part to ensure that this Cup will be the best of all time. You can be certain that this new Brazil will be ready to charm the world in 2014.”
As the President spoke, however, hundreds of less-than-charmed protesters affiliated with the Marcha Por Uma Copa Do Povo (March for a World Cup of the People) lined the streets in front of Marina da Glória chanting and blocking oncoming traffic, decrying the effects of the international games on the city.
A flyer distributed by protest organizers Comité Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas do Rio cited numerous grievances: low salaries for emergency workers and teachers, inadequate funding for health and sanitation programs and the forced removals of citizens from many of Rio’s favelas.
Activist and lawyer Clara Alveira explained, “These games end up being used as an excuse for those in power to enact various reforms that they have been seeking for a long time. These people end up being moved from the center of the city to the outskirts, sixty or seventy kilometers from their place of work.”
Carlos Machado, a resident of Saude, a neighborhood in Rio’s port area added, “People have built their lives here, and then they’re forced to leave and go to a place completely foreign to them, to restart their lives far from their jobs, their school, their families.”
Comitê organizers estimate that as many as 20,000 to 25,000 Rio residents will be forcibly removed from areas that the government deems necessary for development ahead of the games.
Another primary target of protesters’ ire is the controversial president of the Brazilian Soccer Confederation (“BSC”), Ricardo Teixeira.
Distaste for Teixeira is a bond shared by these protesters and some prominent Brazilian leaders alike. While the list of invitees to the ceremony featured many of Brazil’s foremost celebrities, including soccer stars Neymar and Ronaldo, as well as musician Ivete Sangalo, conspicuously absent was Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. Teixeira and Pelé have recently traded barbs in the press regarding allegations of corruption against the BSC and FIFA officials.
President Rousseff, however, overruled the BSC’s omission by unilaterally appointing Pelé Brazil’s “Ambassador to the World Cup,” guaranteeing his presence at the draw, and further complicating her relationship with Teixeira and the BSC amid Rousseff’s signature anti-corruption campaign.
While the draw’s results mean that countries like Spain and France will face stiff competition in the qualifying rounds, fans of the seleção need not worry—as host of the Cup, Brazil is guaranteed a spot among the final 32 teams.