Brazil braces for uneasy start to World Cup as strikers' protests hit São Paulo

Teargas fired by police at transport workers as mood about hosting tournament remains sour among many
Brazil's anti-World Cup street art – in pictures
What is the mood in Brazil ahead of the world cup?

Less than four days before it hosts the opening game of the World Cup, São Paulo became the scene of protests, street fires and teargas on Monday as striking subway workers brought chaos to the city.

The strike – which disrupted half the metro stations and worsened traffic in South America's most populous city – was the latest headache for organisers as national teams from the United States, Spain and Argentina flew in for the start of the tournament on Thursday.

Security is also a major concern, particularly in Rio de Janeiro – the base of the England team – following a recent flare-up of unrest in the city's favelas. Players from Roy Hodgson's England squad were due to visit Roçinha, the nearest shanty town to their hotel, on Monday night as part of an outreach programme.

On Monday night the subway workers' unions announced the strike was being suspended for two days, with a vote to be held to decide whether it would resume on Thursday, when the tournament's first match is due to be played in São Paulo.

Excitement about the tournament is steadily building among the Brazilian public – evident in the growing number of flags in windows and bunting on the streets – but many Brazilians are still uneasy about the $11bn (£6.5bn) costs of hosting the tournament and associate the World Cup with corruption, inefficiency, evictions and misplaced priorities.

Opponents have launched anti-Fifa campaigns on social networks, trade unions have organised strikes and activists have mounted protests in city centres and close to the 12 World Cup stadiums – several of which are still the focus of frantic last-minute construction work.

Although the demonstrations are far smaller than last June's protests of more than a million people, they continue to rattle the government.

The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, who faces re-election in October, has declared security to be a priority, suggesting unnamed forces are conspiring against her.

"Today, there is a systematic campaign against the World Cup – or rather, it is not against the World Cup but rather a systematic campaign against us," the president said during a speech in the host city of Porto Alegre at the weekend.

Trade union leaders feel the imminent start of the tournament will strengthen their hand against a government that will not want to be embarrassed by disruptions when the eyes of the world are on the country.

Subway workers in São Paulo on Monday went into the fifth day of a strike for a 12% wage increase. Station closures forced commuters on to the road and led to 125 miles of traffic jams last week – the worst congestion of the year.

Anti-World Cup graffiti near São Paulo's Arena Corinthians, which was marched on by activists
Anti-World Cup graffiti on a building near São Paulo's Arena Corinthians, which was marched on by about 10,000 activists. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty

Their protest was being supported by activists from the Landless Workers' Movement, who blocked roads and occupied a station in the centre of the city until they were dispersed by riot police using percussion grenades.

The union president, Altino Melo dos Prazeres, said the tough response from the authorities could lead to a further escalation. "If the beating continues we are going to talk to all the sectors. If our people bleed we are going to ask for help from the metalworkers, from the bank workers, and have a day of general strike at the opening of the cup," he said.

The industrial action followed a march last week by about 10,000 activists on the Arena Corinthians, which will host the opening match between Brazil and Croatia. Earlier in the month indigenous protesters in the capital, Brasilia, fired arrows at police during a standoff over land rights.

The Brazilian team has also come under pressure. Last month their bus was attacked by demonstrators; last week the team was booed by sections of the crowd during a drab warm-up game against Serbia.

The government insists it will be able to maintain security during the event. Almost 100,000 police and 57,000 troops will be deployed to protect stadium perimeters, team hotels and training areas, in addition to the private security inside the grounds.

With 500,000 foreign fans now starting to arrive, another challenge will be to countering street crime Police in Rio are several years into a long-term pacification programme to reassert control over favelas that were long the domain of armed gangsters, but the policy has shown signs of unravelling in recent months following several high-profile cases of police brutality.

Last year thousands of residents from Rocinha took to the streets to protest about the disappearance of Amarildo de Souza, a bricklayer who was last seen at police headquarters being interrogated with electric shocks and asphyxiation.

Ten officers were subsequently arrested, but this case – and several others since then – have added to a sense of anger among many favela residents about the brutal actions of police in trying to "pacify" their communities in time for the World Cup.

• This article was amended on 10 June 2014 to correct the spelling of Rocinha.


Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Brazil 2014: England draw tough opponents – and a tougher climate
The first match will be played in Manaus, where temperatures are usually above 30C and the humidity saps strength

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro

06, Dec, 2013 @7:31 PM

Article image
World Cup 2014: Strikes leave São Paulo frozen rather than at fever pitch

Traffic woes have sparked predictions the tournament may start with the most chaotic opening to a Football World Cup ever

Hadley Freeman in São Paulo

11, Jun, 2014 @6:33 PM

Article image
Brazil's protests raise fears for World Cup as a million take to the streets

Football becomes focus of furious outcry against corruption, police brutality, dire public services, high prices and street crime

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro

21, Jun, 2013 @5:02 PM

Article image
Fifa corruption crisis: FBI inquiry now includes 2014 Brazil World Cup
FBI probes links between Brazil’s football ex-chief Ricardo Teixeira and Fifa general secretary Jérôme Valcke, as UK MPs told England ready to host in 2022

Owen Gibson Chief sports correspondent

04, Jun, 2015 @6:55 PM

Article image
World Cup touting row: Fifa partner says Ray Whelan is not 'fugitive'
Police say Whelan, wanted over ticket touting allegations, fled luxury hotel before re-arrest, but Match says he is with a lawyer

Owen Gibson

11, Jul, 2014 @7:00 PM

Article image
Sepp Blatter: Enemies at the gates, but king of Fifa-land isn't ready to go
Despite pledges to step down, and the World Cup hit by new corruption claims, the Fifa president's reign is likely to continue

Owen Gibson

06, Jun, 2014 @5:18 PM

Article image
Romance of World Cup in Brazil is peppered with an air of conflict | Owen Gibson

Owen Gibson: With doubts over the stadiums, former striker Romário a leading critic and Fifa's reputation at stake, it could still be the fans who suffer most if the chaos and controversy have an impact

Owen Gibson

14, May, 2014 @7:51 PM

Article image
Anti-World Cup protests across Brazil
Latest showing of sour national mood towards tournament in country racked by strikes, crime and anger at wealth disparities

Jonathan Watts, Latin America correspondent

16, May, 2014 @5:46 AM

Article image
World Cup: UK fans warned over Argentinian gangs at Brazil games

Britain's police lead on football says Brazilian counterparts are concerned about potential clashes 'given shared history'

Josh Halliday

20, May, 2014 @6:08 PM

Article image
World Cup 2014: England leave Amazon counting cost of defeat to Italy
Roy Hodgson admits England squad are now on the back foot, with an uphill task becoming even steeper after the 2-1 loss

Owen Gibson in Manaus

15, Jun, 2014 @5:57 PM