Middle Class Brazilians Watch from Afar

The Country’s Classe C is the engine of Brazil’s Fan Culture, but You Won’t See Them in the Stadiums

Even after the sun has sunk beneath the horizon, the city of Fortaleza in the northeast of Brazil remains as warm as a steam bath. On a narrow, poorly lit street in the bairro of Mucuripe, the soft breeze coming off the Atlantic whips the hundreds of cheap yellow and green streamers hung between the cramped houses back and forth. It lifts up dust and sand too, covering the plastic tables and chairs of the Bar do Amiguinho (“the Little Friend Bar”) in a thin layer of silt.

The regulars at the bar don’t seem to mind. Inside, Honduras is playing Ecuador in a World Cup group stage game on a big screen, and there is money at stake. When Honduras opens the scoring through Carlo Costly there are cheers from one table. Later, when Ecuador turns the game around with two goals from Enner Valencia, there are good-natured whoops of triumph from a group on the other side of the bar.

“It’s been a great World Cup,” says Jorge, a middle-aged construction worker, sipping on his beer. “Holland vs. Spain has been the best game so far.”

Mucuripe is a sprawling neighborhood that includes part of Fortaleza’s great length of urban beach, expensive apartment buildings hidden behind towering fences, and swanky hotels and restaurants. On the other side of the Via Expressa, a wide highway that leads out toward the Estádio Castelão and the airport, a sprawl of hundreds of sloppily built, rust-colored brick houses, most without windows, clambers up a low rise before disappearing from view on the other side of the slope. The narrow roads are pock-marked with potholes, and every few steps another tiny alley branches off into the shadowy rabbit warren of streets that lies beyond the main drag.

To foreign minds, the favela has become as integral a part of the Brazilian stereotype as beaches, soccer, and the rain forest, but these locals would be offended to hear their neighborhood described as such. The real favela here, they say—Favela do Indio, or The Indians’ Favela—is a few hundred yards further up the highway, where the roads are less well-kept, the houses shabbier, the undergrowth thicker, and the sometimes violent activities of the drug dealers more prevalent.

This neighborhood is instead simply the traditional landscape of classe C—Brazil’s burgeoning lower-middle class, which now includes roughly 54% of the country’s 200 million people, according to data research group DataPopular/Serasa. Yet the shabbiness of the landscape shows the essential dichotomy of such social improvement. While individual earnings and personal credit have grown (a great many people in the bar are fiddling with smartphones, and more than a few of the cars parked outside look new) the services provided by the state—housing, urban infrastructure, and sanitation, for example—have rarely kept up. Few residents of northern Europe or the U.S. would describe this as any kind of middle class.

But tonight no one here is thinking much about housing standards or the quality of the drains. Tonight they are talking about soccer. “Brazil has no chance,” says Raimundo, another builder, when asked about his country’s chances of winning the World Cup. “The team is really weak,” agrees Jorge as a gang of teenage boys, shirtless and without helmets, roars past on scooters. The World Cup-winning ghosts of the past have set a high bar for the Brazil national team.

Much has been made of the social stratification of Brazilian society that has also left its mark within Brazilian World Cup stadiums. When the generally well-heeled fans at the competition’s opening game between Brazil and Croatia broke into a raucous and obscene chorus of abuse aimed at the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, her mentor and former president Lula said that the boos had come from a “white elite.”

Brazil v Chile: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilThe fans were noticeably paler skinned, which in Brazil almost always means financially better-off, than the more working class supporters who traditionally stand or sit at the country’s, older, more dilapidated grounds to watch domestic soccer.

 

Last year, the influential journalist Juca Kfouri wrote a column in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper entitled “They Whitened Our Soccer.” He observed that expensive ticket prices during the Confederations Cup had brought about a change in the profile of the fans. They were noticeably paler skinned, which in Brazil almost always means financially better-off, than the more working class supporters who traditionally stand or sit at the country’s older, more dilapidated grounds to watch domestic soccer. A survey by research group Datafolha at the Brazil vs. Chile Round of 16 game in Belo Horizonte on Saturday found that 90% of fans came from Brazil’s top two social classes, while just 9% were from classe C.

That distinction is all too clear at Bar do Amiguinho. A few days before the Honduras vs. Ecuador game, Brazil played Mexico a few miles away at the Estadio Castelão. A crowd of over 60,000watched the match, but no one from the bar, or, in all likelihood, the neighborhood, was there. “I watched it at a friend’s house,” says Jorge. There are nods from around the table. In another northeastern World Cup host city, Recife, only 20% of the tickets have been bought by local fans. The rest have gone to foreign visitors, or tourists from other parts of Brazil.

“There should be more of a mix of people at the stadiums,” says Rejane, an assistant nurse, drinking with her husband Alexandre at another table. Alexandre, who works at the nearby port, feels that the gentrification of Brazilian soccer is a good thing. “It means more women and family groups go to the grounds,” he says. “And that means less violence.” It is a reference to the torcida organizada gang culture that troubles the game in Brazil, where there were 30 soccer-related deaths in 2013.

The fact that no one here will watch a World Cup game in the flesh has not diminished enthusiasm for the Seleção, though perhaps there was not very much to begin with. “The World Cup is every four years. But I support my team Ceara every day,” says Francisco, another man at the table, as he sips the local firewater, cachaça, from a glass Coke bottle.

Alexandre complains that most of the Brazil players earn huge salaries plying their trade in Europe. “They’re just interested in money,” he says. “It creates a division between the team and the fans.”

Jorge disagrees. “They’re not all like that,” he says. “David Luiz and Thiago Silva play from the heart.”

While all say they are enjoying the World Cup, and are proud that Fortaleza is a host city, they are skeptical that the event will make much of a long-term difference to the town. “They were supposed to build a LRT [light rail transit] network and renovate the passenger terminal at the port, but neither is finished,” says Alexandre. The evidence of this is visible: to reach this part of the neighborhood, cars, buses, and motorbikes must bump over a wide, dusty patch of waste ground. Across it runs a cargo railway line, and beside the cargo tracks lies the unfinished VLT line, abandoned for now.

When the game ends, the TV is switched to a DVD of 1980s soft rock classics, and soon Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” booms over the street. Drinkers at another table begin to play porrinha, a type of guess-which-hand-it’s-in bar game. Money, once more, begins to change hands.

Alexandre and Rejane pay their bill and leave, and the rest of the group starts to drift homeward. Some amble slowly into the alleys behind the bar, while others get into their cars and head for more distant parts of the neighborhood. Before leaving, arrangements are made to watch the next day’s games at the bar. Whether in working class neighborhoods or expensive stadium seats, the World Cup continues.

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