Brazilian Soccer’s Race Problem

The cost of attending World Cup matches has kept poorer—and darker-skinned Brazilians—out of the stadiums

“New York is full of cool, knowing baseball fans… but not many of them got their hands on World Series tickets. Before the first game here, on Sunday, the northbound D trains were full of women weighted down with expensive coiffures and mink stoles, not one of whom, by the look of them, had ever ridden a subway as far as the Bronx before. There was no noise in the stands during batting practice, and the pregame excitement seemed to arise from the crowd’s admiration for itself and its size, rather than for the contest to come; ritual and occasion had displaced baseball…”

—Roger Angell, A Tale of Three Cities (1962)

On the streets and at the beaches and in the bars, the World Cup visitor can hardly have failed to notice Brazil’s mix of skin colors and ethnic backgrounds, from Afro-Brasileiro Salvador to the chillier, paler-skinned climes of the more European influenced southern cities of Porto Alegre and Curitiba. It is part of the country’s identity, part of what makes it unique. Nor is it possible to miss Brazil’s dizzying social inequality, with gleaming apartment buildings and appalling poverty nestled side by side in every city.

Such contrasts are reflected almost everywhere in Brazil, except inside the country’s World Cup stadiums. A survey of fans at the Brazil vs Chile Round of 16 game in Belo Horizonte by research group Datafolha revealed that 90% of supporters interviewed were from Brazil’s upper or upper middle classes, whereas only 9% of the fans at the Mineirão were from Brazil’s dominant social group, classe C, the lower middle class, which accounts for roughly 50% of the country.

Nor is the uniformity merely financial. Brazil’s social hierarchy is closely tied to race, a legacy of the widespread and brutal system of slavery that formed the basis of the country’s economy for many years. So even while the country’s fluid mix of races and skin tones makes racial classification complex, Brazil’s upper classes tend to be decidedly lighter-skinned than the majority of their poorer countrymen (a report published last year showed that black Brazilians earn 36% less than non-black Brazilians). As a result, it is hardly surprising that the same Datafolha survey found that only 30% of fans at the stadium described themselves as being of mixed ethnicity or black, whereas among the population as a whole, according to studies, that number is around 56%.

The issue of the social makeup of fans watching World Cup games hit the headlines during the opening match of the tournament, when the crowd at the Arena de São Paulo chanted obscenities at Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff’s predecessor, Lula, attempted to downplay the abuse, saying it was the work of the “white elite.” The debate over the accuracy of the claim, and whether it mattered or not anyway, raged in the national media for days.

Nor has the homogeneity been limited to the home fans. With the exception of those from England and Argentina, visiting supporters have appeared to come from the more moneyed sections of their countries’ societies. This should hardly be surprising, given the cost of getting to Brazil, not to mention the expense of spending a few weeks in the eye-wateringly expensive host nation.

None of which will come as much of a surprise to ordinary Brazilian fans, who are growing used to being priced out of their soccer stadiums. Last year, as hundreds of thousands protested over the rising cost of living, corruption, and the cost of hosting the World Cup, the sports marketing agency Pluri Consultants reported that tickets in Brazil were the most expensive of the world’s major leagues relative to local wages.

Since the World Cup stadiums opened, the already steep prices have leapt even higher. The cheapest full-price ticket for the Vasco da Gama vs. Corinthians mid-table fixture in Brasilia’s Mane Garrincha stadium last season was a remarkable R$160 ($72). Given that the average Brazilian worker earns approximately a fifth of the UK’s average salary, such a price is roughly equivalent to an English fan paying over $350 for the cheapest ticket to a run-of-the-mill Premier League game.

Again, the price of tickets is making a difference to the ethnic make-up of Brazil’s football crowds. “They made football white,” wrote respected football journalist Juca Kfouri in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper during the Confederations Cup. “The only black faces at the stadium now are of the people who work there.”

There are some in Brazil, however, who believe that rising ticket prices might be a good thing. The domestic game in the country is scarred by violence, with, according to Lance! magazine, 234 deaths and counting in the last 25 years. The majority of those deaths are linked to torcidas organizadas (organised fan clubs, or hooligan gangs, depending on your point of view). And the majority of torcidas organizadas are from Brazil’s less affluent social classes. Over the last twelve months, the new World Cup venues have seen the presence of more family groups and more female fans, as the organizadas, along with working class Brazilians, are pushed out of the stadiums.

The expensive tickets at the World Cup have had a direct effect on the atmosphere at games – which has been generally carnaval-esque, with fans seeming to spending most of their time waving at the cameras of the Jumbotrons, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves up on the big screen, and with “the wave” sweeping around the stadium on a depressingly frequent basis. Again, England and Argentina aside, the throaty, passionate chanting of club football has rarely been heard.

Ironically, for Brazilian fans at least, the cheapest World Cup tickets were surprisingly inexpensive when they first went on sale: R$30, or $14, for students, the elderly, or those receiving benefits. There were a very limited number of such tickets available, however, and they sold out in hours. Now with black market prices for tickets for the final reaching thousands of reais, the vast majority of Brazilian and Argentine fans in Rio de Janeiro will have to watch Sunday’s action from the Maracanã in bars and restaurants.