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World Cup: As Tournament Heats Up, Protests Simmer Down


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We want to check in on World Cup. Chances are if you live in any city of any size where there's a television, it's on World Cup, even here in the U.S., which is considered in some ways a soccer backwater. Everybody's got World Cup fever. So we're going to catch up on the action on the pitch with Ricardo Zuniga. He's the Latin America sports editor for the Associated Press. He's with us from his office once again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ricardo, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

RICARDO ZUNIGA: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, there's more to an international tournament than the sports. There is of course the politics of the whole thing. And for more on that, we're also going to go to barbershop regular Dave Zirin. He just got back from Brazil. He's been thinking about these issues for a while now and set down some of those thoughts in his latest book, "Brazil's Dance With The Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics And The Fight For Democracy." We caught up with him in Oakland, where he just landed. Dave Zirin, welcome back to you as well.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: So, Ricardo, let me start with you. Which match has been drawing the biggest reaction from the people in Brazil?

ZUNIGA: Well, obviously the Uruguay-Italy match from last night has been getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, not only for the sporting side of the match, but because of the latest biting incident by Luis Suarez, the great Uruguay striker who apparently bit Italy's defender Giorgio Chiellini in his shoulder. We know that this is not the first time that Suarez has been involved in this type of incident. This will be his third biting incident, after doing it in the Dutch League in 2010 and then in the Premiere League in 2013. So FIFA opened a disciplinary proceeding this morning. The Uruguay team has to respond and FIFA will make a decision before Uruguay's next match, which is on Saturday, I guess, Colombia in the round of 16. So this is the talk of the day, without a doubt.

MARTIN: What is up with him, is he like 6 years old?


MARTIN: What's up with that?

ZUNIGA: That's a good question. We've all been asking the same question since last night. There seems to be some psychological problem with him, or there has to be some deep-rooted issue with him because this is not normal. We see rough play in football every single day, you know, kicks, punches, head-butts. Those are all - even though it's dirty play - but those are all within what's considered normal in football. But biting someone is just something that you don't see every day. And certainly if a player does it for a third time, you have to think that there is something wrong there.

MARTIN: So, Dave, you just got back from Brazil. And you've been writing a lot about the protests. We've been hearing a lot about the protests leading up to the games. Are they continuing? What were your impressions when you were there?

ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, they are still continuing. But they're very, very, very more, let's just say, petite than they were a year ago. In 2013, you had the largest protest that Brazil had seen since the fall of the dictatorship three decades ago. You counted the numbers in the millions of the people who were in the streets. When I was there, and this has been reported throughout the country, the numbers are more in the hundreds, and the low thousands, you know, no more than 4,000 or 5,000 people since the start of the cup. And the reasons for that are pretty clear and obvious when you go out there actually to the protest. You keep hearing a lot of news reports that they're not happening because everybody's happy with the cup. And everybody's happy now with the spending that went into it. And that's really not true. I mean, you go out there and the level of the police presence and the militarization is - it's actually - it's very frightening. And so unless you're like a very hardened activist, you're not going to just take the streets and do a protest right now.

MARTIN: So you attribute the fact that the protests have died down to the fact that there's been such a strong law enforcement response. There's been such a strong, you know, police response. You feel that it's really suppressed it. But you feel that the sentiments are still very much there.

ZIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, you see it in stickers that are on the wall. You see it in the fact that there are still strikes going on throughout the country. I mean, you see the word in Portuguese greve, that's hung in front of buildings or museums. That's the word for strike. And you also see it just when you talk to people. I mean, you see it when Brazil played Mexico. I watched the game in a favela, and there was a huge - favela alto branco - there was a huge crowd of people out, but not all of them were rooting for Brazil. I mean, some people were rooting for Mexico as a political act in and of itself. But when you go to the demonstration, I mean, it's something that I think is kind of difficult for people in the United States to even understand. Like, the amount of courage it takes just to walk out and say I'm going to hold up a sign right now because it's not just the police, it's the military.

MARTIN: I want to hear Dave hold - stay with us for a moment because I'm interested in your perspective on whether there'll be kind of some lasting political impact on the country from the games and the protests that arose in response to those games. But, Ricardo, can I get your perspective on this? You're there, you know, all the time. What is your sense of how, now that the games have started, what's - how are people feeling about it in the country?

ZUNIGA: Yeah. I think one of the reasons that we haven't been seeing the same amount of people in the protest is that some of the groups that started protesting during the World Cup are unions, for example. And it's easier for the government to negotiate with these unions. Now, I do feel that there is a sentiment throughout the country because the games have been so entertaining and the World Cup has been such a sporting success, that some of the people are still who might - they are still obviously angry at the inequalities in this country and at the - all the money that has been spent building stadiums and just setting this World Cup. But maybe they are at the moment - I'm not saying this is going to last forever, after the World Cup, they're probably going to go back to being angry - but at the moment, they are caught up in the World Cup. And you see it when you talk to taxi drivers, which I do every single day. The first thing that they ask you is, you know, what team are you rooting for? Who do you think is going to win? And then after that, after a few minutes, they go into - start complain about the problems that Brazil has. But the first topic of conversation is going to be who are you rooting for? Who do you think is going to win the World Cup?

MARTIN: Dave, let's talk a little bit about - I mentioned at the beginning of the conversation that soccer, football as it is in the rest of the world, has not been a major subject of interest for Americans. But that seems to be changing, at least according to the ratings. It says that the World Cup ratings have entered elite territory, according to, you know, several news reports - that the total U.S. viewership actually surpassed the NBA finals and the most recent World Series. So what you think about that, Dave? I mean, do you think that this is setting a new benchmark? And why do you think that that might be?

ZIRIN: I mean, it stomped the NBA Finals and the World Series. And it was roughly commensurate with the college football championship as well. And this is USA versus Portugal. And it's going to be very interesting when the USA plays Germany, which is during a workday on a Thursday. I predict right now that these will be "Scandal," Kerry Washington style ratings, for this game Thursday.


ZIRIN: As in people turning in in the middle of the day to watch this game against Germany. I have friends who work in the restaurant industry in D.C. and have been doing it for 20 years. And they say they've never seen anything like it. One of them said to me that it used to be that, you know, you would make fun of your friends if they were into the World Cup. Now, it's you're making fun of your friends who aren't finding time for the World Cup. So there is that kind of a seat change that's taking place. Some of it is rooted, I believe, in immigration in the United States. And people bringing their soccer love into the country. Some of it is rooted in the Internet and the fact that people are able to follow soccer, particularly Europe and the English Premiere League throughout the year. And now they're following their favorite players into the cup. And some of it is rooted absolutely in the fact that this has been the best World Cup in eons, already more comeback victories than in the entire 2010 World Cup. So there's a lot of ways in which the stars are aligning right now.

MARTIN: Ricardo, what are the games that are coming up that people are most interested in, or the matches coming up that people are most interested in?

ZUNIGA: First is the Argentina-Nigeria match today in Porto Alegre. This has also a component, a social component, that's kind of - has the authorities here on guard. They are expecting around 80,000 Argentine fans in Porto Alegre. This is a city in the south of Brazil closest to the Argentine border. And so they expect around 80,000, only around 20,000 have tickets for the game. So that obviously is a recipe for trouble if you have 60,000 rowdy fans in the streets of a city. We've already seen some clashes between Argentine and Brazilian fans in Belo Horizonte. So the authorities are on high alert on that one. And looking forward, the round of 16, there are going to be some excellent matches between Colombia and Uruguay. That's going to be on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. And Brazil and Chile is going to be on Saturday in Belo Horizonte. Those are some of the most entertaining teams. So we are expecting some great, great football in the coming days.

MARTIN: And, Dave, can I get final thought from you about how - you're not in Brazil full-time - but you've been spending a lot of time there and thinking about the way that preparing for these games have - what it's brought forward in terms of, among Brazilians, about how they feel about their country, how they feel about resources are being expended in their country? The Summer Olympics are coming up. Brazil's also hosting those in 2016. Do you see a sense that the way people are thinking about these games, even though they've been successful athletically and it's been very exciting, is that sort of changing the country in any way that you think will have some kind of future impact?

ZIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, you know, it doesn't take a fortune teller to see that these issues aren't going to go anywhere, precisely because they're hosting the 2016 Olympics. So all of the issues that I talk about in the book and that people are dealing with, like the militarization of public space and displacement and (unintelligible), all of these things are going to continue as public lightning-rod issues over the next two years. That's just going to happen. The second thing is that there are elections in Brazil this October. And it's probably going to act as a referendum about how these mega-events are being handled. So these issues are not going anywhere, Michel. We're going to continue to talk about them. Brazil is a country that's bigger than the continental United States. It's got over 200 million people. It's a very diverse, vast and difficult to read nation. But one thing is certain, I think after the protest last year at the Confederations Cup, the wine is out of the bottle and it's never going to be the same.

MARTIN: That was Dave Zirin. He's the sports correspondent for the progressive magazine The Nation. His latest book is "Brazil's Dance With The Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics And The Fight For Democracy." We caught up with him in Oakland, where he's just gotten back from Brazil. Also with us, Ricardo Zuniga. He is Latin America sports editor for the Associated Press. And we reached him in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

ZUNIGA: Thank you for having us, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.