FOX Soccer Exclusive
Protests intensify before semifinal
BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL
It was supposed to be a soccer game. Instead, it felt like a war zone.
Over a hundred thousand protestors descended on Belo Horizonte on Wednesday ahead of the Confederations Cup semifinal between Uruguay and hosts Brazil, blocking roads and setting up tense confrontations with security forces.
6,000 police were called in and ten helicopters were deployed overhead in attempt to stop the marchers from reaching the stadium before the game. 1,500 army troops were also deployed at subway stations, the airport and the streets that surround the stadium.
That set up eerie scenes as game time approached. Fans passed through a cordon of army officers brandishing shotguns while surrounding streets remained quiet and ghostly.
The city has been tense all weekend. On Tuesday night, the bars of Savassi were filled with jittery drinkers, as endless loops of the protests played on big screen TVs. People have good reason to be jumpy, as Belo Horizonte has been among the hardest hit by the undercurrent of violence accompanying the protests, with looting and vandalism accompanying a brutal police crackdown.
Police patrol stadium routes before Brazil's Confederations Cup semifinal against Uruguay (Credit: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer).
The city bears the scars: graffiti covers every square inch of this city’s center, with jagged, death metal-inspired tags found on every kind of building. Two branches of the Banco de Brasil had added plywood reinforcements on Tuesday to their glass doors; other businesses were boarding their windows up in preparation for Wednesday’s games. Even the cinderblock favelas that dot the hillside have barbed wire on their fences, despite the windows that are open to the blowing red clay dirt.
On Wednesday, the city declared a holiday: partly to allow fans to watch Brazil play but partly to ensure that businesses would remain closed and street traffic would be halted for the duration of the game. There were clear security overtones to the decision.
But the guns and police did not stop some people, with tickets, from entering and holding signs aloft in the bars that line the road up to the grounds. And the heavy military presence was also unable not stop marchers from blocking several key roads further along the route.
FIFA has been directly rattled by the protests. Two buses bearing FIFA emblems were waylaid protestors this week, with one having its windows smashed out in Rio de Janeiro; another simply on the street in Recife after the Tahiti-Nigeria game outside a team hotel.
In an effort to prevent further attacks, army and policed forces set up a mile-long “sanitary” corridor. As game-time approached, the police flooded the corridor with horses and squad cars, but it was unclear what effect, if any, that would have on a very determined protest movement.
In related news, the army vacated a nearby university campus Wednesday morning, expelling all personnel from the Pampulha UFMG (Federal University of Minais Gerais). Students have been a driving force in the protests.
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